Syria: Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but Popular Revolution

by Jamie Allinson

Just as the Assad regime in Syria approaches what appears to be its terminal decomposition, prominent figures on the Anglophone left are hurrying to defend it—or at least to oppose its opponents. The anti-anti-dictatorship crowd includes not only sub-Ickean conspiracists such as Michael Chossudovsky but also people one would have expected to know better, such as  Tariq AliGeorge Galloway  and John Rees. Some of the arguments are expressed in more inflammatory style than others—such as Galloway’s claim that the Syrian uprising is a ‘massive international conspiracy’—but they follow a similar line. This is that: the Syrian revolution, whether it has popular roots or not, has now become a purely military endeavour of Sunni supremacists acting as the catspaws of a Saudi-Qatari-U.S. (perhaps also Franco-Zionist) effort to topple Assad, the last redoubt of the anti-imperialist forces in the region. This externally funded rebellion represents an extension of the U.S. imperial project launched after the 9/11 attacks, embracing the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Stories of Syrian government atrocities in the Western media are the counterparts of the lies circulated in 2002-3 about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and therefore must be discredited. The only solution to be hoped for is a negotiated peace (a prospect also raised by parts of the Syrian opposition) leaving some remnant of the Ba’ath regime in place, thereby denying the U.S. and its co-conspirators the prize of a pliant regime on Israel’s front-line and a significant weakening of the Iranian position. These arguments are not made solely by Anglophone commentators: outside of Egypt’s revolutionary currents , they are extremely common on the Arab left. One need only glance at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar to find the Arab revolutions damned tout court as examples of “Political Sunnism”. 

Is any of this true?  The situation in Syria is both extremely violent and extremely complicated and difficult for even those within the country to grasp, let alone those outside of it. Nonetheless, information is available if one is ready to consult people within Syria or those who have reported from there recently—a step rarely taken by those proposing the anti-anti-Assad argument. Let us take the claims in turn.

'Massive international conspiracy'?

The charges laid by, amongst others, Charles Glass and Patrick Seale, are that the Free Syrian Army is trained, funded and armed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia (leading to an increase in Islamist influence within its ranks) as the co-conspirators of the USA and Turkey. These arms and funds, it is claimed, are flowing largely through the contact points established between FSA-held territory and the Turkish border in the north.  It is this weaponry that accounts for the recent boldness of the rebels, and the likely demise of the current regime will be a victory for the suppliers of this ordinance and not the Syrian people. 

There are elements of truth to this story. It is no secret that the U.S., and its more vociferous junior imperial partner, wants rid of Assad and in this aim they are joined by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the GCC more generally. The Saudis and Qataris are providing money, and in some cases materiel, to those bits of the FSA of which they approve. Nor is it any revelation that Western (and Turkish) agencies are attempting to broker the flow of these resources into the country and thereby exercise influence over the revolutionary situation. In any revolution, anywhere, now or in the future, outside powers will try to do this. Where this line of argument goes very wrong is in claiming that the Syrian revolution, as a result of these attempts, now consists of ‘sundry’ elements working for Western intelligence agencies and abetting the recolonisation of the country. 

First, the weaponry and funding in question is not very much, and not for everyone. One can spot images of FSA anti-aircraft guns or cannon but very rarely. These are also most likely to have been taken with defectors of the defeat of a regime garrison. The regime’s advantage in airpower and ground armour is overwhelming: the FSA’s resources bear no comparison.  One would expect a massive international conspiracy worth its salt to furnish its fifth column with some serious anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. Such munitions are not evident. Most of the FSA’s light arms seem to come from the Syrian army itself, through defection or purchase with money from Syrian exile businessmen in the Gulf. Here is an example of FSA members having taken Rastan in July, disabling at least two armoured vehicles visible in the video: 

The regime armour appears to have been hit with improvised bombs, as described in other reports. The fighters have kalashnikovs and body armour but no heavy weaponry and certainly no mortars or rocket batteries.  An example of the motivations and desires of FSA fighters is given in this video: 

Defecting out of horror at the regime’s repression, these men seem desperate for weaponry and support from outside. The provision of such support, especially were it to entail Western air superiority, would indeed endanger the autonomy of the revolution—but the fact they are asking for it indicates that the conspiracy is perhaps not so massive or effective after all. If you were comprehensively funding and arming a rebel force to topple your well-armed enemy, would you leave its fighters to rely on the goodwill of local villagers for food?

Belief in a massive international conspiracy, rather than a popular revolution, also forestalls understanding of why Assad’s forces are doing so badly. The Syrian army numbers about 300,000 and it is an actual army, not a group of men in the woods. Yet it cannot be used, because most of the soldiers are unreliable. The core  shock troops—their loyalty solidified by sectarian or clan identity—can be sent to dispatch the FSA forces, but governing the subdued areas is almost impossible, as the regular troops are likely either to defect or simply not to do their duty. This form of rebellion should also be counted part of a revolutionary process that has been going on since March 2011. The defection of Manaf Tlass and Riad Hijab and the bomb attack killing several high-ranking security officers indicates that the rot has set in even at the core of the regime. 

Morphed into civil war?

Yet, are these not simply manoeuvres in a civil war, the form into which the Syrian revolution has now ‘morphed’ ? Denunciations of the ‘militarization’ of the Syrian revolution, and calls simply to stop the violence, come long and hard from certain quarters of the Western left.  And indeed, the economic power of the working class (at best only scantily visible in the Syrian revolution) provides a firmer basis for revolutionary strategy than solely armed contest with the state. There is no doubt that what Syria is now undergoing is a civil war, albeit one in which the dynamics of a revolutionary process are still present. Nor is the military strategy of the FSA uncontested within the ranks of the opposition themselves. However, absent in the jeremiads against the Syrian revolutionaries for their resort to arms is any understanding of the origins of this development. 

The revolution was inspired by and followed the model of Tunisia and Egypt. Even the initial slogan of ‘the people demand the fall of the regime’, daubed on a wall in Dera’a, consciously emulated Tunisia. Every such unarmed protest was suppressed with the uttermost violence. The Free Syrian Army was formed out of armed detachments protecting demonstrations, only really beginning in earnest last summer. The Syrian regime has been ‘militarized’ for decades. If it persists in some form, the solution favoured by some on the left, the Syrian people will continue to suffer its violence. They are not to be condemned for fighting back. 

Nor is the revolution over in the form of demonstrations, strikes, and popular self-management. This is a crucial factor in considering the role of foreign intervention: arms and funds are entering Syria from outside but this remains within a context of surprisingly robust popular mobilizations. One must remember that tens of thousands have been killed by the regime, many more arrested and tortured, demonstrations are attacked with live fire, residential districts shelled, and all this for a year and a half. It would be no surprise if Syrian revolutionists disappeared completely from the streets. They have not: indeed, the increased military victories over the regime go in tandem with the appearance of mass opposition in Aleppo and Damascus. To take a few examples from the recent offensives in those cities...

A demonstration in Rukn Al-Din, Damascus, on 19 July:

And on the 20th, also in Damascus. You will note the ‘militarization’ of the situation at 4:36 when regime snipers open fire:

Here are demonstrations from Aleppo, from a Kurdish district a few days later—when watching the scenes of fighting from that city, it is worth remembering that this is what the Assad forces are fighting to destroy:

Here is a round-up of the demonstrations in Aleppo on 29 June:

The armed attacks on the infrastructure of the security state are also being carried out with popular participation, as shown in this recording of the storming of a Political Security office in the village of Al-Tal:

There have been several attempts at igniting general strikes against the Assad regime, in the hope of repeating the contribution of the Egyptian and Tunisian labour movements to dispatching the dictators in those countries. So far, these attempts have not succeeded, partially because of the deep imbrication of the Communist parties and official union organisation and partially because of the extent of repression. However, strike days have been observed in several cities on several occasions—here is film of a strike of mini bus drivers in the outskirts of Damascus on 8 June:

The Turkish-based Syrian National Council is rightly considered by the anti-anti-Assad campists to be a pro-intervention outfit greatly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Qatari sponsors. However, this body seems neither representative nor respected on the ground. Illuminating dispatches from the towns of Saraqeb and Taftanaz reveal elements of popular power in areas liberated from the Assad regime. The Local Co-ordinating Committees, composed of activists directing demonstrations, have in some cases merged with local committees formed to take over state functions. Thus in Taftanaz, Anand Gopal writes of how

'To fill the vacuum, citizens came together to elect councils—farmers formed their own, as did merchants, laborers, teachers, students, health-care workers, judges, engineers, and the unemployed. In some cases, the councils merged with pre-existing activist networks called local coordinating committees. They in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council, which in Taftanaz and surrounding towns was the only form of government the citizenry recognized.' 

In Saraqeb

'the committee’s nine members are each tasked with a different role – there’s a media liaison, finance officer, military liaison, political officer, revolutionary courts representative, services coordinator, medical services, donations officer, and demonstrations coordinator. They are rotating, elected posts of three months’ duration. “There is no leader in the group,” said “al-Sayed,” one of the nine representatives who requested anonymity. “We want to get rid of this idea.”'

These are not isolated organisations – the committees elect delegates to regional bodies, which then constitute the Syrian Revolutionary General Command. 

The committees are not to be mistaken for Soviets. Like their (now largely defunct) counterparts in the earlier phases of the Tunisia and Egyptian revolutions, they reflect local hierarchies, connections, jealousies and rivalries.

However, in a society in the throes of  revolutionary upheaval (to which the anti-anti-Assadites blind themselves) class conflict is laid bare and questions of the reconstitution of social order are invariably raised. Thus, in the town of Binnish near Taftanaz, Gopal reports how farmers and consumers agreed food prices through the mechanism of their council on the grounds that “we have to give to each as he needs.” The account continues: 

'It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric—they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society’s bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade. '

Similar dynamics seem to have emerged in Aleppo, where according to a report in the Guardian:

'the wealthy…[view]the rebels as a sort of unwelcome peasant army. “If I were to generalise I would say the middle class and upper class don’t want the rebels. They want everything to be how it was so they can trade and go to coffee shops,” one English-speaking resident, who lives in a regime area, said via Skype'.

Certain of the local committees, it seems, have even taken up Gramsci’s strictures on the role of the revolutionary press, printing their own newspaper (Revolutionary Words) featuring reports from the literal front-lines, and articles on revolutionary history—in the words of one of its editors: “This is not an intellectual’s revolution… This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.” 

A “sectarian gang”?

The presence of these local committees, and their character, should not be taken as an argument that the Syrian workers’ republic is nigh. Rather they indicate that the dynamics in Syria are those—complicated, bloody, messy—of an actual revolutionary process and not simply an extrusion of armed gangs operating at the behest of external enemies. One of the commonest arguments being put about is precisely that claim, accompanied by the assertion that to the extent that the uprising enjoys any support, this is on the basis of a violent sectarianism that renders the revolutionaries as bad as (if not worse than) the regime. This fact, it is alleged, is being concealed by a complicit and war-hungry Western media. 

The uprising, exactly because it is a popular one, carries with it many of the prejudices and discursive ticks of the provincial, most often Sunni, centres in which it has found its base. Arabic-speaking readers will have noticed the prevalence of religious slogans (“God is great”, ‘We obey you o God”, “the Friday of Confidence in the Victory of God” and so forth) in the videos I have posted above. Some of these may reflect ideological commitment: more likely, as Anand Gopal writes , these slogans are “typically part performance vocabulary, part unifying norm in a riven society, part symbolic invocation of guerrilla struggle in a post-Iraq War world, and part expression of pure faith.” It seems very odd that people who accepted, for example, the legitimacy of Hizbullah’s struggle against Israel now demand that the Syrian revolutionaries abjure such language. George Galloway’s statement that a “jihadist, extremist, Islamist” current is waiting to take over in Syria seems an especially quick turnaround and a very sloppy use of language. There are, it seems, groups operating under the Al-Qa’ida franchise in Eastern Syria where the border with Iraq allows for a reverse version of the guerrilla smuggling practiced against the U.S. occupation. However, evidence that these are a predominant force within the variegated groups fighting under the banner of the FSA has yet to be presented. 

If Talibanization is far from hanging over Syria, the rural, orthopractic communities in which the revolution has been strongest up until now have nonetheless maintained their pre-revolutionary practices of gender hierarchy. The local committees described above seem largely dominated by men. Yet, as in the case of class struggle, a revolutionary process cannot but spur practices of self-emancipation that once experienced are difficult to un-learn. As well as participation in demonstrations, women have joined the Free Syrian Army, including the formation of the ‘Hawla Bint Al-Azwar’ battalion shown below.

If the influence of armed Takfiris is exaggerated, the danger of sectarian carnage is a real one. The longer the regime clings on, pulling everyone else down with it, the greater this danger becomes. A year and a half of continuous conflict has undoubtedly led to an increase in sectarian polarisation—although, as the International Crisis Group points out, it is perhaps surprising that this has not reached an even worse level. The committees described above operate in Sunni areas and some of their members show a hostility to the local Shi’a village . There are credible reports of the execution of shabiha prisoners and suspected collaborators, including the mass killing of members of the pro-regime Berri clan in Aleppo. But, were the revolution simply a communal civil war, then the Sunni Arabs (by far the preponderant community) would have won it by now. There are also Alawites who have identified with the revolution—they have a website documenting their participation. There is a struggle going on within the revolutionary side to assert unity against sectarianism—witness, for example, the code of conduct drawn up by the LCC and signed by the commanders of 29 FSA brigades, pledging to “refrain from any behaviour or practice that would undermine the principles of our revolution: the principles of freedom, citizenship, and dignity…[and] respect human rights in accordance with our legal principles, our tolerant religious principles, and the international laws governing human rights.” 

These commitments are frequently couched in a discursive culture that confuses those who see ‘Islam’ as a monolithic project, rather than as a political vernacular. For example, this video shows the formation of the ‘People’s resistance unit’ in Damascus. The screen is filled with masked, armed men, standing around a Qu’ran and swearing obedience to God almighty:

But what is the content of their oath? It is ‘ to protect and defend’ the ‘people’ who ‘will determine their desired government’, and to ‘reject and prevent revenge from occurring outside of our brigade’s control’ and to act ‘without any discrimination among the civilians, regardless of their ethnicity, sect, or religious or political belief’.

A similar scene is found in this video, showing the formation of the ‘United Syrian Military Coast Brigade’ in Latakia, the Alawite heartland:

As in the previous video, the declaration begins with a Qur’anic verse, and the room is full of beards, guns and martyr’s headbands. They pledge to ‘build a nation of mutual love, justice and peace’ and to follow international human rights law ‘without regard to ethnicity or religion.’ Both videos feature long lists of the brigades declaring their adherence to these pledges.

It is impossible to tell how far this commitments will be followed: what they indicate, however, is a battle within the revolutionary side to preserve national and cross-sectarian unity in a very violent and chaotic situation. There is no such concern on the side of the regime, and to treat the two as equal in this matter is a grave error. Even more so when, as in the case of the Houla massacre, Western leftists replicate the regime narrative that the revolutionaries are the ones doing the slaughtering, in order to discredit the regime. In May of this year, scores of people were killed in their homes in the region of Houla north of Homs, after an FSA attack on an army checkpoint. The survivors maintained that the perpetrators were pro-regime elements, either soldiers or shabiha. The regime claimed that in fact the FSA had carried out the killings and then pinned the blame on the government. A German journalist from the Frankfurter Allemeine Zeitung published a similar story, based on anonymous sources claiming that the families were  Shi’a killed because they refused to join the opposition. The local co-ordinating committee stated in response that the victims were Sunni families (as one of the surviving family members confirmed, also stating that he believed the killers to be shabiha) and that no German journalist had contacted them or visited the area. The UN investigation into the matter concluded that pro-government forces were responsible. And yet this incident continues to be cited by the anti-anti-Assad left as if it were Alastair Campbell’s fake dossier justifying the war in Iraq. 

What if the improbable and distasteful tale of revolutionaries slaughtering children to make Assad look bad were actually true? It is surely false, but even so, Assad needs no help to make him look bad. The bombing of the town of Azaz on the 15 August, killing tens of people, was surely carried out by the regime, unless we believe the FSA has obtained fighter jets and is using them to bomb its own supporters in order to make Assad look bad. In which case we may as well go the whole hog: let’s believe that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S. have conspired to install a decades-long reign of cruelty and dictatorship in Syria, torturing, imprisoning and killing, amassing huge wealth at the expense of workers and peasants, and imposing neoliberal policies on the impoverished masses, all to make the Ba’ath party look bad. Or, if we accept that all these things are not a conspiracy, is such a regime a basis for a sustainable pole of anti-imperialist resistance? 

Thankfully for the Syrian revolution, there is at least a small group of leftists internal to the struggle. The Syrian Revolutionary Left publish, when the extremely difficult conditions permit, a newspaper entitled The Frontline. This organ campaigns against sectarianism and foreign intervention and for Permanent Revolution. The Arabic original of their programme is here. I have translated part of it here. It states as the main task of the current “to build an active revolutionary left able to mobilise the toiling and suffering people, and all those who aspire to freedom, dignity and social justice, on the basis of a progressive programme confronting the social and economic programmes of other political forces.” Their putative comrades in the West should take some time to investigate and support such currents before declaring their revolution the work of massive conspiracies. 

Jamie Allinson is a researcher specialising in Middle East politics

imgPrintable version


imgContact us

Article tools:

printable version share contact NLP jump to comments

First published: 25 August, 2012

Category: Foreign policy, International, Religion, Terror/War

Latest articles...

  1. The Kerry Initiative: The Next Round: by Norman Finkelstein, Jamie Stern-Weiner
  2. Beyond the War and Ndombolo: by Christina Fonthes
  3. The UKIP Puzzle and the Media Establishmentarianisation Hypothesis: by A. L. Shaw
  4. Four Pictures of Migration: by Carl Rowlands
  5. A People’s History: by Steve Warby
  6. Demanding the Impossible? An Experiment in Engaging Urban Working Class Youth with Radical Politics: by Ed Lewis, Jacob Mukherjee


Twitter latest...

31 Comments on "Syria: Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but Popular Revolution"

By Pete Shield, on 25 August 2012 - 09:57 |

Thanks Jamie, superb analysis. 

By John Molyneux, on 25 August 2012 - 11:39 |

Very useful and impressive. Well done!

By Chris2, on 25 August 2012 - 14:02 |

Your final paragraph rather puts it into perspective doesn’t it? 

The faction producing Frontliine are real revolutionaries therefore the revolution is real. We should therefore ignore the clear evidence that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, NATO, particularly Turkey, France, Britain and the US are actively involved in financing and supplying their agents or those they feel confident will accomplish their aims (this would include the captured salafis said to believe that they were fighting Israel in Palestine) because they aren’t giving them much anyway, reducing the revolutionaries to fabricating their own IEDs , and their assistance is making no real difference.

Still, despite the incompetence and bugetary meanness of what looks to me like a fairly wide international conspiracy, if not a massive one, the regime is about to fall.

Then what? Who will take power? What is the next stage in this permanent revolution? Will Frontline sellers elbow aside the Muslim Brotherhood? Will things turn out as they have in Libya? 

I am afraid the perspective of the author is revealed in the headline which goes back to the betrayal of Korea’s workers and peasants in 1950. Then as now it is a slogan which needs to be washed down with copious draughts of imperialist propaganda. 

By Pete Shield, on 25 August 2012 - 15:55 |

Actually I think it mights be a tongue in cheek reference to the old SWP’s “Niether Washington nor Moscow but international socilaism” slogan. 

By johng, on 25 August 2012 - 16:20 |

There is apparently a special revolutionary test devised in London before Syrian people are allowed to overthrow their regime. Well you know how it is. One wouldn’t want to leave foreigners to their own devices. 

By Walter Lippmann, on 25 August 2012 - 17:38 |

There’s no question but there are lots of citizens with legitimate grievances against the Syrian government. Jamie Allinson gives virtually no emphasis or significance to the massive foreign intervention, from the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere, none of which have any interest in supporting the Syrian people in their struggles to improve their country.

And then toward the end we read this: “Thankfully for the Syrian revolution, there is at least a small group of leftists internal to the struggle. The Syrian Revolutionary Left publish, when the extremely difficult conditions permit, a newspaper entitled The Frontline. This organ campaigns against sectarianism and foreign intervention and for Permanent Revolution.”

Here are two alternative approaches to Syria which readers here should consider:

Oh, Horrors! It’s Syria
by Saul Landau: (excerpt)

One can read the reports or watch the TV news and not get a clue that beneath the usual accolades for democracy in Syria and the bashing of the Assad regime, lies the unstated and strategic truth: Washington, London, Paris and the lesser Western capitals, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have Iran in their gun sights, not Bashar al Assad’s dictatorial regime.

Washington, DC
Syrian Uprising Morphs Into Regional and Global Wars

August 10, 2012 · By Phyllis Bennis
A divided, balkanized Syria looms as a dangerous possibility as even UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon acknowledges the conflict has become a proxy war between world powers.

The news from Syria is really bad these days. And bad stuff in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria – though Syrian civilians are paying by far the biggest price. With outside governments calling the shots in a civil war, arming both sides, and motivated less by concern for civilians than by their own narrow national interests, we’ve got serious trouble.

And right now unfortunately, that outside super-power game remains dominant. Syria has become the crucible for a number of separate wars, battles for power and influence, for regional resources and access, for strategic location and military expansion. These wars pit regional contenders of the Arab Gulf states and Turkey against Syria and Iran. They set the terms of the rising sectarian battle between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Qatar vs. Shi’a power in Syria, Iraq and Iran. They shape the Middle East competition between the U.S. and Russia for global military/strategic power. And crucially, of course, Syria is a central component of the U.S., Israeli and western campaign against Iran.

Even UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, who usually reflects Washington’s positions, acknowledged that the Syrian conflict has become a “proxy war.” He called on the major powers to overcome their rivalries to figure out how to stop the violence. So far, no such move is underway. It should not be forgotten that Moscow’s implacable hold on its naval base at Tartus, on Syria’s southern Mediterranean coast, matches perfectly Washington’s commitment to the Bahrain port that hosts the Pentagon’s 5th fleet. Russia will fight for its Tartus base to the last Syrian – just as the U.S. will do anything, including supporting a Saudi military intervention to suppress peaceful Bahraini protesters, to keep the 5th fleet in port.

And none of those players have any interest in what happens to the Syrian people.
Syria’s Democratic Opposition Alive but “Drowned Out in the Cacophony of Artillery and Rifle Fire” full:

By johng, on 25 August 2012 - 21:21 |

It might be helpful if some one actually replied to Jamie’s actual arguments. 

By Walter Lippmann, on 26 August 2012 - 02:06 |

Taking a look at the Transitional Program which Jamie Allinson has kindly translated, we learn that its FIRST demand is: “1. Dismantling of the State Security infrastructure.” This is to be carried out while foreign-armed gangs are carrying out an armed struggle against the Syrian government.

It’s notable that the group has no proposals for what to do about the armed groupings which are shooting at the government, especially since THIS revolutionary grouping is, of course, presumably non-violent toward the government. Is it also non-violent against the violent actors?

Reading this “Transitional Program”, one finds these remarkable words,

“we know that the revolutionary groups on the ground, which are leading the movement, emphasise their commitment to the three principles (peaceful revolution, absolute rejection of foreign military intervention and the determination to overthrow the regime and abstention from dialogue with it.” !!!!

This is rather confusing: They demand a PEACEFUL revolution against a government which they say is shooting everyone, they reject foreign military intervention (How? Non-violently?) and they are at once determined to overthrow the regime, yet they refuse to dialogue with the regime they want to overthrow non-violently?

What are these people smoking? Trotsky would definitely NOT have been impressed.

By Jonny, on 26 August 2012 - 13:24 |

Trust a sect-head to get through such a thorough debunking of the conspiracies surrounding the Syrian Revolution and the big bone of contention is the transitional programme presented by the revolutionary left!

By Sherifa Zuhur, on 26 August 2012 - 16:56 |

You are correct that the anti-opposition left are not consulting the people of Syria.  Remember, the brutality of the regime, security forces and sympathizers is long-standing.  Don’t know what it will take for readers to recognize what has been and is being done to civilians & this is just one issue

By Peter Cross, on 27 August 2012 - 14:23 |

Thanks for this Jamie - it very much needed to be said. You’ll be in for a lot of invective for your pains, of course, which won’t be pleasant. Stand firm. 

By Hayatte, on 27 August 2012 - 16:49 |

@sherifa. You should also recognize the brutality of the asl who murder civilians and have no mercy regarding the prisonners (they just shoot them or in some cases they decapitate them). So nobody is consulting the syrians and don’t count on anyone to do it. This conflict is not about freedom or democracy or good versus evil this is about who will be the regional power in the region and Syria is paying the price.

By Christian, on 27 August 2012 - 21:40 |

Good article. It is very disappointing to me to see so many “leading” names on the European and American lefts dropping years of talk about building better societies “from below” to now advocate Syrians lay down their weapons and submit to their murderous government because their society is just too complicated and too diverse for them to ever be able to build anything better of it.

Several of the names mentioned and linked to in this article are people whose books I have read, whose speaking engagements I have organized and brought people to, and who I have enjoyed conversing with in person and learning from. It is very disappointing.

By RichardL, on 27 August 2012 - 22:26 |

I am not going to read the whole article. I skipped to the last three paragraphs on which I give the following comments:

 1) TheFrankfurter Allemeine Zeitung article is considered not credible here because its witnesses are anonymous. The UN investigation is taken at face value. The UNHRC report of 15 August also gives no identities to any of its witnesses. Why the double standards in your analysis?

 2) The local co-ordinating committee that you cite is also an anonymous entity. I appreciate that there are very good reasons why this should be so but the fact remains we have no means of knowing whether this document is authentic or not. Nevertheless you take it at face value and without any explanation to your readers.

 3)The UNHRC Commission, which by its own admission has never been anywhere near Houla, interviewed more than 40 witnesses (the exact number is not given) but gave details on only six, of whom it merely says were residents from the Taldou area. 

 4) The report, which is a very brief document (20 pages of report plus 76 pages of annexes) for a massive subject viz the the events in the Syrian Arab Republic between March 2011 and 15 February 2012, does not go into detail on its findings on the Houla massacre.(There are 10 paragraphs in the text on Houla, and five pages of annexes. However in this brief synopsis it does find time to lambast the Syrian government for failing “in its obligation to properly investigate the murders that took place in  Al-Houla on 25 May 2012”.) It does not even mention how the victims were killed other than to refer to its previous report in which it found that the deaths were from government shelling. (Yes, that is what it reported!) Apparently by the time it came to write this present report it seems to have realized that this is not correct but it does not say so and it provides absolutely no details. [Although some of the dead were killed by the shelling the vast majority were subsequently found to be the victims gunshot wounds, although Hervé Ladsous, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations appears to have been responsible for the widely reported falsehood that most of them were the victims of knife attacks.]

 5) Nowhere in your analysis do you take account of the information from the German government, in answer to a parliamentary question, that German intelligence estimates that “around 90″ terror attacks that “can be attributed to organizations that are close to al-Qaeda or jihadist groups” were carried out in Syria between the end of December and the beginning of July [ - I don’t read German but this appears to be a good synopsis]. The German government is keeping schtum as to who it thinks might have been responsible for Houla. I wonder why?

 6) John Rosenthal’s article, which I have cited above, and is dated 27 July 2012, mentions that at least three major German newspapers have published reports attributing the massacre to anti-government forces  or treating this as the most probably scenario. In your article published on 25 August 2012  you merely refer to one solitary article by a German journalist. 

 7) The UN Observer Mission in Syria which did a site investigation the following day has never condemned the Syrian government, or anyone else specifically, for the killings.However Alfred Hackensberger who visited Houla  and did his own site investigations and interviews concluded that the rebels were most likely responsible. [Rosenthal, Ibid]  

8) “What if the improbable and distasteful tale of revolutionaries slaughtering children to make Assad look bad were actually true? It is surely false…” Is this supposed to be critical analysis or wishful thinking?
Even the UNHRC in a previous report accused the rebels of  extra-judicial executions of members of the army and security forces, suspected informers and/or collaborators captured by anti-government armed groups; military tribunals; makeshift prisons; the use of improvised explosive devices including nail bombs; landmines; torture, including breaking bones, which in some cases has led to death; abduction of civilians and members of the government forces; use of children as medical porters, messengers, cooks and cross-border smuggling activities (with four instances of child smugglers being injured by sniper fire). [ ] Are you really telling me I should be supporting this motley bunch of war criminals?

Based on this evidence I think George Galloway is a far more credible commentator than you are Jamie. 

By Walter Lippmann, on 27 August 2012 - 22:41 |

Christian ought to consider the POSSIBILITY that all those people whose work he’s read and whom he has respected in the past might POSSIBLY know something that he and Jamie doesn’t know. There was an indigenous conflict, but that conflict is now by far overshadowed by the foreign intervention from NATO, France, the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.If you want to include Russia and China, feel free, but the indigenous struggle has been overshadowed by the one armed by the foreign forces.

Peace in Syria requires a Syrian solution from the inside.

By Walter Lippmann, on 27 August 2012 - 23:41 |


In Syria, Islamic militants may complicate uprising
By Los Angeles Times Staff

August 25, 2012, 5:32 p.m.
ALEPPO, Syria — Justice was swift and brutal when fighters of the Al Nusra Front militia caught a man accused of raping and killing a young girl in front of her father. They beheaded the man and left his body in the street.

The presence of women and children didn’t deter them. Neither did the appeals of other rebels at the checkpoint in the embattled neighborhood of Salahuddin.

Members of the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force, said that the man was a member of a pro-government militia and that they had no doubt he was guilty. They also had no objection to killing him, but they did object to a public beheading.

By DemocracyBeforeDictatorship, on 28 August 2012 - 03:01 |

I believe that the UN stated in their second report that they had interviewed over 400  witnesses - whereas the Syrian regime cited 2 witnesses, whom they would not identify or allow to be interviewed.

Talk about credibility gap.

And the bulk of the rebels are defected soldiers who had the courage to stop supporting a brutal, murderous regime.

Once again, talk about credibility gap.  

By mary, on 28 August 2012 - 04:02 |

what does ‘sub-ickean’ mean?

By JamieSW, on 28 August 2012 - 18:11 |

mary: it refers to the former sports presenter and prominent conspiracy theorist David Icke, who believes - if I recall correctly - that humanity is being controlled by a cabal of reptillian overlords.

By RichardL, on 28 August 2012 - 20:02 |

BDBD: It might pay to read the UNHRC report before you try to quote it. 

With regard to the al-Houla massacre on p64 the commission records “...the commission had 
not received a response to a request dated 13 July to interview two specific witnesses whose testimony had appeared in the Government report…” NOTE two specific witnesses, NOT two witnesses in total. The report does not actually say how many witnesses the Syrian government interviewed for its report.

On p65, still with regard to the al-Houla massacre the report states"More than forty separate interviews were considered by the commission.” This is less than the “over 400” that you quote by a factor of around ten. Is this what you mean by a credibility gap?

Incidentally many of the “rebels” fighting the government forces are foreign jihadists, allegedly paid for their services. The original, genuine non-violent Syrian revolt was long ago hi-jacked by violent outside forces. These are the people who will not enter into a ceasefire as was proposed by Kofi Annan.

By Brian S,, on 29 August 2012 - 00:54 |

An excellent piece of work Jamie: intelligent and actually based on thorough research. What a breath of fresh air. Good to see that you’ve drawn on the ICG report, the best thing to have been produced on Syria since the conflict began. I hope everyone concerned with Syria, whatever their views, takes the time to follow your link.
I am at a loss to see on what basis people can make the assessment hat the Syrian revolt has been ” overshadowed by foreign intervention”. Sure there are a lot of unpleasant external actors sniffing around the edges, but if there is so much “intervention” why are FSA units running out of ammunition?

And its quite extraordinary to find people still clinging to the wreckage of ther FAZ story. In its hey-day this was a tendentious story - little better than “a man I met in a pub told me” Its sources weren’t just “anonymous”, they were third hand and unidentified - “Syrian oppositionists from the region” who had intereviewed “witnesses”!  Since then we have had a plethora of information that makes nonsense of this account: al-Jazeera’s interviews with surviving members of the families, who clearly blame government forces; HRW’s investigation on the ground; the thorough on the spot Der Spiegel investigation; and most recently the UN Human Rights Commission report. All of these confirm one central point - that those murdered were not Shia converts. And once you take that argument away, the whole FAZ/ Marat Musin house of cards collapses.

Jamie: I’d like to discuss some of these things more fully with you; if you have time could you drop me an email. I assume you can get my address throuigh the blog. [ed.: no, it’s not visible to him]

By Piergiorgio Moro, on 29 August 2012 - 12:18 |

Thanks for this article.
In any civil conflict you will find all kinds of reactionary forces as well as progressive forces.
What is missing in the debate about Syria is how do we help the left forces in Syria.
Why isn’t the left linking with working class/progressive groups in Syria and providing political/financial/material.
If we don’t involved then we let the imperialist/reactionary forces a free hand in influencing the uprising towards their own agenda.
Its time that we acted like we wanted to win

By RichardL, on 29 August 2012 - 14:51 |

My reply to Brian S has been lost in the catacombs of the New Left Project. I do not have the time or  energy to re-write it. I will merely add that there is an important article by Alfred Hackenbacker at which brings new evidence to the debate on responsibility for the Houla massacre. It can of course be read via Google translate.

I will merely add that supporting the violent revolution instead of demanding a ceasefire and a peaceful transition is calling for mayhem and bloodshed in which, according to Russian estimates (which correspond roughly with Libyan casualties extrapolated to Syrian population figures) could result in the deaths of 100,000 people. To Brian S and maybe even to Jamie A this might seem like a breath of fresh air. To me it is an obscenity, an unnecessary evil that smells not of freedom but of the stench of rotting corpses of the innocent civilians that happen to have been born Syrian and not American or European. 

By Brian S,, on 29 August 2012 - 15:22 |

@Piergiorgio Moro You make a very good point. The problem comes with defining what we mean by “left forces” - the programmatically explicit “left” is either very small of very superannuated. I would prefer to talk about supporting the “popular democratic” forces. But even that doesn’t solve the problem, since with the militarisation of the conflict the distinction between the grass roots civilian opposition (the Local Coordinating Committees and their coordinations) and the military opposition (the units of the FSA) is getting increasingly blurred. Personally I have no problem in incuding the FSA in broad terms in “popular democratic forces” . As veteran leader of the left in the Syrian opposition, Michel Kilo, recently told l’Humanite:” if the FSA is defeated it will be a castrophe for the opposition.” But some wouldn’t agree. Frankly, rather than get involved in another barren debate, I’d be delighted if sections of the left would just solidarise with SOMEONE in Syria - anyone (other than Assad).

By Brian S,, on 29 August 2012 - 17:01 |

@ RichardL re Houla massacre. Sorry your reply didn’t make it through. Try again, as you might have made some valid points in it, which you certainly don’t in this response. I was familar with the Hackensberger article (admittedly via Google Translate) but have reviewed it again just in case I missed something first time round. I didn’t.Its claims are based on ONE unidentified witness. How was it that he managed to know what he claims to know? “He wtinessed the atrocities”. And the ruthless FSA jihadists just ignored him? Mind you, he has an eye for detail “They call Osama Bin Laden their Sheikh” Nice of them to be so up front, and handy for him to be able to have this revealing conversation without threat to life or limb.
Even the official Syrian state version could round up two witnesses. The article also rests heavily on the claim that pro-Assad forces couldn’t have done it because the FSA controlled the town (I knew I had read this nonsense somewhere but had forgotten where: thanks for the reminder). This latter contention has been definitively disproved: check the BBC’s satellite images.
Its worth noting that both these “sceptical” accounts reprise large parts of the narrative (generally inaccurate) formulated by regime apologiists like Thierry Meyssan and Marat Musin several days before (as correctly noted by the local LCC in their reply). 
Try comparing Hackensberger (now available in translation from the government mouthpiece: . With a serious piece of journalism:

By Rob, on 29 August 2012 - 17:54 |

Regarding the Houla massacre, didn’t see this link in your article, but Der Spiegel also sent a team back there later to interview several eyewitnesses, and it points pretty conclusively to the fact that it was committed by pro-government militias :
Searching for the Truth Behind the Houla Massacre

By RichardL, on 30 August 2012 - 18:23 |

Brian S. This ain’t meant to happen. I typed perhaps 4-500 carefully considered and referenced words and then lost the lot. 

I will summarize. UNHRC cannot prove the government forces did it. They cannot  (and do not) rule out anti-government forces or unidentified foreign groups. But they blame the government anyway, without specifically saying why. This is no more than a hunch from a bunch of people who have never been near the site.

Der Speigel, despite what Rob claims, provides no evidence to the identities of the perpetrators. They were men with beards and shaved heads, in civilian clothes, in uniform, some with red armbands, with kalashnikovs. [“shaved heads and 
long beards  – descriptions which have been applied both to foreign groups and the 
Shabbiha in other contexts.” UNHRC oral report para 54] Nobody was recognized. The only distinguishing clues I can find are in the transport. There is reference to a tank (could be either side); the sound of an armoured personnel carrier - not seen (government forces most likely) and pickups, including a silver pickup with a machine gun and men in a car. (which does not sound like the army - could it be shabbiha, I don’t know, but it could certainly be anti-government forces).

HRW again provides no evidence as to who the perpetrators actually were. They were in uniform. This could be the army, it could be defectors, it could be actors in fancy dress.

Al Jazeera? Qatari government mouthpiece, and Qatar is helping to finance this rebellion.

BBC? What a joke. Their Iraqi photo published as Houla dead was pure propaganda. Martha Kearney was mouthing blatant lies about the Israel/Palestine conflict only yesterday on Today.

Hackensberger’s account is not contradicted by anything in Der Spiegal.  But it does contain some important allegations.  He said the hospital checkpoint was overrun first. If this is correct then the UNHRC was unaware of it and consequently were drawn into errors in para 50/51 of the oral report. “Jibril” is the only witness referring to identities rather than merely the dress of the perpetrators. He does not claim the victims were Sunnis. He does say that the houses were targeted. You might not like what Hackensberger reports but you give no justification for your suggestion that his report is not serious journalism. And that ain’t reasoned debate! But then you don’t rationalize away Marat Musin either, just write him off as irrelevant because he does not write what you want to read.

We should also remember that one targeted family was that of a brother of a newly elected deputy of the Syrian Parliament. Was it government forces killing one of their own as a false flag; or was it anti-government forces killing civilians as a false flag?

Another journalist who visited three areas of Houla was Alex Thompson, but his reports are inconclusive. He quotes the UNHRC report. He also spoke to the UN Observer mission, who unlike UNHRC were doing investigations on-site. But tantalizingly, no report has ever been made public on those investigations. 

Then there is Todenhöfer’s account (   which is difficult to understand. I did wonder if this was the same witness as Hackensberger’s, but I think not. 

Understanding the Syrian conflict is not easy. There are no clear answers: It literally is a complex, bloody mess. I am vehemently opposed to supporting more conflict, and I find this article by Jamie A offensive for that reason alone. The fact about Houla is that either side could have done it, that above all is why it is so difficult to decipher. Supporting more violence (even dressed up as fighting for human rights) will inevitably bring more atrocities, more victims, more refugees. It is easy to advocate for this when you are ensconced in an ivory tower in Edinburgh and your family is not likely to be shot dead in their own home for your views. But nobody bothers to look back at the results afterwards. The advocates of intervention in Libya have not gone back to the deserted streets of Tuwergha or the ruins of Sirte or taken responsibility for the refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean while NATO forces watched, or for the overspill war in Mali.

I don’t know who perpetrated the massacre of Houla, though my hunch is still on it being led by foreign-backed fighters. But that is merely one of the symptoms. It is the disease itself that concerns me most. But I doubt that we have common ground there either.

By Aaron Aarons, on 31 August 2012 - 10:33 |

“Neither Riyadh nor Tehran”, somewhat like the earlier “Neither Washington nor Moscow”, is a slogan that fails to distinguish between the dominant imperialism and its targets. I say “somewhat like” because there was a difference, in the earlier case, in the class nature of the states in conflict, while the difference between the Iranian and Saudi regimes is more conjunctural. Nevertheless, ‘Riyadh’, i.e., the Saudi royal family, has been a consistent ally of Western imperialism since at least WWII. (It’s only major conflict with Washington has been with the Israel lobby that is so powerful in the latter and doesn’t like the competition for the role of chief regional prop of imperialism.) So, while the left should not support the reactionary politics of the Iranian leaders, we should not hesitate to side with the Iranian state against Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

By David Jamieson, on 01 September 2012 - 17:56 |

 “the Syrian revolution, whether it has popular roots or not, has now become a purely military endeavour of Sunni supremacists acting as the catspaws of a Saudi-Qatari-U.S. (perhaps also Franco-Zionist) effort to topple Assad, the last redoubt of the anti-imperialist forces in the region.”

You assert Jamie, that this is the position of the three individuals for whom you have apparently constructed this piece - it flatly is not the position of any off them. Not even Galloway who takes a ludicrous stance on this - but even less is this the position taken by Tariq Ali and George Galloway.

I take it that your title is a corruption of Neither Washington nor Moscow. The reference is absurd on its own - but its worth commenting that your position represents a huge departure from the IS tradition. There is no equivalence between the U.S and Iran - who are presented to us as rival imperialisms  and so a plague on both their houses - nonsense. 

By Brian S,, on 03 September 2012 - 15:39 |

@David Jamieson.  Galloway can be found in various places declaiming that the struggle against the Assad regime is led by “al Qaeda”. The most positive thing he has ever said about the Syrian revolution is that the Syrian revolutionaries Are “Servants of the Crusader Powers” . As for Tariq, true six months ago he was supporting the Syrian struggle and only voicing opposition to intervention. But in his more recent statement for RT he not only describes the Syrian revolution as “an attempt by the west to take Syria over” but goes on to repeat the Assad regime slanders that recent massacres have been the work of the opposition, relying solely on the transparently thin (and now discredited) FAZ report (see discussion above.) He also shows himself extraordinarily ill-informed - he seems to think the Syrian National Council is running the armed struggle!  If Jamie misrepresents their views it is in rendering them both more coherent and more “progressive” than they actually are.

By Siusaidh, on 05 September 2012 - 23:31 |

Cruise Missile Left - alive, sitting pretty, and publishing.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.


Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?