[Marxism] Richard Seymour on Syria: How the revolution went wrong

Michael Karadjis mkaradjis at gmail.com
Sat Sep 28 04:15:28 MDT 2013

While one may not necessarily agree with all of Seymour's quite 
pessimistic conclusions, here is an article looking hard at the real 
problems faced by the revolution from a point of view unquestionably on 
the side of the revolution. In fact, with somewhat less pessimism, I 
generally agree with it.

There are a couple of points where he has been overly simplistic 
(perhaps due to the brevity needs of the journal). For example, just 
after discussing the problem of Al-Nusra, he says "The formation of a 
new opposition group, federating eleven Islamist groups in opposition to 
the National Coalition, indicates that the jihadis are gaining ground." 
I think this is something requiring *a lot more* thought before coming 
to that kind of conclusion (I intend to try to put something together).

Also the note that US weapons have finally begun to arrive - 2.5 years 
later, and limited to a small amount of light weapons, just in the last 
2 weeks - hardly changes anything. Of course Seymour is not really 
saying that it does. In fact think he is right to say that political 
issues - the inability to win over certain sectors of the population - 
are in the end paramount, and more important than the amount of arms 
received. All the more so given that no matter how many arms the 
opposition receives, the regime will have massive superiority in arms no 
matter what.

But putting this factoid here while saying arms are not the main problem 
could imply to the reader without much knowledge that perhaps the rebels 
are getting enough arms after all. He clearly isn't saying this, but I 
feel it could have been expressed better. Receipt of arms is not the 
fundamental problem *in terms of the revolution winning outright in a 
military struggle*, compared to the political issues, as I have 
continually written also. However, that does not make receipt of a 
necessary amount of arms not absolutely necessary from a defensive point 
of view, especially if they could get anti-aircraft missiles (ie, 
precisely the main weapons the US blocks) to resist the regime's bloody 
air superiority, and such a stronger ability to at least defend itself 
could put the revolution in a better position if any ceasefire or 
negotiations did come about, while also improving morale within its 
ranks, and perhaps even winning some of the wavering population over, 
those wavering due to fear of, or helplessness in the face of, the 
regime's power rather than political mistrust of the revolution and its 

That said, an important and sober piece of analysis from our side.



How the Syrian Revolution Went Wrong

It seems extremely unlikely at this point that the revolution will 
succeed. It was never going to be easy to break away the regime's base, 
but if it hasn't happened before this point in the struggle, it is less 
likely to happen now.

Syria's tragedy overwhelms comprehension. Recently, activist and Emerson 
College scholar Yasser Munif described his visit to the north of the 

        People are rebuilding institutions, they are managing their 
cities after the fall of the state and the             regime, and it is 
a very challenging task to do because there are no resources, there is 
no funding,         and there are permanent attacks by the regime. Those 
areas I'm talking about in the north are             liberated: there 
are no clashes on the ground. But there are constant airstrikes and 
missiles are             launched on these cities.

  So people are coming up with creative solutions: they are creating 
political institutions. There are local councils in each one of those 
cities and they meet on a weekly basis. They discuss everything in the 
city and they try to solve their problems.

But no good revolution goes unpunished.

The incipient revolution against the Assad regime has been punished by 
every available means.

It has been pummeled from the air, missiles ripping through liberated 

It has been ripped to pieces from the ground, well-accoutered loyalist 
forces machine-gunning deserters.

It has been tormented with clouds of poisonous gas, which cause victims 
to die slowly and helplessly as their bodies are paralyzed and breathing 
shut down.

It has buried tens of thousands of bodies. The UN report identifies some 
100,000 total killed in a war that has taken a bloody toll on all sides. 
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights suggests a similar figure, 
21,850 of whom were rebel fighters, 40,146 civilians and 45,000 regime 

This is a mournful state of affairs for a revolutionary movement that 
grew out of the heady promise of the Arab Spring. The Syrian revolution 
began as one of a series of democratic uprisings throughout the Middle 
East and North Africa in early 2011. Protests started in the Syrian city 
of Daraa, over the arrest and torture of students for graffiti against 
the regime, and escalated to nationwide demonstrations after regime 
forces killed several people.

Repression was the default regime response but, as the protests spread, 
the government undertook a more complex strategy. It continued to 
repress the uprising, but simultaneously offered reforms, such as 
removing the niqab ban, and lifting the "state of emergency" law, which 
was a key demand of the protesters. Yet by this point the opposition 
wanted far more fundamental democratic change, which the regime could 
not deliver. The persistence of the protests led to an outright military 
response on the part of the regime, beginning with the deployment of the 
Syrian army in Daraa on April 25, 2011.

The uprising was forced, from this point on, to acquire an armed wing. 
This it did in a painfully slow and syncopated fashion, with poorly 
armed local militias forming. Finally, at the end of July 2011, a group 
of officers who had defected from the armed forces announced the 
formation of the Free Syrian Army as an umbrella group linking the armed 
opposition. In practice, however, the armed opposition has remained 
fragmented and politically incoherent. The aspiring leadership remained 
distant, disconnected from the grassroots. It is this which created 
spaces in which relatively marginal sectarian jihadi groups could begin 
to get a foothold, and in which regional powers could begin to look for 
local auxiliaries.

The uprising has subsequently been slowly strangled in a mesh of 
client-relationships as, initially unarmed and helpless in the face of 
Assad's forces, its various presumptive leaderships aligned with Turkey, 
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, anyone who would offer leverage or weapons. 
It has developed within its ranks what looks like a counterrevolution 
within the revolution, as sectarian jihadis such as Al Nusra ( 
misleadingly referred to as "Al Qaida") have taken over freed towns and 
jailed opposition activists. The formation of a new opposition group, 
federating eleven Islamist groups in opposition to the National 
Coalition, indicates that the jihadis are gaining ground. Notably, this 
alliance includes not just the extant Islamist groups but also sections 
of the Free Syrian Army.

There is a revolution, but it is losing. It is sometimes suggested that 
the revolution's major difficulty has been a lack of weapons relative to 
the state's overwhelming military strength. If only the revolution was 
armed with something other than a few Saudi or Qatari supplied 
pea-shooters. It's a nice thought, but it's already outdated. It has 
taken some time and some frantic negotiations, but weapons from the U.S. 
are in fact being delivered to the Syrian opposition. France has been 
involved in training opposition fighters, and the U.S. has been training 
a more limited number of FSA soldiers in Jordan. The arms are mainly 
'light' weaponry such as machine guns for the moment, although it also 
includes sophisticated non-lethal equipment to help weather attacks and 
coordinate offensives.

More to the point, there is so much more holding back the revolution 
than a lack of weapons. While it doesn't do to wag fingers at people 
fighting for their lives and political freedom, it is essential to 
soberly recognise the limits of the revolutionary process in Syria.

But first, from an analytical perspective, it is important not to reify 
"the regime." There is no "the regime" in any simple way; as with any 
state, there is only a set of relations between various institutions and 
forces operating in and through them. There are divergent interests and 
conflicts­indeed, this very fact may help explain how a chemical weapons 
attack was perpetrated on civilians while UN weapons inspectors were in 
the country. Had the revolution succeeded in winning over a significant 
component of the regime's base, it seems very likely that more state 
forces would have broken away than in fact did, and the military 
situation would have been decidedly different. Politics is the dominant 
factor here; military consequences follow.

A significant factor in the revolution's failure to spread is that the 
opposition has been hopelessly divided throughout this fight. The 
founding of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and 
Opposition Forces, (representing a fusion of all the major Islamist and 
secular forces, and incorporating the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the 
Local Coordinating Committees), was supposed to have overcome this. 
Likewise, the formation of the Supreme Joint Military Command was to 
have overcome the operational divisions between fighting forces. Between 
them, these two organisations would form the basis for a post-Assad 
government and security force. In practice, there is little coordination 
or political federation between the forces fighting on the ground. 
Command structures have improved, but remain disarticulated, and diverse 
sources of funding and weapons inhibit unity. The leadership in the 
National Council is divided between clients of different Gulf regimes.

The sectarianism built into the Syrian state has also undermined the 
prospects for unity. The troops, intelligence and police operatives 
working for the regime are overwhelmingly Alawites. The protesters Assad 
began by murdering were overwhelmingly Sunni, and his response to the 
uprising has been to characterise it as a Sunni fundamentalist attack on 
the Alawite minority. This not only vilified the opposition, but also 
linked the fate of religious minorities­above all the Alawites­to the 
fate of the regime. The toxic intersection of violent repression and 
sectarian fomentation on the part of the state was escalated with the 
deployment of the shabiha (loyalist militias dressed in civilian 
clothing), who have carried out some of the worst atrocities. It is 
patronising to claim that sectarianism in the opposition is just a 
reflection of the regime's behaviour. But the regime's 
divide-and-conquer strategy certainly fueled the spread of existing 
sectarianism and helps to explain­in tandem with the manifest weaknesses 
of the extant secular opposition­how organised sectarian forces have 
come to the fore in the opposition.

Notably, a major point of division within the revolution is precisely 
the issue of US imperialism. It has been clear for a while that the 
dominant opposition figures were looking for military intervention to 
tip the balance of forces in their favour. The US, responding to the 
sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb, recently threatened military 
intervention, and, despite the evident reluctance of allies to join in a 
full bombing attack, Obama began expanding the US Navy's presence in the 
Mediterranean in preparation for an attack. The rationale for the 
attack­which has been seemingly deferred indefinitely pending the 
outcome of U.S.-Russian negotiations­was to "punish" the use of chemical 
weapons: a more futile argument for war has rarely been offered. 
"Punishment" in this context is incredibly nebulous: anything from 
breaking a window to destroying some military installations to 
full-scale invasion could constitute "punishment." How much "punishment" 
is sufficient? What can be achieved by this that could not be achieved 
by the usual elite negotiations? At any rate, the Syrian opposition is 
divided, with the jihadi groups positioning themselves as the most 
hardened anti-imperialists. Full-blown warfare has broken out in the 
areas freed from government control between FSA battalions and 
jihadists, who are in turn waging a military struggle among themselves.

This raging battle is all the more incapacitating given the 
disproportionate role that salafist jihadi groups have assumed in the 
armed struggle. Despite certain alarmist reports which tend to merge 
salafist fighters with 'Islamists' in toto, these particular Islamist 
groups­who practise a literalistic and puritanical version of 
Islam­probably represent a minority of the total fighters. But the 
salafists are nonetheless better organised, according to the UN 
commission report, they have taken part in every major military 
operation of the opposition and have led a number of them. According to 
Foreign Policy, "jihadists are still the rebels' most lethal weapon. 
Jihadist suicide attacks have been responsible for some of the most 
important strategic gains recently: Rebel groups besieged Mennagh 
military airbase in Aleppo for more than a year, for example, but were 
unable to completely capture it­until [the jihadi group] ISIS dispatched 
its suicide bombers on Aug. 5. The same thing happened at the Hamidiya 
military complex in the northern province of Idlib last month." The 
salafists' disproportionate role exacerbates sectarianism and suppresses 
opposition activism, retarding the development of the revolution.

It seems extremely unlikely at this point that the revolution will 
succeed. It was never going to be easy to break away the regime's base, 
but if it hasn't happened before this point in the struggle, it is less 
likely to happen now. The sectarian dynamic which the state has done so 
much to cultivate has a feedback effect in consolidating the unity and 
determination of loyalist fighters. There appear to be no good outcomes. 
The Syrian opposition may be forced to choose between years of a just 
war against a regime degenerating further into civil war and sectarian 
murder within a tripartite Syria, and an unjust peace, most likely 
negotiated between the US and Russia as much as between the opposition 
and the Syrian power bloc. Only Syrians can make that choice; others are 
fortunate not to have to. 

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