[Marxism] Response by a Syrian Anarchist to the First of May statement on Syria

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 17 06:50:27 MDT 2013

 From Facebook

Response by a Syrian Anarchist to the First of May statement on Syria
September 17, 2013 at 4:27am

I was delighted to see that, finally, an anarchist group in the global 
north has made a serious attempt to make sense of what's happening in 
Syria and clearly state its position on the Syrian revolution 
(http://www.anarkismo.net/article/26148). I really like, and mostly 
agree with, the statements expressed in the 'Our Position' section at 
the end, but I have quite a few issues with the preceding introduction 
and background sections. So here are a few comments in the spirit of 
your invitation for “input from others, particularly those with greater 
background in the area, especially anarchists living in the region”, and 
in the hope that this will contribute to a more informed discussion 
among anarchists and a better understanding, position and action on Syria.

Perspective and language

Before I start, I have to say I find the term “anarchist policy” rather 
weird. Since when do anarchists have policies or use this loaded, 
state-linked word? Wouldn't 'position' or 'perspective' be a better 

The same goes for the use of “resolution” in “Syria, now in its third 
year of civil war with no sign of any resolution in sight.” I will come 
back to the issue of describing what's happening in Syria as a 'civil 
war' later. For now, I just want to point out that the use of such words 
as 'policy' and 'resolution' would put off many anarchists – certainly 
myself – even if they are meant as a  'neutral' description of events. 
This is because such words might (rightly) be interpreted as give-aways 
of buying into or internalising a statist, realpolitik perspective that 
does not obviously fit in well with anarchism.

To illustrate my point, here is an example from the statement: “It is 
impossible to understand what is going on in Syria today without some 
knowledge of the international and historical context”. I would have 
liked to see something like “local socio-political dynamics” listed 
among the factors, i.e. something that is related to people's agency, 
from a grassroots perspective, not just big geo-strategic considerations 
linked to foreign powers. I will have more to say on this thorny issue 

The historical background(s)

I do not mean to be arrogant or dismissive, but I have to say I found 
your historical background rather poor and misinformed, brushing over 
complicated events and reducing them to simplistic, often mainstream 
versions, while omitting other important events or factors, and even 
getting some facts wrong. You do admit that “[you] are not experts on 
the history and current dynamics of Syria and of the Middle East as a 
whole.” But spending so many lines trying to give a certain version of 
history does inevitably shape readers' understanding of what follows.

For example, the Iranian Shah was not simply “overthrown in 1979 and 
replaced by a Shiite theocratic government.” For two years before then 
there had been a mass, diverse popular uprising that was eventually 
hijacked by Khomeini. Similarly, Hafez al-Assad did not become president 
of Syria through a normal “military coup” in 1971. It was an “internal 
coup” by the British-backed right-wing faction within the Ba'th party 
against the more left-wing faction backed by the French. And his son, 
Bashar, did not “stand for election, won, and was reelected in 2007.” He 
was brought back from abroad after his father fell ill and his elder 
brother died and was appointed as president by the ruling inner circle 
after the constitution was hastily changed so as to lower the minimum 
age for presidency candidates from 40 to 34, which was his age at the time.

On the history of the Syrian regime, Hafez al-Assad did not only 
“ruthlessly suppress” the Muslim Brothers in 1980. There were many other 
ruthless and bloody campaigns of repression against leftists as well, 
including the mass arrests, torture and killing of members of the 
Communist Labour League and other radical militant leftist groups – 
whose members, by the way, included many Alawites, Christians, Kurds, etc.

Finally, the 1973 “Yom Kippur War” between Syria, Egypt and other Arab 
countries on the one hand and Israel on the other, is known among 
Syrians and other Arabs as the October War and not the “Ramadan War”. 
This is a minor point but is one of those give-aways about knowledge and 

Imperialism, nationalism and Orientalism

You argue that US imperialism is “in retreat” following the 2008 
economic crisis. Many would argue against drawing such a linear causal 
relationship, but my main issue here is that you then go on to explain 
pretty much everything, including the North African and Middle Eastern 
uprisings and revolutions, through this global imperialism lens: “This 
weakening of overall imperialist domination, combined with the effects 
of globalization on the countries in the area, has inspired political 
and social forces among the middle classes to seek political power for 

As far as I understand, the North African and Middle Eastern uprisings 
and revolutions were – broadly speaking – triggered by varying 
combinations of political repression, economic deprivation and social 
disintegration, which made people in those countries feel more and more 
marginalised, powerless, humiliated and undignified. Even if they are 
linked to the wider processes of global politics and economics – like 
everything else – these are specific local dynamics that cannot be 
simply seen as a direct result of imperialism and globalisation.

To be fair, you do touch on the “complex social process”, though I would 
have liked to see more emphasis on the complexity of the 
socio-economic-political realities in each of those countries and the 
similarly complex agents and actors that participated in their recent 
uprisings and revolutions, not just the two loud, west-oriented voices 
that commentators in the west often focus on:

“These groups, including militant Islamic organizations and pro-Western 
liberals, have managed to assume the leadership of much broader social 
layers who have been plagued by rampant unemployment (particularly among 
young people), decrepit housing and urban infrastructures, inflation, 
and the other results of uneven economic growth. The results of this 
complex social process have included the recent revolutions in Tunisia, 
Egypt, and Libya, and the revolution, now taking the form of a civil 
war, in Syria.”

I will come back later to lumping all the North African and Middle 
Eastern uprisings and revolutions together in one category and 
explaining them all using the same narrative or reasoning. For now, I 
just want to stress that this obsession with US and western imperialism 
is really redundant and unhelpful, especially when it edges on 
right-wing, west-centric theories of 'clash of civilisations':

“When looked at from this long-term perspective, what we see is a 
trans-epochal conflict between two regions/cultures/civilizations, in 
which, at the moment, the European/Euro-American, after centuries of 
aggressive expansion, has moved onto the defensive. This 'war of 
civilizations' remains, however vaguely, in the historic memories of the 
peoples of the Middle East to this day and fuels much of the nationalism 
and religious fanaticism that is now so prevalent throughout the region.”

Which civilisations and cultures are you talking about? Which historic 
memories? Would you identify with mainstream western culture? (whatever 
that is). If not, why should all the people of the Middle East identify 
with one static culture or civilisation that hasn't apparently changed 
for centuries? And who said this identity has always remained 
anti-Western? What about the pro-western liberals and the globalised 
youth and middle classes you've just talked about? What about all the 
leftists, communists, anarchists and so on and so forth?

You might have guessed where I'm going with this. Even though I'm sure 
this was not your intention, such simplistic culturalist views are 
typical Orientalism based on a typical double exceptionalism: the 
exceptionalism, uniqueness and uniformity of the western or European 
civilisation, and therefore values, which is then contrasted with the 
rest of the world, which is made to either fit this liberal-democratic 
paradigm (often as inspired followers) or seen as abnormal, backward 
people who hate these values and represent the 'opposite' 
(anti-democratic, fundamentalists, etc.).

This Orientalist world view is also where ascribing too much agency to 
the west comes from, and it has been dominant in much of the commentary 
originating in the west on the North African and Middle Eastern 
revolutions, albeit in various different ways, ranging from seeing the 
whole thing as a western imperial conspiracy to overemphasising the role 
of (western) social media and (westernised) youth and liberals or 
(anti-western) Islamist fundamentalists.

The same can be said of how you present the process of nation-state 
building: “It is important to remember that one important outcome of 
this centuries-old conflict, and particularly its more recent 
developments, is that many of the existing nation-states of the Middle 
East are artificial constructions.”

Weren't the European nation-states also “artificial constructions” 
forced on the people living on those lands? Can you see the Orientalist 
exceptionalism implied in this sentence? I can see it very clearly:

“The result was that, in contrast to Europe, where nation states (and 
corresponding nationalities) had centuries to take shape and be 
consolidated, in the Middle East (and in the Balkan Peninsula, which was 
under Turkish/Islamic rule for centuries), the process of 
nation-building had to take place very rapidly, in a haphazard fashion.”

While it might be true that European nation states have had longer to 
consolidate, they were no less “rapid and haphazard” at the time. Read 
the history of Europe and the US in the 17th and 18th centuries, or just 
ask locals in different regions of France or Italy, or the Irish and 
Scots in Britain. I could go on and on but my point is simple: 
nation-states have often been violent, top-down, haphazard projects 
imposed on people, no matter where they are, in Europe or the Middle 
East, and whether their borders are drawn by external or internal 
colonial powers. Besides, the current states of the Middle East (apart 
from Israel) also had long histories of nation-building (cultural, 
regional, Islamic, Arab, disintegration of empires, etc.) well before 
their current borders were drawn up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 
1916. So they are not that arbitrary, at least from a nationalist point 
of view.

This is important because, based on these simplistic culturalist 
assumptions, you reach a similarly simplistic conclusion: “many of the 
states comprise what should be seen as 'imperialist imposed national 

On the Western obsession with Middle Eastern sectarianism

Another Orientalist view that is so prevalent in the majority of news 
and commentary we have been reading on what's happening in the Middle 
East at the moment is to explain everything through a simplistic, and 
often imaginary, conflict between religious sects. You seem to do the 
same, even though your intentions are obviously different:

“In these countries (e.g., Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and 
Israel/Palestine), people define themselves as much, or even more, by 
sectarian considerations (e.g., whether a person is a member of a Sunni, 
Shia, Alawite, Druze, Christian, or Jewish community) than by 
nationalistic commitments to the nations of which they are a part.”

There is no space here to discuss in detail the origins and development 
of sectarianism in the Middle East (starting with the French, British 
and Ottoman colonial powers' using the ethnic and religious minorities 
discourse and those minorities subscribing to, or using, that same 
discourse to appeal for protection). However, there are two important 
points to make here:

First, like anywhere else in the world, most people in the Middle East 
have multiple, co-existing identities – or identity markers, rather – 
that are invoked at different times in different contexts. For examples, 
nationalist identities and discourses were dominant in the 1930s and 
40s, during and in the aftermath of independence from Britain and 
France; they were then extended to or replaced by pan-Arabist identities 
and discourses in the '50s and '60s; both sets of identities and 
discourses were challenged by Marxist and Islamist ones in the '70s and 
'80s and so on and so forth. All of these identity markers and 
discourses had, and still have, roots in social and ideological bases, 
and are today invoked by different social and political groups in the 
service of their political games and struggles.

Second, this western obsession with Middle Eastern sectarianism 
inevitably leads to a simplistic and reductionist understanding of 
complex regimes and societies like those of Syria:

“Despite this [pan-Arabist and ostensibly secular and socialist] 
program, the Assad regime bases itself internally on the members of the 
Alawite sect of Islam (an offshoot of the Shi’a), to which the Assads 
belong. Most members of the government inner circle, as well as 
occupiers of leadership posts in the Ba’ath party and the economy, are 
members of this sect, which has thus been elevated into a privileged 
stratum that rules over a majority (76%) Sunni population.”

Again, there is no space here to go into the differences between the 
Alawites and the Shi'ites (they are not the same and don't really 
approve of one another as religions) or into the sectarian composition 
of the Assad regime (it's not just Alawites; there were many Sunnis as 
well in the inner circle, and some of the poorest and most heavily 
repressed communities were non-Ba'thist Alawites). It is important, 
however, to remember the following, often-ignored fact:

Since 1970, Hafez al-Assad and his regime skilfully used religious and 
ethnic sects and sectarianism – in Syria as well as in Lebanon – to 
consolidate their rule, fuelling sectarian tensions but keeping them 
under sufficient control so as to justify the 'need' for this rule, 
otherwise “things would get out of control and the country would descend 
into a civil war,” as we were often warned. The term 'politics of 
sectarian tension' can probably describe this policy better than the 
cliché 'divide and rule'. To give you just a glimpse, Hafez al-Assad – 
and his son Bashar after him – always prayed in Sunni mosques, appeased 
Alawite religious and community leaders, while at the same time 
marketing itself as a 'secular' regime.

Here is another example from your statement of the western obsession 
with Middle Eastern sectarianism, to which everything else is reduced:

“In fact, for Assad, Syrian national, and even narrowly Shi’a, interests 
always trumped pan-Arabism. Thus, when he perceived those interests to 
be threatened by the Iraqi regime of fellow-Ba’athist (but Sunni), 
Saddam Hussein, Assad supported (Shi-ite, non-Arab) Iran in the 
Iran-Iraq war (1980-89), and in 1990, the US war against Iraq.”

You see, this is exactly what I'm talking about. The conflict between 
the Syrian and the Iraqi regimes and al-Assad's support for and by Iran 
were, and still are, purely political (i.e. power and influence games) 
and have nothing to do with sects and religions. Why is it so difficult 
to see that when it comes to the Middle East? Don't you think it would 
be really absurd if someone reduced the modern conflict of interests 
between France and Britain to rivalries between Catholicism and 

The Syrian revolution

You claim that the Syrian revolution “broke out in March of 2011, as a 
largely spontaneous movement among the middle and lower classes of 
Syria, primarily young, and primarily, although not exclusively, urban.”

I don't know where you got this from – I guess from (mis)representations 
by western media and west-oriented accounts on social media, etc. – but 
what actually happened in Syria, as far as I know, was exactly the 
opposite. And that's, in fact, what distinguishes the Syrian revolution 
from the (first) Egyptian revolution, for example.

The mass protests in Syria started and remained, for quite a few months 
into the revolution, largely confined to marginalised, neglected regions 
and rural areas such as Dar'a, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, al-Raqqa, the poor 
suburbs and slums of Damascus, etc. Apart from a few, relatively small 
solidarity demonstrations, big urban centres (Damascus and Aleppo) did 
not 'move' on a mass scale for a while. This was partly due to the 
reluctance of urban middle classes to side with the revolution because 
they still believed the regime could overcome this 'crisis', so it was 
safer for their interests to stay on the regime's side or keep silent. 
In contrast, the marginalisation, negligence, deprivation and 
humiliation in the rural regions had reached such an extent that people 
living there did not have much more to lose. This, coupled with strong 
regional identities that made it easier for these people to break away 
from the regime's discourse, meant the Syrian revolution was – at least 
in the beginning – an almost classic revolt by the marginalised rural poor.

To understand this, you have to understand how Bashar al-Assad's 
so-called 'modernisation' programme was implemented since 2000. Without 
going into too much detail, his economic liberalisation of the country, 
celebrated by the west as welcomed 'reforms', was carried out through a 
Mafia-like network of high ranking military and security officers 
partnering with big businessmen, which largely concentrated in and 
benefited the traditional bourgeois urban centres. Moreover, economic 
liberalisation was not accompanied by 'political liberalisation' that 
could have made these 'reforms' more acceptable by people – save for a 
brief period of political freedoms, known as the 'Damascus Spring' in 
2000-1, which was soon heavily repressed as the regime feared too much 
freedom may destabilise its rule. So the picture is quite more 
complicated than the way you present it in your statement:

“Domestically, Bashar attempted to continue the modernization of the 
country by, for example, loosening up government control and allowing 
private enterprise in banking and other sectors of the economy. More 
recently, he tried to achieve a rapprochement with US imperialism, by, 
among other things, withdrawing from Lebanon. Two results of these 
policies were a drastic increase in corruption and an intensification of 
the desire of the Syrian population for greater political freedom.”

The same goes for what you say about the original demands of the Syrian 
revolution: “Its main demands centered on the immediate needs of the 
people, primarily for jobs, and the need to set the stage for a 
transition to a more democratic political system after three decades of 
a brutal dictatorship under the Assads.”

As far as I'm aware, the demands – or slogans, rather – were all about 
dignity, freedom and bread and against repression, which soon turned 
into demanding the fall of the regime altogether following heavy-handed 
repression and massacres against protesters. To understand this, you 
need to understand the nature of totalitarian regimes like the Syrian 
one, which so many commentators in the west seem to fail to really 
understand. When Syrians say 'down with the regime', they mean or imply 
political, economic and social injustices at the same time, because 'the 
regime' symbolises all these apparently different forms of injustice.

It is perhaps because of this failure to understand the nature of the 
Syrian regime that so many western commentators ascribe to the Syrian 
revolution 'demands' that reflect their own values and wishes rather 
than what Syrians themselves want and are struggling for – from 
traditional leftists claiming it's about jobs and workers' rights to 
liberals claiming it's about democracy. The same can be said of the 
(largely western) debate of violence vs. non-violence:

“While the struggle in Syria began on a non-violent basis and eventually 
mobilized significant sectors of the Syrian people, the aggressive, 
extremely brutal response of the government forced the opposition to arm 
itself. One result of this has been the militarization of the struggle. 
This has forced the unarmed masses of people to the sidelines (and into 
refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon) and turned what had been a 
popular revolution into a civil war between the Syrian government, 
backed by the Alawite minority, on the one hand, and opposition 
militias, supported by the Sunni majority, on the other.”

It may be true that the regime's brutal response to the early protests 
pushed people to resort to arms to defend themselves, but this does not 
mean the Syrian revolution was ever peaceful or non-violent. When people 
say 'peaceful' in Arabic, they often mean 'unarmed' or 
'non-militarised'. The word does not have the same loaded connotations 
it has in English and other European languages (pacifism and all that). 
Moreover, the militarisation of a popular revolution does not mean it 
has turned into a “civil war.” We're really tired of people describing 
the Syrian revolution as a 'civil war'. And again, the war is between a 
repressive regime and repressed people, some of whom are now armed and 
fighting back. It is not between “the Alawite minority and the Sunni 
majority.” There are many Syrian Alawites who support the revolution and 
many Syrian Sunnis who still support the regime. Please stop reducing 
everything to simplistic sectarian labels. Here is another example from 
your statement:

“Most recently, Hezbollah, worried about the eventual defeat of its 
Syrian patron and a victory for the Sunni majority, has sent its own 
well-trained military forces into the fray.”

Before its intervention in Syrian affairs (to support the regime and its 
forces that were losing ground), when it was still popular among many 
Syrians and Arabs as a resistance movement, Hizbullah was never worried 
about “the Sunni majority.” Quite the opposite. Nor was the Syrian 
regime's support for Hizbullah ever linked to the fact that it is a 
Shi'ite religious movement. How do you explain the regime's support for 
Hamas, then? (that is, before Hamas' leadership decided to abandon the 
losing regime and leave Syria). But anyway, I've said enough about this 
issue (the western obsession with Middle Eastern sectarianism), so I 
won't repeat myself.

On foreign intervention

I also disagree with your analysis of why the US has been reluctant to 
support the Syrian rebels. A lot has been written about this issue and I 
do not really have the will or energy to go into it again now, 
especially when it's become clear now, following the chemical weapons 
deal with Russia, that the US is not willing to intervene in any serious 
way so as to bring down the Syrian regime and put an end to the 
conflict. I would, however, still like to make a couple of quick remarks.

I very much disagree that the US “almost always prefers to see very 
slow, very moderate, and very peaceful political change.” The history of 
the US adventures and interventions in various different parts of the 
world testify to the very opposite: from Nicaragua, Panama and 
Guatemala, though Cambodia and Chile, Korea and Vietnam, to Yugoslavia, 
Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor is it exactly true that the US is so worried 
about weapons falling in the hands of Islamist fundamentalists:

“Probably most important in hindsight, the US, fearing the escalation of 
violence (and worried about weapons getting into the hands of 
fundamentalist militias), hesitated to supply arms to the rebels, let 
alone take stronger measures, such as establishing a no-fly zone to 
protect the rebel forces from Assad’s aerial bombardment.”

Read the history of al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brothers and other Islamist 
militant groups and how they started and who initially supported and 
armed them – you will come across the US in each and every case.

Like many Syrians, I share your suspicions and concerns about the 
intentions and consequences of foreign (state) intervention in a popular 
revolution. But please remember that Syrians have already experienced 
western colonialism and know what it means, and that they have grown up 
with strong anti-imperialist discourses (leftist, pan-Arab nationalist 
and Islamist), probably more than any other country in the region. And 
please remember that people in Syria are not just revolutionaries and 
fighters; many of them are also exhausted, scared, desperate and they 
want to live. That doesn't necessarily mean they are pro-US.

Having said that, please let us be realistic when we talk about armed 
struggles. If there were other, less dodgy sources of arms and other 
material support available, I can assure you that many Syrians fighting 
today would not have had to seek help from the US and the Gulf countries 
and to forge alliances with 'Islamist fundamentalists' actually fighting 
on the ground.

Speaking of Islamist fundamentalists, no one denies that al-Qaeda-linked 
or inspired groups fighting in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the 
Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, whose members include many 
non-Syrians, are becoming stronger and getting out of control. But 
claims that the Syrian revolution has been (completely) hijacked by them 
are massively exaggerated. The most accurate estimates I've seen say 
radical Islamists do not constitute more than 15-20% of the so-called 
Free Syrian Army. All these two groups have been doing recently is to 
wait for other factions of the Free Army to do the fighting, then go to 
the 'liberated zones' and try to impose their control. Both groups' 
initial popularity – mostly due to their charity work – is declining 
among many Syrians as more and more reports of their repressive and 
sectarian practices come to light, not to mention reports that both 
groups are infiltrated by the regime and are now turning against the 
Free Army. Indeed, there have mass demonstrations against Jabhat 
al-Nusra and the ISIS in the areas under there control, such as 
al-Raqqa, parts of Aleppo and so on.

Your position

As I said in the beginning, I do like, and mostly agree with, your 
position(s) expressed towards the end of the statement. I would advise 
all my anarchist and activist friends and comrades to read it in full 
before reading these comments (and I'm happy to translate it into Arabic 
if no one else has done so already). But here are, nonetheless, some 
quick remarks to stir some more, hopefully useful, discussion.

I'm glad that you consider what's happening in Syria as “still being 
predominantly a popular revolution in which the majority of the Syrian 
people are fighting against an arbitrary dictatorship” and that, “in 
spite of the fact that the United States and its allies in Western 
Europe and elsewhere have given diplomatic support, humanitarian aid, 
and now arms, to the rebels... [you] do not see the rebels as mere 
proxies for the imperialists, under their control and dependent on them 
financially.” This is much better, and more sensible, than the majority 
of what we've heard from the 'left' in Europe and the US.

I slightly disagree, however, that “the leadership of the struggle in 
Syria is made up of a combination of pro-Western liberals, moderate 
Islamic organizations, and fundamentalist Islamic militias.” This is 
because a crucial distinction has to be made between the opposition 
leadership abroad, mainly the National Coalition, on the one hand and 
the Local Coordination Committees and the various factions of the Free 
Syrian Army fighting on the ground on the other.

I also disagree that, “increasingly, what is missing is the independent, 
self-organization of popular resistance” and that, “across the region, 
from Syria to Egypt, the radical and democratic currents from below have 
not been able to sustain themselves because of the inability to 
articulate and gain wide support organizationally and politically.” 
There have been many inspiring examples of non-hierarchical 
self-organisation and solidarity in Syria, Egypt and other countries in 
the region in the past couple of years. They might not pass a strict 
(western) anarchist or activist test and might be based on traditional 
social networks and structures, but are nonetheless inspiring and 
promising, and are worth studying and learning from.

Finally, and as I said before, we have to be realistic and serious when 
talking about armed struggles. You cannot “defend the rebels right to 
obtain weapons by any means necessary,” then condemn them for their 
“reliance on the U.S., other Western powers, or the rich Gulf states” 
without identifying a realistic alternative (there is none at the 
moment, it seems). Asking the rebels to “demand arms with no strings 
attached” is not going to get us anywhere because there are no such arms 
(with no strings attached) in the real world. We all know that “the 
US/Western aim, obviously, is to control and limit the revolution.” But 
couldn't anarchists adopt the same “tactical” approach that you advocate 
regarding fighting alongside the “bourgeois and fundamentalist rebel 
forces” in relation to the US and its allies? I guess before we even get 
to this question, we have to establish who is willing to take up arms 
and fight and for what ends.

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