[Marxism] Syria: Peace or Pacification

Michael Karadjis mkaradjis at gmail.com
Mon Feb 8 04:04:39 MST 2016

Written just before the final Blitzkrieg in the last few days, this 
piece by Robin Yassin-Kassab gives good context:

Peace or Pacification

This was published at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

As I write, state representatives are attending the theatre in Geneva. 
(The talks were stopped on February 3rd). In Syria, meanwhile, reality 
prevails: in one day a tented camp of the displaced in the Lattakia 
hills is bombed, barrel bombs rain on the south and the Damascus 
suburbs, Russia’s cluster bombs crumple over the north, and up to a 
hundred people are asphyxiated by chlorine gas in Moadamiyah. Let’s hope 
the seats in the theatre are nice and comfy.

Russia, the prime mover of the process, is inviting its own ‘opposition’ 
delegates. It complains (with Assad and Iran) that the actual opposition 
delegation contains ‘terrorists’. The thousands of Iranian-backed 
transnational Shia jihadists in Syria are not considered terrorists and 
should not be discussed at this stage.

The United States accepts these terms, and instead of the ‘transitional 
government’ agreed upon as the ultimate goal in previous Geneva talks, 
it speaks now of a ‘national government’. In other words Assad – 
responsible for the overwhelming number of civilian casualities and 
displacements – can stay, so that all may confront the ‘greater evil’ of 

Yet 80% of Russian bombs are falling not on ISIS but on the opposition 
to both ISIS and Assad, that is, on the communities which previously 
drove ISIS from their areas. A quarter of a million more have been 
displaced as a result of the Russian assault, which hits courthouses, 
schools, hospitals and aid convoys.

The clear aim of this campaign is to annihilate the 
democratic-nationalist opposition so that only Assad and the jihadists 
remain. Then, Putin assumes, the world will have no choice but to assist 
him in winning the whole country back for Assad. But demographic 
realities will ensure that a large chunk of Syria remain forever out of 
Assad’s grasp. So long as the traumatisation of this scorched territory 
continues, so too will radicalisation. Because it declares an end-times 
war on everyone, ISIS will eventually be defeated. But Jabhat al-Nusra 
(al-Qaida’s Syrian branch) or a successor organisation will inherit.

There is no real peace process. Geneva 3 is better named a pacification 
process, or appeasement. We should at least speak honestly. Syria’s 
downward spiral cannot be halted until the aerial bombardment of 
civilian areas is stopped. This would involve robust (diplomatic, 
economic) argument with the Russians, something Obama has avoided over 
Ukraine as well as Syria. It would mean either establishing a No-Fly 
Zone, shooting down whatever planes bomb civilians, or allowing the 
currently defenceless opposition access to anti-aircraft weapons.

Once the bombing stops, and sieges are lifted, the displaced can return 
and economic and social life can be revived. Space will grow for 
democratic activism even as it shrinks for jihadism. And then a genuine 
settlement process could begin. What might that look like?

The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee came out of a meeting in 
Saudi Arabia which brought together the National Coordination Committee 
(a Damascus-based body semi-tolerated by the regime), the Istanbul-based 
Coalition, and the leaders of democratic-nationalist (Free Army) as well 
as nationalist-Islamist militias. The latter included, at the more 
extreme end, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, Salafist Syrian 
pragmatists who must be involved in a final settlement (as must 
regime-loyalist Alawi communties), lest they act as spoilers.

Jaysh al-Islam, the dominant militia in the eastern Ghouta, is probably 
responsible for the abduction of the revolutionary activists known as 
the Douma Four, including Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and 
founder of the Local Coordination Committees. Our book ‘Burning Country: 
Syrians in Revolution and War’ is dedicated to Razan, a woman of 
fearless principle whose fate in some way is emblematic of Syria’s. 
Worse, Jaysh al-Islam’s leaders have sometimes made sectarian threats 
which wound the revolution by further alienating minority groups. Its 
position on democracy as a desired end is ambiguous at best. For these 
reasons civil revolutionaries often find themselves opposing Jaysh 
al-Islam’s authoritarianism while at the same time insisting that it be 
recognised as part of the revolution and part of the settlement. Despite 
its abuses, the militia is subject to popular pressure. Its assaults on 
activists are exceptions, therefore, whereas in Assad or ISIS areas they 
are the rule. Free elections have been held in Jaysh al-Islam territory. 
And Jaysh al-Islam has been the most effective opponent of ISIS in the 
Damascus region.

Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the Saudi meeting complaining that the 
conference didn’t recognise Syria’s “Muslim identity” and gave too much 
representation to the National Coordination Committee, which is not 
really a revolutionary body. Difficult though it is, it is important to 
try to bring such groups into the political process and to distance them 
from Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida, with whom they sometimes 
collaborate on the battlefield. If Syria is to survive, the fighting men 
of the nationalist and Islamist opposition must merge with whatever 
remains of the post-regime Syrian army to take on ISIS, Nusra and other 
transnational jihadists (including the Shia ones). But for this to 
happen, the immediate threat of Assad’s scorched earth must be lifted.

Even as they execute their own opposition clerics and endlessly bomb 
Yemen, the Sauds should be congratulated for bringing together a broad 
spectrum of the Syrian Arab opposition. If current circumstances change 
so that a real peace process becomes viable, the High Negotiations 
Committe could perhaps form a credible negotiating team to sit down with 
the PYD (the dominant party/militia in Syria’s Kurdish areas) and 
representatives of pro-regime communities.

The Saudi recipe, however, misses a vital ingredient – the local 
councils, sometimes called revolutionary councils, which have been 
established throughout the country. These are practical, not ideological 
organisations. Their members are civil activists, family and tribal 
leaders, and people selected for technical or professional skills. They 
do their best in the very worst conditions to provide humanitarian aid 
and fulfil basic needs where the state has either collapsed or 
deliberately withheld them, including water, electricity, waste disposal 
and healthcare.

The idea started with activist Omar Aziz, who wrote an influential paper 
on self-organisation in the revolution’s eighth month. Aziz was an 
anarchist who believed that protesting the regime by itself was useless 
if revolutionaries did not build alternatives to repressive state 
structures. He advocated forming councils as grassroots community 
forums, and helped set up the councils in Barzeh and Zabadani before his 
arrest and then death in prison in February 2013.

Council members are appointed by some form of democratic process, though 
the form differs from place to place, and is most severely restricted in 
regime or ISIS-controlled areas where the councils must operate in 

Aziz Asaad, one activist we interviewed for our book, described the 

“It was difficult for us – particularly in the middle of a revolution 
calling for pluralism and democracy – to select revolutionary 
representatives by democratic process … It was made worse by the fact 
that we were in a regime-controlled area and so constantly feared 
arrest. When we formed the local council in Selemmiyeh we adopted what 
you could call ‘the democracy of the revolutionary elite’. In secret we 
chose eleven people from about 55.”

In the rebel-held ‘liberated’ areas, however, the councils are selected 
by democratic ballot – the first free elections in Syria in over four 
decades. In recent elections in the Ghouta, militia leaders were not 
allowed to stand. Fighters were, but none were elected. In recent months 
provincial elections have been held in the Deraa region too, where the 
Free Army’s Southern Front holds sway.

It is a sad irony (and one reason why we wrote our book) that the 
previous decade’s invasion of Iraq was supposedly done for the sake of 
democracy, yet almost nobody in the West today is aware of the Syrian 
people’s self-organised experiments in democracy. The Western public, 
failed by journalism, are more likely to question Arabs’ capacity for 
democracy than to marvel at the Syrian achievement under full-scale 
military assault.

The councils are not always perfect. Sometimes they are rendered 
dysfunctional by factionalism or intimidated by warlords. But they are 
the closest thing we have to true representatives of the Syrian people, 
and they should therefore be strongly present at any meeting discussing 
Syria’s fate. If world powers are genuinely interested in moving the 
region away from war and jihadism towards peace and democracy they 
should support the councils more powerfully than they are already doing. 
Financial support is not enough; there’s no point gifting new 
rubbish-collection trucks if they will be bombed in their first week.

At the same time, Syrian oppositional elites and militias should be 
encouraged to recognise the central democratic achievement of the local 
councils, and thereby to develop a decentralised vision of the future. 
The myth that a strong central state ensures the strength and dignity of 
its people runs deep in oppositional consciousness – nationalist, 
leftist and Islamist – despite all the evidence to the contrary. But 
decentralisation is the best way to deal with Syria’s currently 
explosive ethnic and sectarian polarisations. It would mean a 
recognition of autonomy for the Kurds, who have set up their own council 
system. It would also mean that different areas could govern themselves 
according to their social and sectarian composition. So alcohol, for 
instance, may be banned by one council but permitted by another.

The alternative to decentralisation is partition, which in any case is 
the end Putin’s planes are bombing towards. Partition means greater 
ethnic cleansing than yet seen. It means the permanence of refugee 
camps. It means an Assadist rump on the Mediterranean coast to be 
squabbled over by Iran and Russia, and a vengeful, burnt Sunni territory 
cut off from the sea. A disaster for the Syrian people, and for global 
security too 

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