[Marxism] How the Syrian Revolution Became Militarized

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 30 14:25:49 MDT 2012


How the Syrian Revolution Became Militarized
Sharif Abdel Kouddous | August 23, 2012

Zabadani, Syria—Emad Khareeta says he had no choice but to defect. The 
23-year-old member of the Free Syrian Army stands outside his family 
home in a deserted section of town. Shards of concrete and glass litter 
the ground, the result of nearby shelling. The street is dark and quiet, 
Emad’s face only discernible in the glow of his cigarette. He tells his 
story slowly.

In April 2010, Emad was called up for his mandatory army service. When 
the revolution broke out in March 2011, he was deployed to various parts 
of the country—but it was his time in Homs, where he was sent on 
December 31, 2011, that compelled him to leave his unit. Sometimes 
called the ‘capital of the revolution,’ the restive city in western 
Syria had been under siege by the regime of Bashar al-Assad since May 
and was the site of some of its bloodiest crackdowns. Emad describes 
indiscriminate killing and widespread looting by fellow soldiers, as 
well as an incident that deeply affected him, when an unarmed truck 
driver shot in the arm and legs was left to bleed to death in front of 
him. Ordered to fire on protesters at demonstrations, he says he aimed away.

“I was ready to die after what I had seen and been through,” he says. “I 
don’t want to oppress anyone.” He eventually bribed an officer 20,000 
Syrian pounds (approximately $300) for a three-day vacation leave. On 
January 26, Emad left and never returned, making his way back home to 

Emad is just one of thousands of army defectors who are switching sides 
in a conflict that began as a nonviolent popular uprising but has since 
spiraled into an increasingly bitter and polarizing civil war, one that 
has become a theater for geopolitical interests.

The armed opposition to the Assad regime first began to take form in the 
late summer of 2011, following months of mass demonstrations that were 
overwhelmingly nonviolent. Facing repeated crackdowns and mass 
detentions by security forces, protesters began to arm themselves, many 
by purchasing smuggled weapons from border countries like Lebanon, Iraq 
and Jordan. The revolt was further militarized by increasing numbers of 
army soldiers defecting to their local communities and bringing their 
weapons with them.

“They dragged us into arming ourselves,” says Malek al-Tinnawi, a 
25-year-old FSA volunteer. He limps badly as he goes to retrieve a newly 
acquired assault rifle. Two months ago, he was shot through the ankle in 
clashes with the army. The local doctor inserted a metal rod in his leg 
to replace the shattered bone. “It’s a good one, isn’t it?” he smiles, 
brandishing the German-made H&K Model G3 rifle. “Not too used, almost 
like new.”

The rifle was brought to him on foot, through a mountainous smuggling 
route from Lebanon. Malek received it as a gift, along with two extra 
magazines and a chain of bullets, compliments of his fellow opposition 
fighters who gave it to him, he says, in acknowledgment of his role in 
being one of the first to demonstrate in Zabadani, and one of the first 
in the town to take up arms against the regime. Still, Malek says, he 
would have preferred for the revolution to have remained nonviolent. 
“When we were peaceful, we were stronger than when we had weapons,” he 
says, patting the gun in his lap.

“This revolt started out with very modest demands concerning the state 
of emergency, and it has been dealt with since then as a war of the 
security state against its people,” says Fawwaz Traboulsi, a 
Beirut-based historian and columnist. “What should be understood is that 
this militarization of the response to a vast popular movement ended up 
by militarizing the opposition.”

As the revolt plunged deeper into a military confrontation this spring, 
countries in the Persian Gulf—primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar—began to 
channel funds to the FSA on a sustained basis. More sophisticated arms 
and heavy weaponry has been funneled to the rebels through southern 
Turkey with assistance from the CIA.

“This doesn’t mean that the role of activist groups and the local 
coordinating committees diminished,” says Omar Dahi, a Syrian scholar at 
Hampshire College. “The military power is so disproportionate, there was 
no way the revolt could have sustained itself and re-emerged time and 
again, despite the regime’s brutality, if it wasn’t for a vast network 
of support inside the country.” Indeed, foreign assistance has not 
trickled into towns like Zabadani, where FSA fighters have had to rely 
primarily on local resources. Numerous rebels describe selling family 
jewelry to buy weapons. They remain poorly equipped, armed mostly with 
assault rifles and some RPGs with limited stocks of ammunition.

“We don’t say enough that the Syrian revolution is a revolution of 
first, the rural poor,” Traboulsi says. Over the past decade, under the 
rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria entered into a “mitigated neoliberal 
experience which weakened the production and agricultural sectors and 
created a mafia-style new bourgeoisie that is very monopolistic and very 
rentier and services-based,” he says.

Those who have taken up arms against the regime are overwhelmingly 
Sunni. (An estimated 75 percent of Syrians are Sunnis.) Bashar al-Assad 
is part of Syria’s Alawite minority, a sect that dominates the higher 
ranks of government and the regime’s brutal security forces. “This 
revolution started with two sides: the regime and the people,” Malek 
says. “The regime made it so we talk about Alawi/Sunni. They made it 

According to Dahi, heightening sectarian conflict is the result of 
tactics pursued by both the government and the opposition, which have 
appealed to religious differences in order to mobilize people. There are 
also reports of radical Islamist groups and foreigners linked to Al 
Qaeda taking up the FSA banner. “The obvious thing that we know is that 
it is a revolution of the countryside, which is mainly pious,” Traboulsi 
says. “But it’s not a revolution where the jihadis command dominant 

While the armed rebels generally started out as local groups scattered 
in countryside towns, the coordination between different opposition 
groups across the country is increasing. Fighters in Zabadani say they 
are in contact with FSA units across Syria. “We had no coordination in 
the beginning but now it’s more central, more organized,” says Abu 
Adnan, an FSA battalion commander in Zabadani. “I am connected with the 
Free Syrian Army in all of Syria.”

Yet this appears to have had little effect on the ground. As battles 
rage in Damascus and Aleppo, the conflict in Zababani has reached a 
stalemate. The regime has set up isolated checkpoints in town, though 
soldiers rarely leave their posts, with the rest of town in the hands of 
locals and the FSA. Instead of engaging the rebels, the army shells 
Zabadani with daily, indiscriminate fire from tanks and artillery 
stationed in the mountains above.

On a particularly heavy night of shelling, the rebels gather in a 
makeshift bunker and argue over how to respond. “We can’t just sit here 
and have shells falling on us and having people die every few days,” 
says one. Another shouts back: “If we attack a tank, it will take so 
many resources to take it out—then what? They just replace the tank and 
shell us harder and arrest anyone in the area.”

After a rare two-day lull in the shelling, 25-year-old Kenaan al-Tinnawi 
decides to return to his home in Hara with his parents and younger 
brother, after having taken refuge at his uncle’s apartment in a safer 
part of town. That night, they sit sipping tea in the third-floor family 
living room after finishing iftar, the sunset meal that marks the 
breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Kenaan recalls his imprisonment a 
year earlier, when he was held for thirty-three days in a suffocating, 
overcrowded cell after being detained by security forces in a random 
sweep of the neighborhood.

His story is interrupted in mid-sentence by the deafening blast of a 
shell landing nearby. The lights go out, leaving the room in utter 
darkness. Seconds later, another shell lands, this time on an adjacent 
rooftop no more than fifteen yards away. The house shakes with the 
ferocity of the blast. Shrapnel punctures the outer walls and shatters 
the balcony windows. The family rushes downstairs in a panic, guided by 
the dim glow of cellphone screens. They huddle on the ground floor. The 
shock of the attack quickly gives away to anger. “May God break their 
hands,” Kenaan’s mother says, tilting her head back and looking upwards 
at the ceiling.

Seventeen months after the Syrian revolt began, the violence shows no 
signs of abating and a political solution appears further out of reach. 
“People have this habit of saying that this revolution, if you don’t 
like it, then it’s not a revolution,” Traboulsi says. “But it’s 
important to give the Syrian people their right in starting a vast 
popular movement for radical change of the existing regime.”

This is the third article in a three-part series on Syria. Go here to 
read the first part [1] and here to read the second [2].

[2] http://www.thenation.com/article/169484/walking-syria

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