[Marxism] The Death Blow Is Coming for Syrian Democracy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 2 16:37:20 MDT 2018

NY Times Op-Ed, Sept. 2, 2018
The Death Blow Is Coming for Syrian Democracy
By Leila Al-Shami

The Syrian regime is determined to reconquer all of the territory it has 
lost. Aided by Russian bombers and Iranian troops, and emboldened by its 
success in terrorizing the populations of Ghouta and Daraa into 
submission, President Bashar al-Assad’s government is now preparing to 
attack Idlib, the last remaining province outside of his control. Idlib 
is home to some three million people, about half of them displaced, or 
forcibly evacuated, to the province from elsewhere. Many are crowded 
into unsanitary camps or sleeping in the open.

In recent days, regime troops have massed on Idlib’s border and leaflets 
have been dropped on residential areas calling on Syrians to accept 
“reconciliation” or face the consequences. Meanwhile, Russia has been 
sending reinforcements to its naval base in Tartus.

The Syrian troika — Russia, Iran and Turkey — designated Idlib a 
“de-escalation zone” last year. But what happens there next could 
potentially undermine the so-far mutually beneficial agreement among the 
three countries.

De-escalation in Idlib genuinely serves Turkey’s interests: It keeps 
both the Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime away from the border, it 
preserves Turkey’s relevance to a long-term settlement, and it houses 
Syrians who would otherwise try to join the 3.5 million refugees already 
in Turkey. Turkey has shown its commitment by setting up observation 
posts around the province and by establishing the National Liberation 
Front, an amalgam of Free Army and Islamist militias that follow Turkish 
orders. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, have always seen the 
de-escalation zones as tactical and temporary. Just as Daraa and Ghouta 
were abandoned, so (they hope) Idlib will be returned to Mr. Assad’s 

The Syrian regime and its allies justify their coming attack on Idlib by 
saying that they want to root out jihadists. Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham, 
which is led by the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, dominates some 60 percent 
of the province and has an estimated 10,000 fighters, according to the 
United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The repeated 
descriptions of Idlib as a “terrorist hotbed” support the regime’s 
narrative that all opposition to its rule consists of terrorist groups; 
it also absolves the international community of any responsibility to 
protect civilians.

But this characterization of the province is inaccurate. The people of 
Idlib have been at the forefront of the struggle against Hay’at Tahrir 
Al Sham, or H.T.S. Since Idlib’s liberation from the regime — partially 
in 2012 and then fully in 2015 — many of its citizens worked to build a 
free society that reflected the values of the revolution. According to 
researchers, more than 150 local councils have been established to 
administer basic services in the province; many held the first free 
elections in decades. Long-repressed civil society witnessed a rebirth. 
Independent news media, like the popular Radio Fresh, were set up to 
challenge the regime’s monopoly on information. Women’s centers grew, 
empowering women to participate in politics and the economy.

Syrians did not risk their lives and rise up against Mr. Assad’s 
dictatorship to replace it with another.
H.T.S. has threatened these hard-won achievements. The group has tried 
to embed itself within the local population. Since the fall of Aleppo in 
2016, it has intensified its attempts to impose its ideology by taking 
over local institutions and establishing Shariah courts. It’s been 
ruthless with its perceived opponents. In December, it arrested four 
prominent activists displaced to Idlib from Madaya, ostensibly on 
charges of “media work against H.T.S.” Raed Fares, one of the founders 
of Radio Fresh, survived an assassination attempt, as did Ghalya Rahal, 
who established the Mazaya Organization, which runs eight women’s 
centers. Fighting between H.T.S. and other rebel groups has left many 
civilians dead, and a spate of assassinations and kidnappings for ransom 
has left the local population fearful and angry.

Syrians did not risk their lives and rise up against Mr. Assad’s 
dictatorship to replace it with another. Many local councils issued 
statements rejecting H.T.S.’s authority in local governance or declaring 
their neutrality in fighting between rebel groups. Hundreds of local 
activists coordinated opposition to H.T.S.’s control and called for 
demilitarization of their communities through media campaigns and public 
demonstrations. Courageously, they replaced the black jihadist flag with 
the flag of the revolution. In April, medical workers held protests 
against infighting and kidnapping. Women organized against H.T.S.’s 
discriminatory edicts, such as the imposition of strict dress codes and 
requiring widows to live with a close male relative.

The regime’s reconquest of Ghouta, Daraa and other areas has been 
accompanied by gross human rights violations. There have been waves of 
arrests of perceived dissidents. Men have been forcibly conscripted into 
the regime’s army. Many have been made to sign documents that they would 
not engage in protests or anti-regime activity and have been pressured 
to submit information about rebel groups. Journalists, humanitarian 
workers and opposition activists live in fear of being targeted.

The reconquest of Idlib would doubtless lead to the same consequences. 
The civil activism that operates in the light would be crushed, and 
promising democratic experiments would be eradicated, leaving extremists 
to flourish in the dark.

While a strong civil society is one of the best defenders against the 
spread of extremism, bombing campaigns and state-led terror risk 
increasing the popular appeal of jihadist groups. Yet today, key donors 
to Syrian civil society, such as the United States and Britain, are 
withdrawing funding for Syrian organizations in Idlib for fear it could 
fall into terrorist hands. Given the enormity of the humanitarian crisis 
that will most likely unfold, the withdrawal of desperately needed 
assistance is likely to further compound the suffering of civilians.

Worst of all, there is a growing international consensus that the regime 
is the best solution for the devastation it has wrought. The 
international community is now shifting its focus toward reconstruction, 
rehabilitating the regime through rewarding those responsible for the 
country’s devastation, and pressuring refugees to return to a country 
where their safety is far from assured.

The people of Idlib are aware that they will probably be abandoned to a 
fate similar to their countrymen in Daraa and Ghouta. Anger at their 
betrayal by the supposed democratic powers, already deeply rooted, is 
growing. The residents understand that those who favor “stability” at 
any price perceive their continued resistance as an inconvenience. But 
the resumption of the regime’s control in Idlib will not lead to peace, 
and still less to stability. It will eradicate the democratic 
alternative to tyranny, leaving the jihadists — who thrive on violence, 
oppression and foreign occupation — as the last men standing, to 
constitute a long-term threat to the region and the world.

Leila Al-Shami (@LeilaShami) is a co-author of “Burning Country: Syrians 
in Revolution and War.”

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