July 23rd, 2020 | 46 mins 52 secs
albert memmi, answer coalition, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, antiwar, arab spring, assad, barack obama, burning country, cia, code pink, colonialism, decolonization, enlightenment, global war on terror, isis, israel, john kerry, matt taibbi, noam chomsky, occidentalism, orientalism, palestine, party for socialist liberation, peace, psl, solidarity, syria, the coup, the middle east, tulsi gabbard
[update: here is a link to the OPCW report regarding responsibility for the 2014 chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghoutta: https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2020/04/s-1867-2020%28e%29.pdf ] Now that we’ve put Syrian voices first in explaining how the revolution first came about, we should discuss western involvement in Syria through this period. American involvement in Syria in the past decade has not been honorable, but it is not what people think. As with Spain during the 30s, America in 2011 rejected an active foreign policy, having elected Barack Obama in part because he had voted against the war in Iraq. As in Spain the result was the crushing of a progressive movement and a genocide at the hands of an authoritarian ruler. In previous episodes, my focus was on Syrians, but now I want to discuss what America's response to the Arab Spring in Syria reveals about us, as a nation and as a socialist movement. The weaknesses that reveal themselves in this discussion are crippling our movement, and to be free of them we have to begin the discussion. Let's begin.
Up until 2011 Bashar al-Assad was considered a potential partner in the region. His father Hafez had helped the US to fight Saddam Hussein in the first gulf war, and as is well known, Bill Clinton used to have terrrorism suspects sent to Syria to be tortured (https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2008/07/31/the-long-dark-war). Sam Dagher remarks on this permissive attitude: “After the Second World War, successive US administrations viewed the newly independent states of the Levant and Arabian Peninsula, including Syria, mainly through the prism of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Washington’s priorities were to secure oil supplies and find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Few of the Middle East’s rising tyrants knew how to exploit this broader geostrategic game better than Hafez al-Assad. By the mid-1970s, Hafez, who was busy enshrining a cultish dictatorship in Syria, received military aid and support from the Soviet Union at the same time that he was getting recognition and financial aid from the US and its rich Gulf Arab allies. There was an unspoken but well-understood quid pro quo with Washington: Hafez was free to do everything he needed to do to maintain his iron grip at home as long as he never waged war against Israel after 1973. Jimmy Carter later called Hafez a ‘strong and moderate’ leader.” Throughout the US’ occupation of Iraq, Bashar al-Assad had allowed foreign Islamist extremists to enter Iraq through Syria. There they joined with Al-Qaeda agents who were being funded by Iran and managed by Qassem Suleimani. When Obama was elected into the office of the President of the United States, Bashar correctly saw an opportunity. “For him [Bashar al-Assad] the real prize was not France or Europe but the United States, where a more momentous change of guard and opportunity occurred. A young senator named Barack Obama had become America’s first black president. Obama regarded Iraq’s invasion as a disastrous mistake and wanted to get out as quickly as possible. He wanted to make a clear break with Bush’s policies, to change America’s image as the world’s sheriff and a cowboy who shoots first and asks questions later. Obama had priorities beyond Middle East regime change. The way Bashar and his allies saw it, Obama seemed like a realist, someone who was not going to hector them about reform and human rights but potentially accept that each country had its particular circumstances and situations… Obama wasted no time in trying to secure Bashar’s and, by extension, Iran’s cooperation in Iraq. He dispatched John Kerry to Damascus in February 2009. The gentlemanly Kerry, a longtime senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, already had one thing in common with Bashar: a towering presence. And to try to develop a personal rapport with Bashar, Kerry came with his wife, Teresa Heinz.” (pp. 147,149). By all accounts John Kerry was completely won over by the Assad charm offensive: “Toward the end of his stay in Damascus, Kerry met Michel Duclos, the French ambassador. Kerry, a fluent French speaker, said he believed he finally had a deal with Bashar on stopping the infiltration of foreign fighters to Iraq and sharing the identities of Al-Qaeda operatives. ‘This is a man we can do business with,’ an upbeat Kerry told Duclos. Kerry was totally beguiled by Asma and Bashar, observed Duclos.” (p. 151). Sam Dagher’s excellent history of the Syrian Revolution, Assad or We Burn the Country, focuses on the decision making process within the Assad regime, which Dagher had special access to through interviews with Manaf Tlaas, close friend with Bashar al-Assad from childhood and the son of Mustapha Tlass who was Hafez al-Assad’s old comrade from their days as cadets in the military academy. Dagher tells how the French government was trying to prepare Manaf to take power in order to keep the regime in place, in case Bashar was rejected by the Syrian ruling class the way Mubarak had been in Egypt, and how despite Manaf’s arguing for reforms as a response to the protest movement, Bashar and company decided to resurrect the Hama manual.
During the course of the Spring and Summer of 2011 it became clear that the Assad regime intended to use intense violence against protesters, and this created a feedback loop whereby harsher methods inspired bigger protests inspiring harsher methods. The Obama administration, not wishing to lose their partner in Syria, asked Assad to cede power to someone else in his ruling click. Because of Sam Dagher’s work interviewing Manaf Tlass, we know that the French intelligence agencies were grooming Tlass to take over there. Tlass was chosen because he opposed using violence against protestors, preferring to negotiate reforms. If Assad had obeyed Obama’s plea, which was clearly not going to be backed up with serious action, the Baath party would have remained in control of Syria, much as the ruling clique in Egypt remained in power after Mubarrak stepped down.
One of Obama’s proudest achievements was the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The bulk of US forces, some 140,000 troops, left Iraq in December of 2011. In the next few years, Obama tried desperately to avoid America re-engaging militarily in the region despite the emergence of ISIS over this period. In 2012 ISIS murdered the journalist Jim Foley. In 2013 they killed the journalist Steven Sotlof. In 2014 as ISIS militants gained territory within striking distance of an American diplomatic mission in Erbil, Obama finally authorized limited air strikes against ISIS targets. By that point, American inaction regarding the group was read by regular Iraqis as America supporting ISIS. Richard Stengel, former editor of Time magazine and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under Obama, cites polling of Iraqis in 2014: “A majority of Iraqis - Sunni and Shia - actually thought that the U.S. had created ISIS. I asked one intelligence officer why this was. He smiled and replied that most Iraqis say ‘We have seen what you are capable of when you invaded us, and the fact that you are not doing it to them must mean that you are on their side.’” (p. 119).
In reality, starting in 2012 America had two different programs to arm Syrian rebels, in order to fight ISIS. Syrian rebels, with the exception of a few dozen people, rejected this aid because it came only if the recipients promised not to fight the Assad regime, which Obama hoped to normalize relations with. Most of this military aid went to the Kurds, who have been fighting alongside US forces against ISIS. The main way that the US intervened during the course of the revolution, was the CIA setting itself up as a middle man between rebel groups and Saudi Arabia to ensure that the rebels never received anti-air weapons that could stop the regime’s vicious targeting of civilian areas, though they did receive some anti-tank weapons (Mark Boothroyd: Who are the Syrian Rebels? The Genesis of the Armed Struggle in Syria. From Khiyana, pp. 59-63, 49; Abouzeid, p. 259)). In an interview with Rania Abouzeid, Hamza Shemali, the leader of the Hazm group that received support through the CIA under a program named Sycamore Timber, complained that though their network provided the US with good information about the whereabouts and activities of ISIS leadership, but that the US did nothing with the intelligence, a state of affairs that persisted until 2014 (pp. 273, 313). Hamza Shemali comments: “On September 23, 2014, after years of watching the ascendancy of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, America’s military directly intervened in Syria’s war, striking Islamic State positions and lobbing missiles toward eight locations in Idlib and Aleppo held by the Nusra-affiliated Khorasan Group. The United States had launched its war on ISIS in Iraq on August 8, and expanded it into Syria the following month. Many Syrians wondered why the United States waited until Islamic State was at the height of its power to attack it… In early November, Nusra fighters easily routed Hazm from its main stronghold in Idlib Province, seizing Hazm’s cache of US-supplied weapons, including TOW antitank missiles. The base fell without a fight, and the hundreds of Hazm fighters either escaped to Aleppo, defected to Nusra, or were detained.” (pp. 313-314). If anyone imagines that this financial aid affected the political loyalties of the Syrian resistance, consider that in 2014 when the US began conducting airstrikes against targets in Syria, this very group that received funding from the US loudly criticized the attacks while the Assad regime cheered for them (https://syriadirect.org/news/syria-direct-news-update-9-24-14/). “Various rebel groups condemned US-led airstrikes on the Islamic State and other extremist targets within Syria on Tuesday and Wednesday. Harakat Hazm, a moderate-leaning rebel coalition that has received aid from the United States, called the strikes an act of “aggression towards national sovereignty” in a press release widely circulated Tuesday on social media websites… Meanwhile, the pro-government news network Damascus Now hailed the strikes on Wednesday as a historic moment, in which “happiness was etched on the faces of the majority of Syrians, because they found international support towards eradicating a cancer which has been rooted in the diseased Syrian body,” referring to the rebels.”
Obama’s hands off attitude about Syria represented well the prevailing mood of the country. The Iraq was was such a debacle that few on the right or left could afford to recommend more military engagement. This is surely the only way to explain how a nation that had rallied to the Global War on Terror could watch its journalists get slaughtered by a rising authoritarian Islamist extremist organization and not clammor for national defense. But in 2013 an event occurred that would test the nation’s pacifist resolve, and then all the left wing supporters of Bashar al-Assad would once again command the national spotlight.
On the 21st of August, 2013 the Assad regime used Sarin gas to murder nearly 1400 people in the Ghouta, which again was the neighborhood that led the rebellion against the French in 1925 and again in 1945. Just this past April, this is in 2020, a group of inspectors from UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found conclusively that Bashar AlAssad was responsible for the chemical attack in Ghoutta in 2013. They were the first body of inspectors to be granted the authority to assign culpability for this terrible crime. The report is not published yet, but it’s main findings have been reported to the press. Because certain bad actors have made the argument that Syrian rebels perpetrated this terrible crime, it's worth laying out the evidence we have even without the UN’s new report in detail. Bellingcat is an international group doing investigative journalism using the latest technology (https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/2020/01/14/bellingcat-is-hiring-editor-europe-based-part-time/). From publicly available news sources they were able to identify military units who were actively engaged in operations near the Ghouta, within range to deliver the Volcano rockets that conveyed the Sarin Gas and immediately benefiting militarily from the strikes (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2014/07/15/identifying-government-positions-during-the-august-21st-sarin-attacks/). Specifically, Bellingcat was able to confirm eye witness accounts of a group of 15 armored vehicles that took advantage of the immediate aftermath of the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta to seize the nearby Jobar neighborhood. Because every detail of the attack has been subject to a misinformation campaign, we must point out that the nature of the agent used was verified from 12 samples taken a week after the attack, that the remnants of a Volcano missile found at the center of the attack confirm its use as a conveyance (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2014/07/10/facts-that-have-entered-the-public-domain-about-sarin-syria-and-hexamine/). Further, the Syrian government admitted to owning a stockpile of Hexamine and Isopropyl Alcohol, both items that have to be stored separately until the last moment. After mixing of these components, the resulting Sarin compound cannot be stored beyond a very short term before it eats through any container. Therefore, the facilities required to refine Sarin Gas are likely beyond the means of rebels under siege who lack powdered milk and tea (Majd al-Dik, p. 255). The stories one has to tell to imagine rebels using such an advanced weapon border on science fiction, imagining secret labs in Iraq or smuggling through Turkey, not to mention that the support of the Syrian people has always been essential to the success of the revolution; this is also the article where Belingcat addresses Ted Postol’s attacks on their work, attacks which cite conspiracy theorists who regularly appear on Alex Jones (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/06/21/know-hexamine-syrias-sarin/). Countering the ongoing information war against the Syrian people requires vigilance, and Bellingcat delivers: here’s an article from January of this year further debunking conspiracy theories around the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2020/01/23/the-opcw-douma-leaks-part-3-we-need-to-talk-about-a-false-flag-attack/ and https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/08/30/russian-chem-disinfo-idlib/). Bellingcat has been closely following the regime’s use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people, including four such occasions since 2018 (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/03/15/syrian-forces-bombard-eastern-ghouta-chemical-weapons-fourth-consecutive-time-since-beginning-2018/). People who said that the Syrians gassed themselves were folowing a long tradition of misinformation stretching back to Guernica, where the Nazi’s murdered hundreds of people intentionally bombing civilian areas and Franco said the people of the town had burned down their own buildings.
The left responded as though the US was about to invade Syria. Their unfortunate response was to spread Russian disinformation about the chemical attacks, slander the Syrian democratic resistance and protest against the US doing anything at all about the slaughter of the Syrian people, even as those Syrian people clamored for a no-fly zone (https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/lefts-hollow-anti-imperialism-over-syria). Since then there have been verifiably half a million Syrian civilians murdered by Assad and around 7 million more forced to flee. The Lebanese Political Scientist and Professor of Middle East Studies at the American University of Paris, Ziad Majed blessed us in 2014 with his deep book “Syrie, La Revolution Orpheline.” If you can read French, you should get a copy. It’s short. And good. The translation here is my work, not the official translation. He comments: “Starting in March of 2011, the Syrian revolution was the object of multiple vilification campaigns coming from various quarters in the Arab and Western world. These included nationalists, right and left. These attacks contributed to the eclipse of the Syrian people and their aspirations. This was exactly what the Assad regime wanted. One must distinguish among these enemies of the revolution. On the one hand were those who pretended to be neutral and would not condemn the crimes of the regime. On the other hand were those, no doubt considering themselves better informed, who theorized gravely about a vast colonialist conspiracy against the “resistance” regime. Still others felt the need to disfigure the meaning of the revolution, to dehumanize Syrians and transform them into “naturally violent” creatures with whom one could not empathize. With racism and xenophobia they refused to recognize Syrians’ rights to live in liberty and dignity.” (Ziad Majed, Syrie la Revolution Orpheline, p.147 - translation mine)
Sadly, many of the left commentators who fueled this frenzy of lies and anti-solidarity are still with us, and they are not to be trusted. From my perspective as someone who at that point was an active participant in the antiwar movement, here are some of the highlights from the left press during that shameful period.
In September of 2013 Slavoj Zizek wrote for the guardian that the Syrian revolution was a pseudo-struggle that lacked emancipatory potential. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/06/syria-pseudo-struggle-egypt
Tariq Ali in 2013 in the London Review of Books repeated Russian and Iranian talking points about the attack somehow not serving Assad, but at the same time insinuates that maybe the US did the attack? Because the US wants an excuse for war? (https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/august/on-intervening-in-syria). But Ali’s piece was just a prelude to what Seymour Hersh published there in December of 2013. Hersh became famous for his work uncovering the Mai Lai massacre in 1969, but he disgraced his legacy in this article when citing unnamed sources he claimed that Syrian rebels had manufactured Sarin gas and then used it on themselves (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v35/n24/seymour-m.-hersh/whose-sarin).
The World Socialist Website, which I hate to drag like this just because their such an easy target, but first wait, remember when we talked about Capital and there was this socialist group who said that Ta Nehisi-Coates was a bourgeois reactionary? That was the World Socialist Website. [Full quote: “American society is increasingly polarized—not between races, but between classes. In this context, the class basis of the upper-middle class’s obsession with racial and identity politics becomes clearer. This is the reactionary political essence of groups like Black Lives Matter, authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, and academics like Keeyanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who push racial politics to better fleece the working class members of their “own” racial groups, and the working class overall.” https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/07/pers-o07.html] Anyway, in 2013 they wrote a lack of thinking piece claiming that the whole opposition movement to Assad was a western backed insurgency, and that the chemical weapons attack was being used as an excuse to extend US empire over the energy resources in Syria. (https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/03/21/pers-m21.html).
It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with them that the Party for Socialist Liberation was declaiming supposed US attempts at regime change in Syria going all the way back to 2005 at least. I guess that’s when they started publishing online (https://www.liberationnews.org/tag/syria/page/16/). Throughout 2012 and in the months before the Sarin attack in Ghouta, the PSL was organizing protests against US intervention in Syria. On the day after the attacks, they simply published a link to Russian state TV where Brian Becker was calling this atrocity a staged provocation. The ANSWER coalition is the leading antiwar coalition in the US, formed just after September 11, 2001: ANSWER is really just a front group for the Party for Socialist LIberation. So far I can’t see that their blatant support for the genocidal Bashar al-Assad and parroting of Russian propaganda has lost them an audience on the left, as it should.
In the early 70s Willis Carto made a name for himself popularising holocaust denial (https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/holocaust-denial). Max Blumenthal is a journalist who has been published in the New York Times and The Nation, and he is the Willis Carto of Syrian genocide denial (https://hummusforthought.com/2016/10/05/list-of-rebuttals-to-max-blumenthals-anti-syrian-article/). As late as 2019 he and Rania Khalek visited Assad controlled territory in an attempt to rehabilitate the genocidal regime (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/junket-journalism-shadow-genocide-190914121639788.html). Mainly Blumenthal publishes these days on a Russian propaganda site called The Gray Zone, which is named after a concept in Russian military theory that involves spreading disinformation to tear down democratic institutions. Katie Halper stans Max Blumenthal. Here’s a tweet by her from November 2019:
These people have told endless lies about the Syrian opposition, and named their online news site “Grayzone” after Russian misinformation operation. They cannot be trusted to tell the truth, and should have no place in our media.
Code Pink led protests against US intervention in Indiana in 2013 with messaging that makes one think they just reused the same signs they had used to protest the Iraq war, as though Iraq and Syria were not distinct in time and space. The protest signs they carried said that they wanted no war based on lies. I guess if you’re a hammer every problem is a nail. (https://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/syria-vote-protests-096415).
I could continue in this vein for a very long time, but I think that’s enough for one podcast. Suffice it to say, that these “antiwar” activists prefered that Assad be allowed to massacre his people, and they won. As we described in our discussion of the Ukraine, the inability of the US left to see through Russian propaganda, which in the case of Syria so neatly dovetailed with all of the priors that American leftists have about US intervention, that gullibility towards Russian propaganda is still very prominent on the left because as a movement we never came to terms with how wrong we were about Syria.
These left writers have to be discussed in the context of US action against Syria because they share the responsibility for Obama’s inaction. What’s truly breathtaking in all of this, is that the US left and the Trumpist right wing seem to agree that Obama literally funded and created ISIS (https://theintercept.com/2018/01/29/isis-iraq-war-islamic-state-blowback/ & https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3734124/He-founded-ISIS-Trump-claims-Obama-deserves-credit-creating-Middle-Eastern-terror-army-names-crooked-Hillary-founder.html). The truth is that Obama’s slow, late and halfhearted fight against ISIS allowed them to come about, but that lame response was exactly what the far left wanted of Obama. It didn’t stop them from labeling him an imperialist. But I don’t blame Obama for ISIS.
It’s closer to the truth to say that ISIS was created by the Assad regime. First of all, Bashar al-Assad’s regime had allowed foreign Islamist extremist fighters to enter Iraq throughout the US occupation, feeding an insurgency there that was funded by Iran. Then as the Assad regime was murdering and jailing peaceful protestors en masse in 2011, it released nearly 1300 Islamists from Sednaya Prison (BC, p.120; Hensman, p. 268; Dagher, p. xix). This was a clear repetition of its tactics in Hama in 1982 when it first murdered peaceful leadership and then used the militant tendency in the Muslim Brotherhood that remained as an excuse to slaughter civilians. Over the course of the revolution, the regime regularly ceded territory to ISIS whilst using ISIS as an excuse to bomb civilian areas (Dagher, pp. 373,374), America throughout the last decade of fighting has imagined it can fight ISIS and keep the regime; this is patently false. In 2015, as Russia began bombing centers of civilian population in Syria, NATO withdrew its Patriot Missiles from Turkey (BC, p.229). That summer Assad bragged publicly that the US voiced public opposition to him but supported him in private (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-assad-idUSKCN0ZG28G). Assad’s army was so diminished by 2016 that the army that was fielded to take back Aleppo consisted in 80% foreign fighters, mainly from Iran (p. 233). Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami note: “On 17th July 2016, following weeks of Russian bombing and ground attacks by Iran-backed militia, the regime captured the Castello Road and thereby placed the liberated city under siege. Russian and Assadist planes upped the war on hospitals, hitting six medical facilities in 24 hours (on 23 and 24 July). The US administration had nothing to say about this. On the contrary, President Obama approved a proposal to coordinate American airstrikes with Russia, against Jabhat al-Nusra… America watched or actively collaborated as Russia, Iran and Assad drove Aleppo into the abyss.” (pp. 227,228). In 2017 the new President Donald Trump was forced by his wife Melania to watch videos of victims of a terrible gas attack by the regime in Khan Sheikhoun. Always impulsive, and moved by the images, Trump ordered that the airbase the attacks originated from be bombed. The air base was given 24 hours warning, so it was evacuated. No one was killed, and the base was operational within another 24 hours. In October of 2019 the US withdrew troops from NorthEast Syria that had been fighting ISIS with Kurdish forces there. Turkish forces promptly invaded, overwhelming formerly Rojavan territory and facilitating the release of ISIS fighters from a jail that Kurdish forces had to abandon to mount a defense against the Turks. Throughout the past decade the US has pursued a policy in Syria that tried to de-escalate the conflict with Russia, maintain the stability of the Assad regime and fight ISIS without fighting the root causes of ISIS. It’s not an honorable record, but at no point did the US instigate protests or give arms or soldiers to a coup attempt. As of this writing the US and Europe have declined to support their NATO ally Turkey in fighting back against Russian and Syrian forces who have been tightening a noose around free Syrians in Idlib. That is the sum of the US’ involvement in Syria that we can know.
The left hysteria about the Syrian resistance being Islamist Extremists was a sharp 180 degree turn from their rhetoric regarding terrorism during the course of the Iraq war. The line that came down to all of us from Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky was that the September 11 attacks were our come-uppance for the history of US imperialism (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/12/stranger-in-a-strange-land/302349/). So far as I can tell very few committed leftists ever stop to think that maybe a terrorist act cannot really be justified in this way. At some point the terrorist attacks became uncool for the left, and that point was when ISIS and Alqaeda began fighting against Bashar al-Assad.
The self-same people who would have cheered the resistance of Al-Qaeda to the US occupation in Iraq went on to insist that “terrorists” in Syria did not deserve the protection of Europe and the US. The result today is that there is no resistance to the narrative of the war on terror. Yassin al-Haj Saleh comments:
“The priorities of the powerful are the powerful priorities. When the US decides the War on Terror is a priority, it becomes an international priority. With this has come a significant transformation; namely, the securitization of politics, whereby politics becomes focused on security operations and confronting terrorist groups or their sleeper cells. What we have here is not a war fought between conventional armies and international coalitions; nor potentially severe political conflicts; but rather the granting of carte blanche to intelligence agencies to treat immigrants and the citizens of other states, particularly those from the Middle East, in a manner that turns them into right-less and homeless Homo Sacers (to borrow Giorgio Agamben’s concept). The Arab Middle East was avant-garde in this sense of securitizing politics; it is after all a paradise for genocidaires, the deprivation of rights, and immunity for crimes; it represents the future of the world in the age of the War on Terror. Today, the world’s political prisoners are Islamists, where yesterday they had been communists…Moreover, mass extermination and fascism are not accidental developments happening far away “over there” in the Middle East. They are a structural product of an international system that has made the War on Terror its grand narrative, and made state violence the antidote. In other words, there is much political evil in the Western and international diagnosis of terrorism as the core political evil. The Obama administration treated Daesh as a greater evil, and worked to recruit Syrians to fight it on condition that they didn’t fight the regime responsible for 90% of the Syrian death toll; an example illustrating how true it is that terrorism is always the evil, and “the state” always the antidote, even when the latter is privatized and genocidal. In effect, the administration denied Syrians’ moral and political agency, their right to decide their own enemy and their country’s greater evil. This is fundamentally anti-democratic; indeed, it is a perpetuation of Assad’s unrestrained criminality by other means.” (The Impossible Revolution, p. 223).
The left in the US and Europe has won the argument against empire, at least temporarily, by covering over the crimes of Russia and Syria. And now the reigning global order is one where state actors can target civilians with impunity, and this is very bad news for people who don’t have a state power to protect them, like refugees. It is somehow acceptable in the US left to take an attitude of sympathy toward refugees, but at the same time show absolutely no care whatsoever for the circumstances that created those refugees. For instance, almost no one who advocates for Syrian refugees on the US left decries the crimes of the Assad regime or calls for action against it. As Rohini Hensman notes regarding the wave of global sympathy that followed the publishing of the image of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian refugee whose body washed ashore near a Turkish resort:
“Since the picture of Aylan hit headlines across the world, 6 children have been killed in Syria every day -- the majority from barrel bombs and missiles from Syrian government aircraft. But their bloodied and blown apart corpses don’t make the front page of any newspaper. None of the other 10,000 children killed in the fighting have. What broke my heart this week was a cartoon by Neda Kadri, a Syrian artist, that pictured Aylan in heaven being welcomed by children: ‘you are so lucky Aylan! We’re victims of the same war but no one cared about our death.’” (Nolan, 2015, p.I)... the only viable solution to the refugee crisis would be to end the violence that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. That is, however, easier said than done. Ending the Syria crisis would entail, first and foremost, identifying its causes. For some of those who call themselves anti-imperialists, there is only one cause: Western (that is, North American and Western European) imperialism, which is responsible for all the bloodshed…The overall message communicated by the omissions, distortions and outright lies in such accounts is that, firstly, there is no democratic opposition to Assad; and secondly, that it is the West, due to its support for extremist Islamists, that is responsible for most of the current bloodshed in Iraq and Syria, rather than the Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shia militias, and the Iranian and Russian forces. These writers cover up the real causes of the massive exodus, enabling the war crimes and crimes against humanity to continue, leading to more deaths, continuing Islamist radicalisation, and the continuing outflow of refugees” (Hensman, pp1,2,5).
Moreover, this wave of Syrian refugees that occured after Russia began its own bombing campaigns in Syria was part of a broader Russian campaign to undermine the stability of European nations. It was combined with Russian support for far right parties in Germany, for instance, and an intensive propaganda campaign villainizing refugees. Timothy Snyder comments:
“Facing rising numbers of refugees from war in Syria (as well as migrants fleeing Africa), Merkel took an unexpected position: Germany would accept large numbers of refugees, more than its neighbors, more than her voters would have wished. On September 8, 2015, the German government announced that it planned to take half a million refugees per year. By no coincidence, Russia began bombing Syria three weeks later. Speaking at the United Nations on September 28, 2015, Putin proposed a ‘harmonization’ of Eurasia with the European Union. Russia would bomb Syria to generate refugees, then encourage Europeans to panic. This would help the AfD, and thus make Europe more like Russia. Russian bombs began to fall in Syria the day after Putin spoke. Russian aircraft dropped non-precision (“dumb”) bombs from high altitudes. Even if the targets had been military, non-precision bombing would have guaranteed more destruction and more refugees making their way to Europe. But Russia was not generally targeting ISIS bases. Human rights organizations reported the Russian bombing of mosques, clinics, hospitals, refugee camps, water treatment plants and cities in general. In her decision to accept Syrian refugees, Merkel was motivated by the history of the 1930s, when Nazi Germany made its own Jewish citizens into refugees. The Russian response was in effect to say: If Merkel wants refugees, we will provide them, and use the issue to destroy her government and German democracy. Russia supplied not just the refugees themselves, but also the image of them as terrorists and rapists. On Monday, January 11, 2016, a thirteen-year-old German girl of Russian origin, Lisa F., hesitated to return to their home in Berlin. She had once again had problems in school, and the way her family treated her had aroused the attention of authorities. She went to the house of a nineteen-year-old boy, visited with him and his mother, and stayed the night. Lisa F.’s parents reported her missing to the police. She returned home the next day, without her backpack and cell phone. She told her mother a dramatic story of abduction and rape. The police, following up the report of the missing girl, went to the residence of the friend and found her things. By speaking to her friend and his mother, finding the backpack, and reading text messages, they established where Lisa F. had been. When questioned, Lisa F. told the police what had happened: she had not wanted to go home, and had gone elsewhere. A medical examination confirmed that the story she had told her mother was untrue. A Berlin family drama then played as global news on Russian television. On January 16, 2016, a Saturday, Pervyi Kanal presented a version of what Lisa F. had told her parents: she had been abducted by Muslim refugees and gang-raped for an entire night. This was the first of no fewer than forty segments on Pervyi Kanal about an event that, according to a police investigation, had never taken place. In the televised coverage, photographs were pasted from other places and times to add an element of verisimilitude to the story. The Russian propaganda network Sputnik chimed in with the general speculation that refugee rapists were loose in Germany. On January 17, the extreme-Right National Democratic Party organized a demonstration demanding justice for Lisa F. Although only about a dozen people appeared, one of them was an RT cameraman. His footage appeared on YouTube the same day… The information war against Merkel was taken up openly by the Russian state. The Russian embassy in London tweeted that Germany rolled out the red carpet for refugees and then swept their crimes under the carpet.” (TRU, pp.198-200).
The Russian ambitions to extend its empire in the Ukraine, as we discuss on the podcast regarding the Ukraine, led Vladimir Putin to attack Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential campaign and helped Donald Trump get elected. I think it’s past time for a robust discussion of how the left came to this historic defeat, not just in terms of being unable to keep a fascist out of the whitehouse, but having helped to put him there. In the next podcast I’ll return to the history of the US left in the 20th century, to tie all the threads together from the very beginning of this podcast to explain this basic problem revealed by the failure of the left on Syria: that the far left has become a tool for Russian fascism.
Ahmad, Muhhamad Idrees, et al., eds. Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution. Unkant Publishers, 2016.
Dagher, Sam. Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. Hachette UK, 2019.
Hennion, Cecile. Le fil de nos vies brisees. Editions Anne Carriere. Paris, 2019.
Hensman, Rohini. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Majed, Ziad. Syrie, la révolution orpheline. Éditions Actes Sud, 2018.
Music: Waters Will Flow Again, Gabriel Lewis, else Harry
About the Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_First_Committee
July 21st, 2020 | 43 mins 4 secs
albert memmi, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, arab spring, assad, averroes, cia, colonialism, decolonization, enlightenment, faisal darraj, israel, occidentalism, orientalism, palestine, riad saif, saadallah wannous, solidarity, syria, taha hussein, the coup, the middle east
The Syrian revolution, any revolution, should not serve as a confirmation of received political ideas, but rather as a challenge to all that has heretofore been thought. We are not here to supply Syrians with an ideology that would have succeeded in their situation, but to ourselves be transformed in the light and heat of their actions. Some claim that we as Americans must focus on the enemy at home, but if we ourselves cannot show solidarity, cannot feel the need to understand and work together with those harmed by the same rotten world order we benefit from, then we are not ourselves yet able to meet our problems with the appropriate clarity and purpose. What we say and think about Syria has consequences for Syrians, this is true, but graver yet for the American left is what it means about us that we have spoken so recklessly and thought so little.
Hama was the catastrophe that defined the state, that created Assad’s Syria.
A kind of Nakhba occurred in Syria in the 1970s with individual rights being strongly curtailed, and where power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. The culmination of this preventive counter-revolution was the movement against Assad in the 80s, wrongly ascribed as primarily caused by the Muslim Brotherhood, being brutally repressed, as we discussed in the last podcast. Yassin-Kassab and Shami discuss the catastrophe of the early 80s in this way: “Assad’s ‘revolution from above’ involved a general infrastructural modernization as well as grand and ultimately failed projects like the Assad dam on the Euphrates. Most significantly, Assad presided over a massive expansion of the Syrian state. By the 1980s one in every five workers would be employed in the bureaucratic or public sector. The army would grow to over 200,000 men, in addition to the police, various state-Party militias, and at least twelve overlapping security agencies… Assad further outraged his Arabist constituency by supporting Iran against Arab Iraq after 1980, and by joining the US-led coalition to drive Iraq from Kuwait in 1990. Economically, though Syria retained its bureaucratic-socialist character, further waves of liberalization were pushed through in response to recurrent debt crises. These policies, alongside an entrenchment of the crony capitalist elite, meant that by the 1990s ‘an upper class [had] emerged both greater in number and wealthier than the bourgeoisie of the pre-Baathist era… ‘Assad’s Syria’ (as state propaganda called it) was fascist in the most correct sense of that word. It sought to replace class conflict with devotion to the absolute state. Following the fascist corporatist model, the peasants and workers unions, the professional associations, the youth and women’s unions, as well as Party and army, were entirely absorbed into the state machinery. A facade of pluralism was provided by the National Progressive Front, set up in 1976, comprising the Baath and nine smaller parties which accepted the Baath’s leadership -- and by the People’s Assembly, where two-thirds of seats were reserved for baathists. Beneath the froth, Syria’s was a one-party system, and the party was controlled by one man. The state cultivated a surveillance society, everyone spying on everyone else and no one secure in position, not even the top generals and security officers. Hafez stood alone at the apex - the Struggling Comrade, the Sanctified One, the Hero of War and Peace - a rarely seen yet omnipresent leader who governed by telephone.” (BC, pp.12-14).
With the mass murder and razing of Hama in the early 80s, together with massacres and repressions in other places as well, a hard silence fell over Syria. The previous co-opting of Syria’s civil society and the constant threat of violence eradicated any meaningful space for resistance or even a minimum of free expression. Many report being afraid to speak their minds in private, for fear their children might repeat at school what had been said at home resulting in the heads of family disappearing into Assad’s torture camps. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/02/201129103121562395.html. At the same time, the regime ramped up the cult of Assad, compelling the population to attend and participate in mass demonstrations of support for the regime. Sam Dagher recounts Kaled al-Khani’s memory of cowering in a basement with a dozen or so women, old men and small children as the death squad arrived. The crowd was led in a chant of support for Hafez al-Assad that the regime had been forcing people to take up. I’m paraphrasing: “God in heaven your time is done. Assad now takes your place.” (p. 236). That situation, of cowering away from Assad’s forces or his bombs or his chemical weapons, that is an apt metaphor for the situation his rule prepared for the people captured by it. Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar is a classic of dramatized political fiction, on par with Animal Farm or Catch 22. Written on the eve of the revolution, the book vividly describes living conditions in Assad’s Syria. Housewives who couldn’t attend the pro-Assad rally had to tune into it on their television, playing it loudly enough to be heard by their neighbors who would otherwise have to report them. In the afterward to his novel Sirees notes:
“Is it possible for the silence and the roar to co-exist? The answer is most certainly, yes. In countries ruled by people obsessed with supremacy, authoritarians and those who are crazed by power, the ruler or the leader imposes silence upon all those who dare to think outside the prevailing norm. Silence can be the muffling of one’s voice or the banning of one’s publications, as is the case with Fathi Sheen, the protagonist of this novel. Or it might be the silence of a cell in a political prison or, without trying to unnecessarily frighten anyone, the silence of the grave. But this silence is also accompanied by an expansive roar, one that renders thought impossible. Thought leads to individualization, which is the most powerful enemy of the dictator. People must not think about the leader and how he runs the country; they must simply adore him, want to die for him in their adoration of him. Therefore, the leader creates a roar all around him, forcing people to celebrate him, to roar.” (p. 153). For fear of repression by the regime, Sirees originally staged the drama in an unnamed Arab country, but the afterword to the 2013 English version ends with the author saying “my heart is agonizingly heavy about what is happening in Syria, my homeland.” (p.154).
In her 2019 book Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates, Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab has gifted us with a masterful accounting of the enlightenment inspired discussion that preceded and inspired the Syrian revolution. In the late 80s several prominent Syrian intellectuals founded a journal entitled “Qadaya wa-shahadat” (Issues and Testimonies). From 1990 to 1992 the journal would issue six volumes. “The major themes of the journal were rationalism, democracy, modernity, modernization, the nahda (the renaissance), national culture, dependency, tradition, and history.” (p. 105). Crucially, Kassab discusses the nahda from its origins in discussions of the ideas of reason, human rights and freedoms that began in the Arabic speaking world before European colonialism (pp. 3, 151). In so doing, she is able to discuss the role of these ideas in the development of the modern Middle East without identifying the ideas with western culture. Too often, enlightenment ideals are considered as essential to one culture, which implies that some cultures are unsuited to human rights. By originating the debate around freedom and democracy in the 19th century, with thinkers like Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), Kassab avoids both the orientalist narrative that imagines Europe saving the Middle East and the orientalist attitude of the noble savage that imagines enlightenment is alien to the Middle East. I want to note again in passing the irony that enlightenment came to Europe from Syria during the crusades, and we imagine enlightenment reaching Syria from France as a foreign influence. Enlightenment ideals are no more European than they are Arab. Both regions struggle to achieve and maintain democratic institutions.
Syrian enlightenment thinkers all recognized the influence of Taha Hussein. Hussein promoted the ideas that enlightenment required democracy and robust modern education, that religion had to be understood in historical context and that there were no cultures that were better at understanding and affirming enlightenment ideals such as human rights. In Egypt enlightenment figures like Taha Hussein and Murad Wahba were enlisted to promote secularism in the name of the state that arose from the Officers’ coup that catapulted Abdul Nasser into power in 1952. The evolving authoritarian tendency in the Egyptian government put these intellectuals in the horns of a dilemma. They were given paid positions in the Egyptian government and were hence free to criticize traditional religious authority, but on the other hand they couldn’t prepare the kind of popular enlightenment that radical democrats, like Marx, would advocate because doing so would challenge the authority of the government. This is known as Wahba’s paradox. Because secular ideas were closely associated with the Egyptian state, religious reaction was able to pose as a discourse of opposition.
The situation in Syria was different. Kassab identifies two moments in the Syrian enlightenment: the one Sisyphean and the other Promethian. In Syria two conditions precluded intellectuals from falling into the Wahba Paradox: (1) the Syrian government didn’t hire thinkers who were free to say whatever they wanted (the Wahba paradox comes from the hypocrisy of the intellectual’s claims and government practice), (2) high Assadism was founded on the bones of Hama, on framing opposition as Islamist and using that as an excuse to crush all opposition. In this context, people who asked uncomfortable questions, as Sa’adallah Wannous did in his 1969 play discussing how Hafez al-Assad’s performance in 1967 sacrificed the Palestinian cause for the sake of securing Assad’s own power, such productions were censored. The result was that calls for public education and popular democracy were always framed as opposition discourses. On the other hand, not benefitting, as Hussein and Wahba had, from government support, these thinkers had a more limited audience. The journal Wannous published along with other thinkers like Faysal Darraj stands as a testimony to the quiet work done by these intellectuals. Six issues of Qadaya wa Shahadat (Issues and Testimonies) were published between 1990 and 1992. Faysal Darraj was born in 1942: his family fled Palestine for Damascus in 1948. His work underscores how the post-independence state in Syria and Egypt became authoritarian, oppressing its citizens with inequality, lack of democracy and human rights, and an inauthentic identity that was supposed to be inimical to these values. Crucially, these intellectuals were identifying freedom, democracy and human rights as values independent of cultural origin, items that Arabs aspired to out of basic humanity and not as an expression of occidentalism (Kassab, p. 115). This work was Sisiphean in that it was done not in a real expectation it would cause immediate change, but because in such a situation one cannot do otherwise. In the words of Saadallah Wannous’ address to UNESCO for World Theater Day in 1996: “We are sentenced to hope that what is happening today is not the end of history” (Wannous in Myers & Saab, p. 390). A year after this speech, Wannous died of cancer. Darraj is still alive, and would play an important role in the Promethean moment that followed.
After Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, there was genuine hope for liberal reforms that could open the space for public expression and democratic reform of the government.
In mid-August, a few days before Bashar al-Assad’s inaugural address, Riad al-Turk published an important essay in An-Nahar. Unlike the leader of the Syrian Communist Party who swore allegiance to Hafez al-Assad's Baath party, Riad al-Turk refused to give up the independence of his party to the Syrian state, and formed the Syrian Communist Party Political Bureau. For his political opposition to the regime in 1980 Al-Turk was arrested and imprisoned for the next 18 years (Kassab, p. 146). Al-Turk has been called “Syria’s Mandela” (Yassin-Kassab and Shami, p. 21).
His mid-August of 2000 essay was entitled: “Min gyayr al-mumkin an tadhall suriya mamlakat al samt” (It is not possible that Syria remains the kingdom of silence). Quothe Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab: “The main theme of his article was the fear that had come to dominate life in the country: people fearing the absolute and corrupt power of the regime, and people fearing each other for lack of trust, created by the security agencies through decades of voluntary and involuntary denunciations. Al-Turk called on Syrians to remember their history did not begin with Assad rule and that it would not end with it. He exhorted them to recall the more democratic past, in which even the Baath Party had expressed the genuine will of a certain constituency, unlike the mass party that became a puppet of Assad’s power. He gave the example of the Soviet Communist Party, which eventually collapsed, despite its official massive following. The problem, he wrote, was not Bashar al-Assad the person, but the power mechanisms that made him president, transforming the republic into a hereditary system of family rule. The republic, he recalled, had been built by Syrians struggling against colonialism and foreign interference. It needed to be preserved, not least because it was the only system that could tackle the country’s problems. The first step to reinstating republican democracy was lifting the weight of fear and silence through the peaceful mobilization of all sectors of society.” (pp.146-147).
In mid-September Riad Seif announced the first of many public fora to discuss potential reform. Hundreds were attracted to the initiative. Around Syria a number of public fora were organized where people debated ideas to reform the country. In September of 2000 a statement calling for democratic rights and the release of political prisoners was published; it is known as the Statement of the 99 (BC, p. 17). It was followed by a similar statement in January of 2001 called the statement of the 1001. The main organizers of the fora were all arrested, and the last of these arrests happened on September 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center that day were not the first or last time that the spectacle of violent terrorism would eclipse attempts in Syria at democratic reform.
Did these ideas inspire the mass protests of 2011? Kassab comments: “Were the moves of the Syrian intelligentsia involved in the Damascus Spring naive, politically unsavvy, and doomed from the outset? Were they isolated acts of an estranged elite, disconnected from people at large? Were the risks taken by speaking up and acting on ideas of civil mobilization worth their while, given the predictable price? Whatever the answers to such questions, events, including the outbreak of massive demonstrations in March 2011, showed that the ideas, moves, and people involved in the Damascus Spring were not disconnected from the general mood of the country. They seem to have been in tune with the pervasive alarm at the deterioration of things politically, economically, and socially, with the urgent need to address that deterioration rationally and publicly, and with the despair and humiliation that kept on growing in large sectors of society. Those ideas, minus the moves, were also there in the 1990s writings of the Sisypheans. To the question ‘Where are the intellectuals?’ so often heard at the outself of protest movements across the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Syria, one should answer by pointing out all those writings (and sometimes moves) produced by Arab critical thinkers during the long years that preceded those movements. I am not arguing that the writings and ideas led to the movements in some causal way. Rather, I am noting the similarity of concerns, yearnings, and endeavors expressed by the writings of the Sisypheans, the moves of the Prometheans, and the demands of the Syrian protesters.” (147-148).
Protests broke out in Syria in 2011, first in Damascus’ Hareeqa neighborhood that had twice been leveled when it rebelled against the French occupation, and then in Daraa, sparked by the regime jailing and torturing a few teenagers for an act of vandalism. They had tagged a wall with “You’re time is come, doctor,” meaning that Bashar al-Assad would be the next tyrant to fall. Protests began with the simple aim of getting the regime to release the teenagers, but that must have immediately reminded Syrians of all the people they had lost to regime prisons over the years, all of their loved ones still in jail for simply speaking their mind. The social system of mutual spying that had been active for decades means that to protest against the Syrian system of mass incarceration could only mean people were choosing to connect again to each other instead of to the fear they had been living under. People who had never dared to have a political conversation in private now discovered that their friends and neighbors, and even entire cities, all wanted the same thing they wanted: to be free from this regime of death. Each protestor not only had to overcome the fear that they might be killed at the protest, but also the fear that the other people at the protest could denounce them. Protestors had to trust each other, and in risking their lives together they earned that trust. The nation of Syria was stirring to the first task of common governance: the defense of the people from those who would enslave and devour them. Wendy Pearlman is one journalist who made it her business to collect first hand accounts of the early protest movement: “One week after the start of protests in Daraa, tens of thousands joined in demonstrations across the country. The regime’s response -- offering some measures of appeasement while suppressing gatherings with force- sparked further indignation and resolve. A widespread expression captured what this historic moment meant for those who discovered themselves and their nation in its unfolding: Syrians broke the barrier of fear…
[Shadi an accountant from rural Hama] My first demonstration was better than my wedding day. And when my wife heard me say that, she refused to talk to me for a month…
[Sana, graphic designer from Damascus] I was very scared on my way to the demonstration. It was night. We put scarves over our faces so the security forces couldn’t recognize us and walked through narrow streets to the square. The square was lit and people were playing music, with drums and flute. I don’t know who grabbed my hands from the left or from the right, but we started singing and dancing and jumping. It was a party to overthrow the regime. At that moment I didn’t care about anything else. I was so happy. It was a moment that I will never forget for the rest of my life: the moment I stood together with strangers, dancing and shouting to overthrow Bashar…
[Waddah, graduate from Latakia] We got to the street and found about two thousand people demonstrating. I started to cry. I was sorry that I had rejected my nationality. I was sorry that I had insulted these people and said that they were cowards. I thought, ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You are my brothers. You are my people. You are extraordinary.” (Pearlman, pp. xxxix-xI, 82-85).
[Majd al-Dik, a child care social worker] “One day I dared to raise a slogan of my own creation, and I heard thousands of voices take up the refrain. My entire being trembled. I felt that I was respected and valued, despite my not having money or diplomas, the two principle sources of prestige before the revolution” –from A l'est de Damas, au bout du monde: Témoignage d'un révolutionnaire syrien by Mohamed Majd Al Dik [my translation].
[anonymous] “More people flooded in. Freedom is like a magnet; it attracts the people that have been silenced for too long… The chance is now available to speak up about the duty, to scream in the face of the suppressor, to prove all these identities that have been concealed by a tyrannical iron fist. Speeches were then delivered from the Clock’s platform; a woman takes a turn, then an activist, then a sheikh, then an enthusiastic young man.” –an eye witness describes the protest funeral procession in Homs of 18 April, 2011, from Burning Country, p43
“Al-Mahmoud Mosque was one of three main ones in town. Curious to see what was happening elsewhere, Suleiman and an older cousin drove to Al-Kabir Mosque…Men were in the courtyard putting on their shoes, others were streaming out barefoot when a single brazen cry shot out: ‘We want freedom!’… The youngster could have been heckled or beaten and handed over to one of the three mukhabarat offices in the town, or to the local Baath Party chapter. Instead, the men outside the mosque, including Suleiman, erupted into the chant. They surged down the main thoroughfare, Revolution Street, named for the 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power. Rastan had crossed the regime’s red line. All it took after forty-eight years was a student’s cry.” (from Suleiman’s story in No Turning Back, by Rania Abouzeid, pp7-8.).
Wherever protests happened, armed units from the army or from one of the dozen or so wings of internal security were summoned to massacre protestors. The forces thus employed were chosen for their ethnic compositions: Alawite and Druze units specifically chosen to massacre protestors in Sunni areas. The Free Syrian Army was formed with defectors who refused to fire on their countrymen, just the same way that the Russian military defected to the side of the revolution against the Czar in 1917.
We have to discuss the regime’s massacres to understand the methods and reasons for the extreme violence used by the Syrian regime. Assad’s regime was verifiably responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million people since the beginning of the revolution as of 2016 when keeping track became much more difficult ( http://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/The_Societys_Holocaust.pdf
). Thousands have been shot and bombed at peaceful protests: others have been summarily executed when they refused to fire on protestors. Of the 56 sectarian massacres that have occurred since 2011, 49 have been committed by the regime. Often these massacres were targeted at communities as collective punishment for their assertion of the rights to free speech and assembly. Other times these massacres were directed at minority communities along with the targeting of Sunni religious sites to incite ethnic tension (Burning Country, p.112; and Ziad Majed p.72). Assad’s regime has used rape as a collective punishment ( https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/syria-has-a-massive-rape-crisis/274583/
). Starting in August of 2012 the Assad regime began dropping barrel bombs on the civilian populations in free parts of Syria (Yazbek, p. 220). Essentially a barrel filled with sharp metal shrapnel and explosives, the barrel bomb cannot be guided or targeted: it is dropped indiscriminately on civilian areas so that the earthquake of force and painful death and maiming it unleashes can terrorize whoever lives where it is dropped. As Syrians have exhaustively documented, being taken to one of Syria’s jails is a near certain death sentence, as was confirmed in a report by Amnesty International (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/07/up-to-13000-secretly-hanged-in-syrian-jail-says-amnesty). The regime specifically targeted hospitals in rebel held areas, leaving not one available, for instance, to serve a population of 200,000 in the final weeks of the siege and shelling of East Aleppo. Funerals have been targeted because they are sites of protest, yes, but also because they are moments for entire villages and neighborhoods to come together. The violence committed by the Assad regime is not senseless: it is meant to tear apart communities, to shred the public space, to pulverize the social fabric, to silence any voice that is not approved by the state embodied in Bashar al-Assad, and to commit such horrors that entire peoples will be irrevocably divorced. It’s not enough to kill his enemies, Assad has to kill the experience of collective action for freedom and democracy, unleashed by the Arab Spring. Such atrocities are only possible because the world has consigned the Syrian people to the shadows.
One of the Assad regime’s atrocities was the fostering of religious extremism. Remember how he murdered moderate leaders of the Hama protest movement in the early 80s? He did the same thing on a larger scale after 2011. In the next podcast I will get into foreign involvement in the Syrian revolution, including the US, ISIS, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and so on. I will also go in depth about the Sarin gas attack of 2013. But in this podcast, I want to focus on those most directly affected, on the Syrians who defied Assad.
Within the zones that were freed from the regime, Syrians established a form of direct democracy that we should hold on par with the Paris Commune. As early as March, 2011 protest leaders began organizing Local Coordinating Committees, soviets where all were equal that became the government in freed areas of Syria (BC, pp. 39,57). These committees were inspired by the writings of Omar Aziz, and in the city they began in, Douma, activists set up women’s centers to advocate against gender discrimination (BC, p. 125). Everything the progressive movement in the United States has been working towards, Syrians also worked towards while simultaneously fighting for the lives against a vicious regime. From Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami:
“Omar Aziz (fondly known to friends as Abu Kamel) was born in Damascus. An economist, anarchist, husband and father, he returned from exile in 2011 at the age of 63 and committed himself to the revolution. Working with locals to distribute humanitarian aid to suburbs under regime attack, he was inspired by the diverse actions he came across - the various forms of protest as well as the solidarity and mutual aid within and between communities, including voluntary provision of emergency medical and legal support, turning homes into field hospitals, and food collection. He saw in such acts ‘the spirit of the Syrian people’s resistance to the brutality of the system, the systematic killing and destruction of community.’ Aziz believed that protests alone were insufficient to bring about a radical transformation, and that a new society had to be built from the bottom up to challenge authoritarian structures and transform value systems. He produced a paper in the revolution’s eighth month, when the movement was still largely peaceful and before land was liberated, in which he advocated the establishment of local councils.” (BC. p68).
In Ghouta Majd al-Dik organized child day-care services for war orphans (Majd al-Dik). Countless such grassroots initiatives sprouted up around Syria, filling the vacuum left with the withdrawal of the regime. A whole series of podcasts should be done on just the various diy media initiatives that came about because of the revolution (BC, pp. 61, 163-182). Haitham al-Maleh and Razan Zeitouneh helped to found the Human Rights Association in Syria, which provides legal support to detainees and the families of detainees. Thanks to local organizing around Syria we know how many people were killed by the regime, prior to 2016 (Majd al-Dik, p. 205,). All such organizations were illegal in Syria under a 1958 law against the forming of civil society groups without government permission.
In Daraya locals collected books for a library: each book had its origin documented so that one day it could be returned to its owner who had evacuated or whose building had been destroyed by regime bombs (Minoui); their story gives us a fascinating view into the intellectual climate in the leadership circles of the revolution. Theirs was the first library free of regime control any of them had ever known. Some of their favorites were the movie Amelie, Ibn Khaldun’s 15th century secular masterpiece on historical change al-Muqadimmah, and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In this revolutionary book club of Daraya, the group experienced an enthusiasm for The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and organized two Skype conferences with experts about the book (Minoui, p.83). Under constant bombing, within a starvation siege, this group was focused on personal growth!
The typical course of events in the liberated zones involved the regime allowing ISIS to enter and take control, destroying these grassroots efforts in the process, and then escalating bombing campaigns before a negotiated surrender. Those who surrendered were bussed to Idlib, which is today the site of an intense struggle between Turkey and Russia with Syrian civilians in the crossfire. Since 2015 Russia has been targeting Syrian civilians with intensive bombing alongside Syrian chemical attacks to eradicate or expel the Syrian population. The massive wave of refugees that occured in 2015 is a result of this bombardment, and by all indications it was engineered alongside a media campaign to destabilize European governments and lift up the far right there. In his masterful Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder discusses how Russia created this refugee crisis and then coordinated a media campaign at the same time to demonize Syrian refugees, but that’s for the next podcast.
There are people who, on the rare occasion that they think about Syria, imagine the conflict there occurred because of climate change. It’s fine to point out that poor agricultural yields contributed to people’s general discontent, but leaving the analysis there is inadequate. Agriculture had been industrializing for decades in Syria, with scores of people being robbed of their family farms for several decades. There were neoliberal reforms going on that stripped communities of social services. There was the strain on public services that refugees from Iraq were causing. All of this is true. I want to recall to our listeners Marx’s central insight in Capital Volume 1: that the root of all this evil is treating people as though they were mere objects, mere chess pieces on our board, and not capable of taking actions to affect change in their own lives. I have tried to discuss the Syrian revolution from a different angle: by taking seriously the ideas that drove it forward. I’ve been unearthing here for you the work of enlightenment thinkers within Syria and Egypt throughout the history of the last half century so that you could understand the context the Arab Spring happened in. The Arab Spring happens in a context where ideals of human rights, democracy and freedom are seizing hold of masses of people and compelling them into action. In all the previous podcasts in this series, I have explained why it is that the world’s progressives have fallen into a crisis of faith. We have been criticising liberal hypocrisy without affirming the basic rightness of those values and human rights. The result is that we have stopped championing human rights. There are many of us who haven’t made the step to explicitly give up on human rights as a total con, but there are many in our movement, most spectacularly Tulsi Gabbard, who have done this in practice. One place that the US abandoned in this way in particular is Syria, where we have de facto if not de jure declared liberal values as fundamentally insupportable, and that is the story I want to tell in the next podcast.
Abouzeid, Rania. No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. WW Norton & Company, 2018.
al-Dik, Majd and Nathalie Bontemps (tr). A l'est de Damas, au bout du monde. Témoignage d'un révolutionnaire syrien: Témoignage d'un révolutionnaire syrien. Don Quichotte, 2016.
Dagher, Sam. Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. Hachette UK, 2019.
Kassab, Elizabeth Suzanne. Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates. Columbia University Press, 2019.
Majed, Ziad. Syrie, la révolution orpheline. Éditions Actes Sud, 2018.
Minoui, Delphine. Les Passeurs de livres de Daraya: Une biblioteque secrete en Syrie. Editions du Seuil, 2017.
Pearlman, Wendy R. We crossed a bridge and it trembled: Voices from Syria. Custom House, 2017.
Sentence to Hope: A Sa'dallah Wannous Reader. Yale University Press, 2019.
Sirees, Nihad. The Silence and the Roar. Pushkin Press, 2013.
Yassin-Kassab, Robin, and Leila Al-Shami. Burning country: Syrians in revolution and war. Pluto Press, 2018.
Yazbek, Samar. The Crossing: My journey to the shattered heart of Syria. Rider Books, 2015.
Music: Reynard Seidel, Uprising, else Harry
July 16th, 2020 | 1 hr 8 mins
anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, arabs, assad, cia, colonialism, decolonization, hezbollah, israel, joseph daher, kurdish, kurds, occidentalism, orientalism, palestine, pkk, pyd, solidarity, syria, the ceasar act, the coup, the middle east
Joseph Daher is an internationalist, a Socialist, a Swiss-Syrian revolutionary and academic working in Switzerland.
His most recent:
Syria, We want to live
COVID-19 and the Syrian Regime – an Opportunity to Tighten its Authoritarian Control over Society
Syria, The Wages of Destruction
‘State institutions and regime networks as service providers in Syria’
“Invisible Sanctions: How over-compliance limits humanitarian work on Syria Challenges of Fund Transfer for Non-Profit Organizations Working on Syria”
Hezbollah, Neoliberalism and Political Economy
The Syrian Presidential Palace Strengthens its Concentration of Power: The Rift Makhlouf-Assad
Historical Lessons of the Syrian Revolution – A CRITICAL BALANCE SHEET
Popular protest is back in the Middle East
The ‘Caesar Bill’: A step towards accountability in Syria, or a worsening economic crisis?
July 7th, 2020 | 1 hr 4 mins
albert memmi, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, arabs, assad, cia, colonialism, decolonization, israel, occidentalism, orientalism, palestine, solidarity, syria, the coup, the middle east
Albert Memmi was a Tunisian Jew born in 1920, a philosopher and political thinker educated at the Sorbonne. He was also an activist and revolutionary who fought for Tunisian independence, which was achieved in 1952. The new state of Tunisia made Islam the official religion of state and published several anti-Jewish decrees, so Memmi found himself officially excluded from a state which he had supported before its founding and indeed continued to support. Memmi’s book The Colonizer and the Colonized is a brilliant analysis of the impact of the colonial situation on both the colonized, which he identified with as a Tunisian, and the colonizer, which he identified with as a Jewish Tunisian, which identity gave him a slight privilege relative to his fellow Tunisians in the colonial hierarchy. Since this is a podcast about the US left, before I enter into a discussion of the Middle East, I want to dwell a moment on Memmi’s cutting perceptions of colonizer allyship. Afterwards I’m going to briefly go over the long history of Syria before offering a criticism of the nationalist regime of Hafez al-Assad. By the end of this podcast we will understand why the Arab Spring announced the failure of the anti-colonial project in the Middle East, and why this failure didn’t register with certain western leftists.
Western leftists typically feel a contradiction between the need to show solidarity with anti-colonial movements and the need to champion human rights when those movements fall short. Terrorism, for instance, is a tactic that causes a lot of damage and harm to civilian populations, and the leftist who feel the need for solidarity with independence movements practicing terrorism has to compartmentalize their politics. In one box is the right to life and liberty. In the other box is the anti-colonial struggle. For the third campist radical there can never be a moment when the right to life in the one box is allowed to peak into the anti-colonialist box. Even paying attention to human rights abuses by third world governments is considered a betrayal. Crucially, Memmi sees in this inability to hold anti-colonialist rebels to the same standard as we hold our own governments as a further form of racism. To imagine that terrorism is a natural event, one completely beyond the ability of colonized people to understand or control or resist, is to frame the colonized subject as subhuman. Like any such relationship where someone, in this case a patronizing western leftist, imagines themselves to have agency while an other, in this case the colonized terrorist, while that other does not, the relationship disfigures the humanity of both. The colonizer ally who decides that what a colonized person does is beyond ethics then has to ascribe to a kind of racial hierarchy where certain peoples, the proletarian nations as some thinkers call them, are allowed to murder indiscriminately, can have legitimate governments who do so, and where certain other governments, western ones, must be held up to perhaps impossibly high standards. This is how Memmi thinks we reached a moment where leftists take a totally permissive attitude towards every nationalist movement worldwide no matter how awful, except Israel whom they imagine should self-immolate. Memmi, as a self described Arab Jew and left Zionist represents a challenge to us about our basic values. He never renounced the cause of Tunisian independence, never championed the rights of one group at the expense of the rights of another and while it is true he supported Israel’s right to self defense he never failed to extend the same to Palestinians and Arabs. He finds that denouncing all tyranny at the same time is less hypocritical than favoring a supposed underdog. What he represents then, is the challenge to morally hypocritical thinking about the conflict as such. To the manichean left, there are proletarian and bourgeois nations, whole nations of angels and devils. It’s not that much different from the absolute enemy/friend thinking of white supremacists. If Bashar al-Assad has to murder Sunnis to stay in power that is fine, but if Israel fails to stop west bank expansion then Israel should be abolished. The naturalization of this hierarchy of legitimate national struggles (Syria) and illegitimate ones (Israel) is a consequence of the original hypocrisy according to which the murder of innocent people is okay if its done by anti-colonialists. The idea that brutal dictatorships in the Middle East are legitimate governments held by a certain kind of US leftist, and the willingness of the US government to lend strategic support to those dictatorships, for instance the longstanding support of Saddam Hussein that ended in the 90s, were both challenged by the Arab Spring. It turns out that Middle Eastern people are not satisfied living under authoritarian governments, and that those governments deployed an anti-semitic rhetoric without really doing much to help the Palestinians. Memmi was particularly well positioned to understand this patronizing version of allyship according to which the anti-colonialist is not subject to any kind of ethical constraint, because Memmi had supported independence and then suffered oppression at the hands of the Tunisian government he helped to establish. I’ll say it again, why not? It never gets old, and I’m not sure it’s been understood: there are no angels or devils in power. In power there are only tradeoffs between values, and the people who have to make those tradeoffs based on limited information. Memmi was able to support an anti-colonial independence movement and at the same time criticize it, and that is a good example to the rest of us. But the US left still seems to see America as an absolute enemy, and sees those who declare themselves America’s enemies as beyond criticism. It’s a superstition, and like the monarchist ideology of the pre-modern period it rests on a conception of the world where political relationships are natural, are fore-ordained, where authority is not about probity or clarity, democracy or popular unity, but based on the authority of persons. And because this new divinely ordained political hierarchy is founded on generalizations, I want to attack it by investigating the specific situation in Syria.
“The people should not fear their government, read a placard in Cairo’s central Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square. Governments should fear their people. The message captured the moment as hundreds of thousands of democracy activists descended on central Cairo… One day in March, a group of rebellious youths painted slogans from the Arab revolutions of 2011 on a wall in Deraa (Syria). The people want the fall of the regime, they proclaimed.” (Rogan, The Arabs, pp. 508,509).
I wanted to put these voices first, voices from the Egyptian and Syrian revolutions. I’ll be using extensive quotations throughout these episodes on Syria, to lift up the voices of those most directly affected: at the same time, I should give an explanation now of where I’m speaking from. I was born in 1978 in Memphis TN. I graduated from the University of Memphis with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy in 2001, and that Spring I joined the Navy. In the Navy I learned Arabic, and when my enlistment was over in 2008 I lived in Egypt for four months. When the revolution happened there in 2011 it was happening down the street from where I used to live, happening to people who were my friends. It was from that moment I began engaging with politics in a different way. Among other things, this podcast is another attempt to come to terms with that engagement, to make an accounting for it. I was able to translate various articles and statements into and out of Arabic for various revolutionary groups. At the time I felt guilt for having contributed to US wars overseas, and I felt like I was giving something back. Still today, if anyone listening in the revolutionary movement in the Middle East needs translations done please @ me. I’m good at it, and I’ll work for free. This engagement with the Middle East is why I am a socialist. I hope that’s the most I ever have to talk about myself, but I felt my audience deserved an explanation of why I do this work.
I want to talk about the history of Syria and the Arab Spring in chronological order with attention paid to certain places and their particular history over time. Hopefully, the material is accessible to all, but interesting to those who know the history well. In the passages that follow I have focused somewhat on historical turning points. I think it’s tempting to imagine that the region has been at war for thousands of years when history is presented this way. This is deeply unfortunate. The history shows long periods of stability and peace punctuated by occasionally violent moments of change. The one constant in Syria’s history from ancient times is its contact with the whole world, as a crossroads between east and west. It seems clear now that without the crusades the western enlightenment would have been impossible since the west had long since forgotten and lost Greek philosophy, including our patron saint Epicurus. Averroes’ treatises on Aristotle occasionally broke through in the West, every couple of centuries, resulting in inquisitions and repression. The idea that what happens in the world is not fore-ordained seems coupled permanently with the ability of people to hope for change. Far from being foreign to a Syrian context, it is literally from the Syrians that it comes to Europe. It is deeply ironic that many perceive, inside and outside the Middle East, that cultural modernity, the enlightenment, political rights, are considered alien to the Middle East when that is precisely the land that preserved those ideas for nearly a thousand years. Syria is as much the birthplace of democracy as Greece, for without the former no European would have known the latter. Sitting where it does in the fertile crescent, Syria is the birthplace of civilization and the exact place where the plurality of human cultures has always be forced into encounter. People familiar with the Syrian revolution will find the roots of the oppositions cosmopolitanism in the international trade system which made the Ghoutta, a green suburb of Damascus, fertile territory for a merchants guild under the Ottomans. That guild system, and the relative political and economic independence it developed over centuries from whatever tyrant ruled locally, became the social basis for resistance to French colonialism and later to the Assad dynasty (Battatu, p. 98). Syria is the hinge of world history, and if at this moment Syrian reality seems as grim as the worst moments in that history, we should heed what possibilities it heralds. We’ll start far enough back that we get an idea of what made a place like Syria possible.
From Hourani: “To the north, the Arabian peninsula joins a second area, the Fertile Crescent: the crescent-shaped land running around the rim of the Hamad or Syrian desert, which is a norther extension of the steppe and desert of Najd. This is a land of ancient and distinctive civilization, overlaid in the western half by those of Greece and Rome, and in the eastern by that of Iran; it was here, rather than in the peninsula, that the specific society and culture of Islam had developed. The wester half of the Fertile Crescent forms an area known to an earlier generation of scholars and travellers as ‘Syria.”... Behind a coastal strip of plain there is a range of highlands, rising in the centre to the mountains of Lebanon and sinking in the south to the hills of Palestine. Beyond them, to the east, lies a hollow, part of the Great Rift which runs through the Dead Sea and the Red Sea into east Africa. Beyond this again is another region of highlands, the great plain or plateau of the interior which changes gradually into the steppe and desert of the Hamad. In some places, ancient systems of irrigation used the water of the Orontes and smaller rivers to maintain fertile oases, in particular that lying around the ancient city of Damascus.” (pp90-91).
Hourani: “Syria was linked closely with the rest of the eastern Mediterranean basin, by sea-routes from its ports and by the land-route running along the coast to Egypt… The combination of long-distance trade with the production of a surplus of foodstuffs and raw materials had made possible the growth of large cities, lying in the inner plains but linked with the coast -- Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the centre.” (p91).
Hourani: “When Muhammad died, there was a moment of confusion among his followers. One of their leaders, Abu Bakr, proclaimed to the community: ‘O men, if you worship Muhammad, Muhammad is dead; if you worship God, God is alive.’... Abu Bakr, a follower of the first hour, whose daughter ‘A’isha was wife to the Prophet… and his successors soon found themselves called upon to exercise leadership over a wider range than the Prophet… When he died, the alliances he had made with tribal chiefs threatened to dissolve; some of them now rejected his prophetic claims… Faced with this challenge, the community under Abu Bakr affirmed its authority by military action (the ‘wars of the ridda’); in the process an army was created, and the momentum of action carried it into the frontier regions of the great empires… In the space of a few years, then, the political frontiers of the Near East had been changed and the centre of political life had moved from the rich and populous lands of the Fertile Crescent to a small town lying on the edge of the world of high culture and wealth. The change was so sudden and unexpected that it needs explanation. Evidence uncovered by archaeologists indicates that the prosperity and strength of the Mediterranean world were in decline because of barbarian invasions, failure to maintain terraces and other agricultural works, and the shrinking of the urban market. Both Byzantine and Sasanian Empires had been weakened by epidemics of plague and long wars; the hold of the Byzantines over Syria had been restored only after the defeat of the Sasanians in 629, and was still tenuous. The Arabs who invaded the two empires were not a tribal horde but an organized force… When Mu’awiya died, he was succeeded by his son, who was followed briefly by his own son; after that there was a second period of civil war and the throne passed to another branch of the family. The change was more than one of rulers. The capital of the empire moved to Damascus, a city lying in a countryside able to provide the surplus needed to maintain a court, government and army, and a region from which the eastern Mediterranean coastlands and the land to the east of them could be controlled more easily than from Madina.” (pp 25-26)
Maalouf: “On 21 October 1097 shouts rang out from the peak of the citadel of Antioch, then Syria’s largest city: ‘They are here!’ A few layabouts hurried to the ramparts to gawk, but they could see nothing… The Franj [European crusaders] were still a day’s march away…”(pp 17,18)
“Ibn al-Qalanisi tells us that in Damascus Yaghi-Syan’s son spoke of holy war. But in Syria in the eleventh century, jihad was no more than a slogan brandished by princes in distress. No emir would rush to another’s aid unless he had some personal interest in doing so… Providence seemed unable to decide which of these two exhausted and demoralized armies to favour during that June of 1098. But then an extraordinary event brought about a decision….Sensing that he [Atabeg Karbuqa] was losing control of his troops…[he] asked the Franj for a truce. This merely demolished the last of his prestige in the eyes of his own army and emboldened the enemy. The Franj charged without even responding to his offer… Realizing his mounting isolation, the Atabeg ordered a general retreat, which immediately degenerated into a rout… Most serious of all was that after this day of shame, there was no longer any force in Syria capable of checking the invaders’ advance.” (21,22).
It was 11 December , a pitch-dark night, and the Franj did not yet dare to penetrate the town. The notables of Ma’arra made contact with Bohemond, the new master of Antioch, who was leading the attackers. The Frankish commander promised to spare the lives of the inhabitants if they would stop fighting and withdraw from certain buildings. Desperately placing their trust in his word, the families gathered in the houses and cellars of the city and waited all night in fear. The Franj arrived at dawn. It was carnage. For three days they put people to the sword, killing more than a hundred thousand people and taking many prisoners… In Ma’arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled. The inhabitants of towns and villages near Ma’arra would never read this confession by the Frankish chronicler Dadulph of Caen, but they would never forget what they had seen and heard… (38,39).
Maalouf: “The Franj had taken the holy city on Friday, the twenty-second day of the month of Sha’ban, in the year of the Hegira 492, or 15 July 1099, after a forty-day siege. The exiles still trembled when they spoke of the fall of the city.. Two days later, when the killing stopped, not a single Muslim was left alive within the city walls. Some had taken advantage of the chaos to slip away, escaping through gates battered down by the attackers. Thousands of others lay in pools of blood on the doorsteps of their homes or alongside the mosques...The sack of Jerusalem, starting point of a millenial hostility between Islam and the West, aroused no immediate sensation. It would be nearly half a century before the Arab East would mobilize against the invader, before the call to jihad issued by the qadi of Damascus in the caliph’s diwan would be celebrated in commemoration of the first solemn act of resistance.” (xvi).
Maalouf: “If the West had sought, through its successive invasions, to contain the thrust of Islam, the result was exactly the opposite. Not only were the Frankish states of the Middle East uprooted after two centuries of colonization, but the Muslims had so completely gained the upper hand that before long, under the banner of the Ottoman Turks, they would seek to conquer Europe itself. In 1453 they took Constantinople. By 1529 their cavalry was encamped at the walls of Vienna… At the time of the Crusades, the Arab world, from Spain to Iraq, was still the intellectual and material repository of the planet’s most advanced civilization. Afterwards, the centre of world history shifted decisively to the West. Is there a cause-and-effect relationship here? Can we go so far as to claim that the Crusades marked the beginning of the rise of Western Europe -- which would gradually come to dominate the world -- and sounded the death knell of Arab civilization? Although not completely false, such an assessment requires some modification. During the years prior to the Crusades, the Arabs suffered from certain ‘weaknesses’ that the Frankish presence exposed, perhaps aggravated, but by no means created. The people of the Prophet had lost control of their own destiny as early as the ninth century. Their leaders were practically all foreigners...The second ‘weakness’ of the Arabs, not unrelated to the first, was their inability to build stable institutions. The Franj succeeded in creating genuine state structures as soon as they arrived in the Middle East. In Jerusalem rulers generally succeeded one another without serious clashes; a council of the kingdom exercised effective control over the policy of the monarch, and the clergy had a recognized role in the workings of power. Nothing of the sort existed in the Muslim states. Every monarchy was threatened by the death of its monarch, and every transmission of power provoked civil war… (261,262) In all domains the Franj learned much in the Arab school, in Syria as in Spain and Sicily. What they learned from the Arabs was indispensable in their subsequent expansion. The heritage of Greek civilization was transmitted to Western Eruope through Arab intermediaries, both translators and continuators. In medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geography, mathematics, and architecture, the Franj drew their knowledge from Arabic books, which they assimilated, imitated, and then surpassed. Many words bear testimony to this even today: zenith, nadir, azimuth, algebra, algorithm, [almanac] and more simply, cipher. In the realm of industry, the Europeans first learned and then later improved upon the processes used by the Arabs in paper-making, leather-working, textiles, and the distillation of alcohol and sugar -- two more words borrowed from the Arabic language...Although the epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these holy wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism. Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile -- attitudes that grew steadily worse as the world-wide evolution, a process from which the Muslim world felt excluded, continued. Modernism became alien. Should cultural and religious identity be affirmed by rejecting this modernism, which the West symbolized? Or, on the contrary, should the road of modernization be embarked upon with resolution, thus risking loss of identity? Neither Iran, nor Turkey, nor the Arab world has ever succeeded in resolving this dilemma. Even today we can observe a lurching alternation between phases of forced Westernization and phases of extremist, strongly xenophobic traditionalism...Today, on the eve of the third millenium, the political and religious leaders of the Arab world constantly refer to Saladin, to the fall of Jerusalem and its recapture. In the popular mind, and in some official discourse too, Israel is regarded as a new Crusader state… It seems clear that the Arab East still sees the West as a natural enemy. Against that enemy, any hostile action -- be it political, military, or based on oil -- is considered no more than legitimate vengeance.” (264-266).
Hourani: “By origin, the Ottoman state was one of the Turkish principalities generated by the expansion of the Saljuqs and of Turkish immigrants westwards into Anatolia. On the disputed and shifting frontier with the byzantine Empire there grew up a number of such principalities, nominally accepting the suzerainty of the Saljuqs but in fact autonomous… By the end of the fourteenth century its forces had crossed the straits into eastern Eruope and expanded rapidly there. Its eastern European empire added to its strength in more than one way. It came into contact and diplomatic relations with the state of Europe, and acquired new sources of manpower: former ruling groups were incorporated into its system of government, and conscripts from Balkan villages were taken into its army... In 1453 it absorbed what was left of the Byzantine Empire and took Constantinople as its new capital, Istanbul. In the east, however, its power was challenged by the Safavids, another rising dynasty of uncertain origin, around whom Turkish tribesmen had gathered. There was a long struggle for control of the frontier regions lying between their main centres of power, eastern Anatolia and Iraq: Baghdad was conquered by the Ottomans in 1534, lost to the Safavids in 1623, and not taken by the Ottomans again until 1638. It was partly as a consequence of the struggle with the Safavids that the Ottomans moved south into the lands of the Mamluk sultanate. Largely because of their superior firepower and military organization, they were able to occupy Syria, Egypt and wester Arabia in 1516-17. The Ottoman Empire was now the principal military and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean, and also in the Red Sea, and this brought it into potential conflict with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and the Spaniards in the western Mediterranean. In the Red Sea area its policy was one of defence, to prevent the Portuguese from advancing, but in the Mediterranean it used its naval power to check Spanish expansion and establish a chain of strong points at Algiers itin the 1520s), Tripoli (in the 1550s) and in Tunis (1574), but not further west in Morocco. Maritime warfare continued for some time between Ottomans and Spaniards, but by now Spanish energies were mainly directed towards the new world of America. A more or less stable division of naval power in the Mediterranean grew up, and from 1580 onwards Spain and the Ottomans had peaceful relations.” (pp. 214, 215).
Aleppo, Damascus, Tripoli, Sayda, 1635
Hourani: “The Syrian provinces of Aleppo, Damascus and Tripoli had to be controlled directly, because of their tax-revenues, the place of Aleppo in the international trading system, that of Damascus as one of the centres from which the pilgrimage was organized, and that of Jerusalem and Hebron as holy cities… The government in Istanbul was able to retain direct control both by the roads through Anatolia and by sea, but this was limited to the great cities and the grain-producing plains around them, and the ports of the coast. In the mountains and desert, control was more difficult because of the terrain, and less important because the land produced less revenue. It was enough for the Ottoman government to give recognition to local families of lords, provided they collected and transmitted revenue and did not threaten the routes by which trade and armies passed… In the same way, chiefs of pastoral tribes in the Syrian desert, and those lying on the pilgrims’ route to Mecca, were given formal recognition. A policy of manipulation, of setting one family or ane member of a family against another, awas usually sufficient to preserve the balance between imperial and local interests, but sometimes it could be threatened. In the early seventeenth century, a rebellious governor of Aleppo and an over-powerful lord in the Shuf mountains of Lebanon, Fahr al-Din al-Ma’ni (d. 1635) with some encouragement from Italian rulers were able to challenge Ottoman power for a time. Fakhr al-Din was finally captured and executed, and after that the Ottomans established a fourth province with its capital at Sayda, to keep a watch over the lords of Lebanon.” (226).
Today when we talk about imperialism it usually involves a discussion of bad faith. For instance, the reasons the USA went to war in Iraq were explicitly containment of WMDs and spreading democracy. We call it imperialism assuming that the reasons given are lies or bad faith beliefs (maybe W. Bush really believed what he was saying). Things were otherwise in 19th century Europe. There were large pro-Imperialist parties, usually liberal in the sense they affirmed limited or even broken democratic systems. Colonies were how they hoped to ease poverty and unemployment, and where the middling classes could get rich. That’s the sort of milieu that supported Napoleon III and his colony in Algeria, and similar dynamics were at work in British ruled India, the US in the Phillipines. These are just a couple of examples. Socialists such as Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw were imperialists, for instance. Usually these imperialisms had a justification in some version of the white man’s burden. These were blatantly racist ideologies whose adherents put forth a straightforward good faith case for imperialism. We’ve discussed elsewhere the kind of racist eugenics ideology that prevailed just before the turn of the 20th century.
Throughout that century the British were busy invading, occupying and getting kicked out of Mesopotamia and the Levant (greater Syria). In the runup to WW1 Turkey had its strength sapped fighting the Italians in Libya and in the Balkans (Rogan, p 148). Syria remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until the British out of desperation during WW1 enlisted the aid of Arabic speaking princes who had ambitions to finally set up their own independent states, something they had lost under nearly four centuries of Turkish rule. The postwar settlement of Sikes-Picot gave France status in Lebanon and Syria, to manage them and nominally to help them transition into independence. The French didn’t really seem to be offering independence, and at many key points they jailed or killed locals who showed initiative towards building independent local institutions. In 1925 as Abd al-Krim was devastating the Spanish army in Morocco and opening a second front against the French there, nationalists in Syria reckoned the time was right. The French had been administering Syria as a loose confederation. This meant that the Alawites and the Druze in particular had autonomy relative to the peoples all around them. This is typical divide and conquer: as we shall see this will be exactly how the Assad dynasty would later rule. One veteran of an early desperate attempt to fight back French rule in 1920 at Maysalun was Fawzi al-Qawuqji. He was from Hama. Because the French had tried to replace the Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the Druze were already by Spring of 1923 waging guerilla war against the French. Al-Qawuqji in Hama and Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar from Damascus convinced the Druze to escalate their offensive. In return they promised to lead an expansion of the insurrection in Damascus and Hama. With French troops tied down in Morocco fighting Abd al-Krim, so they reasoned, they had a good chance of pushing the French out of Syria. The nation rallied to their cause, with mass demonstrations and with popular support for the guerillas. The French put down the revolt with a disgusting display of extreme violence against civilian populations, shelling civilian areas and massacring noncombatants in insurgent territory. Notably, one of the communities that took heavy casualties was the Ghouta, a fertile valley just to the east of Damascus. The Ghouta was the neighborhood that hosted a 400 year old merchants guild. Projecting ahead some, it was in the Ghouta that Bashar al-Assad killed 1400 people with Sarin nerve agent in 2013. There is something about the Ghouta’s centuries long access to trade, its connections with the rest of the world, its status as a source of wealth independent from the local state, that make it a perennial site of rebellion against tyranny. It is estimated that in three days in October 1925 1500 people were massacred by the French. You have to suspect that locals then told stories about the Franj crusaders who cannibalized the people of Antioch so long ago. Again and again we’ve pointed out that the source of legitimate rule is protecting the masses, and on this score if on nothing else the French had failed. Nevertheless they managed to quell the rebellion in 1926 and stuck around until after WW2. The socialist government under Leon Blum tried to give Syria real independence, but was blocked from debating the matter by the colonial lobby in Paris. Syria felt some of the aftershocks of the French revolution during the war when a restoration government under Vichy’s man Dentz was replaced by the republican De Gaulle with the help of the British army. Even in the colonies, France must have periodic revolutions. The conservatives and colonialists there come directly out of the tradition of rural resistance to the Jacobins, and the decision to nationalize the Catholic Church there just keeps coming back to cause chaos. After WW2 protests erupt anew across Syria, and just as in 1925 the French responded with extreme brutality. And then something remarkable happened. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas did not sit well with the new English Prime Minister. After nearly half a century of patient organizing and being a minor party in coalitions with other political parties, British labor had come into its own.
Dorrien: “Labour played a significant role in Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition government, which set up [Clement] Attlee to become prime minister after the war ended. The Attlee governments of 1945-1951 transformed Britain into a British version of Social Democracy. Labour made health care a fundamental right for all citizens, nationalized one-fifth of the economy, significantly increased the incomes of wage earners, sustained the full employment economy that the war created, instituted progressive income tax and a pension system, abolished antiunion laws, abolished restrictions on the rights of women to own property, established a minimum wage for agricultural workers, and got colonial Britain out of India, Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Palestine.” (Dorrien, p25). We can add to this list of victories convincing France to grant Syrian independence. Labour could do all of these things because it had helped the reactionary Churchill beat Hitler. Attlee was his defence minister. Earning the trust and goodwill of the people by honest debate and wise cooperation has served us better than constantly declaring war on all parties who are not ours. In 1945 the Labour party proved as much by transforming a large part of the world for the better. When I think about Lenin’s theories of imperialism, and then find an instance like this of an imperial country doing something that isn’t favored in the so called iron laws of capitalism, I’m reminded that people have agency, and that affirming that by organizing for a larger democracy opens up the possibility of intentional human action to change the world. To be clear, I don’t think Lenin saw the rules of imperialism as overpowering human agency, but I do think that many of his successors think that. We’ll come back to this.
As Salhiya (Deir ez-Zor Governorate), 1945
Rogan: “From his safe house in Salihiyya, President Quwwatli appealed to British officials to intervene. Invoking the 1941 guarantee of Syrian independence, he formally requested the British to intercede with the French to stop the bombardment of Damascus. The Syrian president’s appeal gave Britain legitimate grounds to interfere in French imperial affairs, and they prevailed upon their wartime ally to lift their attack. By the time French guns fell silent, more than four hundred Syrians had been killed, hundreds of private homes had been destroyed, and the building that housed the Syrian parliament had been reduced to rubble by the ferocity of the attack. France’s desperate bid to preserve its empire in the Levant had failed, and nothing could persuade the embittered Syrians to compromise on their long-standing demand for total independence. The French finally admitted defeat in July 1945 and agreed to transfer control of the military and security forces to the independent governments of Syria and Lebanon.” (p. 246).
Post WW2 Independence
In his expansive history of the CIA, Time Weiner discusses the US backed military coup in Syria of 1949. President Eisenhower had some racist ideas about Arabs not being able to understand democracy. So, he insisted that the CIA try and find and fund partners in the region who would engage, in Eisenhower’s words, in an Islamic jihad against communism. It’s worth pondering the nature of military coups for a moment. Naunihal Singh has done us a very great service in this regard.
In Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, Singh studied in depth seven of the ten military coups that occured in Ghana after it was granted independence from Great Britain, from 1966 to 1983. “I skip the first attempt because it has already been fairly well documented and omit the last two because they add little original to our theoretical understanding… Ghana was originally chosen as a site for this research because it had a high number of coup attempts that were almost evenly split between successes and failures, which is similar to the distribution of coup outcomes worldwide. It also had a variety of potentially relevant background conditions, with, for example, coup attempts from the top, middle, and bottom of the military hierarchy. In addition, Ghana’s coup attempts were recent enough to make conducting oral history feasible, yet far enough in the past that participants were willing to speak freely about events once I had obtained their trust” (p. 11). We can’t really have absolutely rigorous scientific knowledge of history. There’s no way to rerun events with one or two variables changed to see what difference it would make. There’s no way to know for sure, for instance, whether if JFK were not assassinated we would have stayed in Vietnam as long as we did. We just can’t run experiments that way. However, Singh has gotten remarkably close to finding such a data set, where the same thing is attempted with some perhaps minor changes. Here’s what the data told him.
A military coup, Singh tells us, is not like an election and not like a military battle. In an election people campaign in the open and then on a given day everyone votes, hopefully anonymously, and everyone agrees to respect the outcome, chosen by some kind of a majority. In a battle there are two camps who have decided ahead of time to fight it out. In a military coup, the outcome is decided by who can convince the majority of the armed forces, not that their platform is preferable, but that the outcome is decided in their favor. Most military forces will take a sit and wait attitude when they are aware of a coup, because the overwhelming impulse is to avoid shedding the blood of one’s compatriots. Coups succeed when they can make a compelling case that they cannot be helpfully resisted. Coups are more likely to succeed from the top because the upper chain of command can hold meetings where they announce the coup to key players. By forcing key players to pick a side in a public forum before any of them have had a chance to discuss matters in private generates a social pressure to support the coup. If the coup conspirators can seize the media early and control the message, then they can easily convince the nation that the coup has succeeded and that resistance is futile. It’s not exactly an election, where people can freely say what they want, nor is it a battle where two sides are clearly differentiated and bloodshed is unavoidable. The general public can influence the outcome of a military coup, if members of the military are given the chance to discuss things with them. We cite the example of the Russian revolution, where long discussion and many votes by popularly organized bodies such as the soviets came before and then blessed after the fact of the Bolsheviks leading parts of the Russian army to seize the Winter Palace. Another example is the failed coup against Charles De Gaulle in 1961. Several retired French generals tried to take over the government to stop the French from withdrawing from their colony in Algeria. The coup attempt had broad support throughout the officer corp. Decisively, De Gaulle was able to go on television to publicly repudiate the generals citing a referendum a few months earlier where the French people had voted to give up the French colony.
The resulting mobilizations of the Unions and the major political parties convinced the army’s rank and file to side with De Gaulle. It was a military coup that was dominated and defeated by a democratic coalition(Singh, p. 21). Usually, coups succeed or fail based on whether they can create the fact of their success before too much public discussion has occurred. A military coup, Singh tells us, is a coordination game, a contest of who can shape common knowledge the quickest and most convincingly.
The first thing to notice, but not the last, about the 1949 coup in Syria is that the US supported the victor Adib Shishakly both financially, militarily and diplomatically (Weiner, p. 159). What’s missing from this account is that Shishakly was also supported by the Arab Socialist Party (Nasserist), the Ba’ath party and the Muslim Brotherhood (Anderson, p.10). In the case of Syria, the military was always deeply involved in governance, both from its time under French and Ottoman rule, and as far back as the first Jihad of Abu Baker immediately after the death of the prophet. The French gave Syria its independence in 1945 by handing over control of the army and the intelligence corps. The Shishakli coup was the final of three coups that occured in Syria in 1949. Shishakli was a Syrian Kurd and a Syrian nationalist who had volunteered to fight Israel in 1948. To him and his supporters the coup was necessary to get rid of the government of Husni al-Zaim who had failed in 1948 to get rid of the colonialist state of Israel. Al-Zaim’s government, by the way, apparently had the blessing of the US, but was self initiated.
Any group aspiring to take power, whether that group is democratic or not, would probably be helping itself if it got the backing of some external power. I’m laying all this out like this not to say that al-Zaim or Shishakli were good people who deserved to rule Syria, or because I agree with the pan-Arabism of the one or the far right Syria first ideology of the second. I want all this to be known because it destroys the two dimensional version of these events people usually put forward, that the US paid money to impose a government on local Arabs (who in this story have no will or agency of their own) in order to support Israel, or the Zionists, or the Wahhabi-Zionists, or whatever other “deep state” surrogate they think controls the US government. The CIA put their hand on the scale in Syria to oppose Stalinist totalitarian communism, and in so doing they put a Syrian nationalist authoritarian in power, someone opposed to Israel but also opposed to Syria combining with Iraq. Like most of these CIA interventions, the US didn’t get everything they wanted, and success hinged largely on how much local support they could count on. After four years in power Shishakli was deposed in another coup, this time backed by Ba’athists, communists and military officers. The fact that civil society was involved in all of these coups shows that regular people were demanding action to change their government, and that they were in part getting what they wanted, and then realizing it wasn’t what they wanted, and then demanding something else. The fact that democratic institutions didn’t materialize is a real failure, but one that cannot be explained because of US intervention. Long term success of a coup installed government still seems to depend largely on whether society will tolerate that government. In 1957 the US tried to promote a coup again, but local Syrian military officers knew the tune already, set up a sting and expelled the plotters. The US then expelled the Syrian ambassador, probably a mistake in hindsight. The resulting decline in American prestige in the region, among other factors, led to local governments welcoming Soviet Russian aid and influence. Gamal Abdul Nasser, the winner of his own military coup that turned out to be very popular for a few decades, coined the term “third world” to designate the aspiration for a coalition of states not beholden to the US nor to the USSR. When Washington found out that Nasser was getting aid from the USSR for his Aswan Dam project, the US withdrew its aid for the project, so Nasser also ends up in the Soviet Union’s orbit. Back in Syria, the new economy was lifting up a class of traditionally lower to middle positioned peasant farmers. This peasant class would struggle through the chaos of these years to take power in Syria, first by a fairly generous redistribution of wealth and later by an intensification of poverty, exploitation, and violent collective punishment.
In 1999 Hanna Batatu published his now classic ethnographic study of Syria’s ruling class. The regime that coalesced around Hafez al-Assad achieved enduring stability by 1974. Batatu comments: “Out of the nineteen ‘Alawis who filled or fill positions at this level [leadership] of the power structure, no fewer than eleven or 57.9 percent descend from the lesser rural or village notability, which owned land but on a small or middling scale and, while not wealthy, enjoyed influence and prestige among the local peasants. Only three or 15.8 percent are descendants of sharecroppers. In other words, the majority does not come from families at the lower end of the rural income or status ladder.” (p. 225). When the French set up local semi-autonomous zones, such as those for the ‘Alawis and the Druze, they were setting up across the country multiple administrations, with rural notables being elevated to the same level as the urban elites who had occupied privileged places within the Ottoman system. Batatu exhaustively documents how throughout this period the landholdings of these middling class peasant strata increased tenfold (p. 156). The ‘Alawis were historically a very poor economic class, and the French enlisted them heavily in their Troupes Speciales. Moreover, because they didn’t have the same extended networks of social wealth that other Syrians had, ‘Alawis tended to rely on and support the Ba’ath party, whose political fortunes soared in the middle 20th century. The Ba’ath party’s rise to power came about in three successive stages.
Like most liberation movements in the late 19th and early 20th century the Syrian movement was dominated by socialism and nationalism. Nationalism took the form of the Ba’ath party, and the socialist idea was championed by Akram Hawrani, whose Arab Socialist Party [ASP]had this great slogan “Bring shovel and brush to bury lord and boss.” (Burning Country, p7). In the first stage, from 1945 to 1952, the Ba’ath party had its base of support in the urban centers. These Ba’ath were soft on inherited privilege and hard against foreign intervention. They had a vision of a nationally united Syria, forged in the furnace of European colonialism. The population all around, the peasants and day-laborers of Syria, were embracing socialism in the context of an Ottoman style system that had been balkanized by the French administration. In 1952 these two parties joined forces. Over the next 20 years the Ba’athists would maneuvre to bring more peasant notables into privileged positions and to marginalize the leadership of the increasingly defunct socialist party. By the way, the Syrian Communist Party was dead on arrival throughout this period because they followed Stalin’s dictate that they should support (1) landowners, since Syria was supposedly still fighting for its national independence and should therefore unite under the feudal remnants and (2) the partition of Palestine. This is yet another way the priorities of Moscow undermined the interests of various Communist Party locals around the world. There were always two kinds of nationalism in Syria. One part of the Ba’ath party wanted a state based in the historic levant that was specifically Syrian, and one part always wanted Syria to contribute to a greater Arab state. In 1958 the latter won out and Syria joined Egypt in the United Arab Republic. Abdul Nasser came on too strong for the Syrian Ba’athists, and the experiment fell apart in 1961.
After the unification of the ASP and the Ba’ath Party in 1952, the latter gradually dominated politics. In the army, the various Sunni ethnic groups competed with each other for influence. Because they outnumbered other groups in the French organized local militia, several ‘Alawis held positions in the high military ranks. Throughout the sixties in the context of the lack of coordination among Sunni groups, the ‘Alawis at the top of the military chain of command used their position to regulate entry into the military academies, and to shift the command structure to benefit themselves in a social context saturated with nepotism. These were not official policies or perhaps even particularly intentional, but in context people clearly had identifications that were important enough for them to embrace corruption of the national institutions to the benefit of their extended family from Latakia for instance. By the end of its second phase, the Ba’ath party was transformed into a party that had its center of mass in the countryside, and the ASP had become a deleverage junior partner. What the socialist party politics achieved in this union was aggressive and far reaching land redistribution. This land redistribution was slow at first, and then through 1968-69 sped up precipitously as Salah Jadid took leadership in coordination with Cairo. Jadid was an ‘Alawite who rose up through the military ranks. Close beneath him in the hierarchy was a young up and comer Hafez al-Assad.
Hafez al-Assad was the first peasant to become the ruler of Syria. The ‘Alawite religion is surrounded by mystery, with the core tenants being known only to the initiated. Hafez al-Assad was likewise described by many who know him personally as secretive and inscrutable. His family were agricultural laborers, part of an important clan local to Qirdahah, a village in Latakia. Hafez al-Assad’s father ‘Ali Sulayman was a harsh and abusive head of the family. There are rumors that ‘Ali Sulaymann beat Hafez’s older brother Bayat so badly one day for having misspent some money, that Bayat, having been forced to sleep in the barn that night, hung himself in shame. “Hafez al-Assad, who was then only eight years old, is said to have told a friend sometime after his graduation from the military academy: ‘since the day I saw my brother suspended by the neck in the barn, no tear has fallen from my eye.’” (Batatu, p. 195). Having excelled in memorization of the Quran, Hafez was sent away to primary school in Latakia. From there he took the path that many young ‘Alawite men did to better their social standing: he joined the military academy. Sam Dagher writes: “It was fall 1952 when Hafez al-Assad and Mustafa Tlass first met at the military academy in the city of Homs. It was a natural choice for poor, scrappy young men from the provinces like Hafez and Mustafa who were ambitious and politically minded. A ninth-grade education and an entrance exam were all it took to be admitted. Recruits were housed, fed and paid a stipend… Before the academy, Hafez and Mustafa were youth leaders in the Baath Party, which was formed a year after Syria’s independence. The Baath was first and foremost an ideology -- a curious fusion of European philosophies, socialism, Arab nationalism, and Islamic thought, whose theorists were Syrian graduates of the Sorbonne. Its core doctrine was that Arabs must undergo transformation and unification beyond just geographic and political lines; they must shed imperial-era influences and return to their pure essence and virtues. This demanded a rebirth and resurgence, or baath in Arabic. These concepts, along with social equality and redistribution of wealth, appealed to those sidelined by their economic circumstances, like Mustafa, or by belonging to religious minorities, like Hafez. Arab identity was supposed to transcend all cleavages.” (Dagher, p. 22)
In 1963 Hafez al-Assad and several of his fellow cadets from the military academy, with backing from some of the top brass, posed as an opposition to secession from Egypt and staged a coup. Tanks rolled into Damascus. Hafez secured the nearby airport. The purge that followed lifted more Baathists into power. When the pro-Nasser group realized they had been lied to and betrayed, they led their own coup, which failed. In 1964 the new regime put down revolts in Homs and Hama led by Marwan Hadid, who afterwards was given a death sentence. The sentence was reversed, despite the protestations of Hafez and Mustafa. What followed was deadly court intrigue, with the result that Salah Jadid took power, who as we discussed previously implemented aggressive land redistribution. In June of 1967 Israel invaded the Golan Heights. Hafez al-Assad, despite his experience in military coups, was still inexperienced in combat. On June 10th he issued Communique 66 declaring that Israeli forces had taken the village of Qunaytrah. But Israeli forces were not anywhere near Qunaytrah. When they saw the Syrian tanks retreating, they easily entered and took over the Golan. Hafez al-Assad had led the retreat without having put up a fight. It is possible to explain this action as cowardice or as incompetence. There were unverified reports of Israeli tanks in and around Qunaytrah. It seems likely that Hafez al-Assad didn’t want to risk his tanks in battle when the position of his ruling click was so tenuous at home (Batatu, p. 198-200). In 1973 Hafez al-Assad distinguished himself by taking back part of the Golan from Israel in a war that saw Egypt retake the Sinai peninsula.
The Arab Socialist Party had begun in 1939, and had its largest base of support in and around Hama. It was incredibly popular, attracting 40,000 people to its congress in 1950. The bonds of solidarity it forged, as well as the culture of resistance, lived on in the Syrian countryside. With the world recession of the 70s added in, this older political movement was bound to butt heads with the authoritarian and corrupt Assad regime.
In 1979 Egypt concluded a peace treaty with Israel, one which has held to this day, and thereby was removed the potential for a repeat of 1973 when Egypt and Syria joined forces to attack Israel. We have seen how the Baath party was transformed by its merger with the ASP from a party of army officers and urban intellectuals into a mass peasant party. Populations within which individuals and groups may have aspired to socialism, to the democratic control of the means of production, found the path open to them for advancement in the nationalist wing of the Baath. In the early 70s Hafez al-Assad began holding mass rallies where people were coerced into attending and engaging there in worship of Hafez himself. Lisa Wedeen notes: Outlandish declarations of loyalty to Assad increased by the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the poor performance of the Syrian economy and Syrians’ perceptions of mismanagement and corruption contributed to growing opposition to the Assad regime.” (p.35). Simultaneously, a campaign of terror was waged by the regime. Thousands were sent to prisons to be tortured. Sam Dagher recounts the events of the late 70s and early 80s through the memories of Hama native and artist Khaled al-Khani:
“There had been soldiers in khaki green in Hama as far back as Khaled al-Khani could remember. He was barely four years old in 1979 when Hafez al-Assad stepped up the pressure on his hometown. It was common that year to see troops in jeeps and pickup trucks with machine guns racing down Corniche al-Asi -- the riverside promenade with lush parks and giant wooden waterwheels, or norias, used for millennia to scoop water from the deeply carved Orontes river up into aqueducts for irrigation. There was no telling when the heavy footsteps of soldiers would echo through the narrow cobblestone alleyways on their way to arrest people from their homes, shops, and schools. Thousands were sent to the mukhabarat’s torture dungeons and then eastwward to the infamous Tadmor desert prison, described as the “kingdome of death and madness” by a poet held there for five years. The dragnets in Hama often provoked angry protests and general strikes, which then led to more repression by regime forces. While fear and violent confrontation gripped Hama that year, Khaled and his siblings were somewhat shielded from it despite the political activism of their father Hikmat al-Khani, an eye doctor and community leader. Soldiers at checkpoints demanding IDs and searching vehicles were often smiley and playful with little Khaled, a cute and chubby boy with blond hair and blue eyes...Hafez was already enmeshed in the civil war in neighboring Lebanon, and he faced challenges on two fronts at home -- attacks by Islamist unsrugents backed by his rival Baathist regime in Iraq and rising discontent by a large cross section of the population over economic mismanagement, corruption, and an increangly authoritarian rule. The insurgents were part of the Tali’a al-Muqatila, or Fighting Vanguard, a militant splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood party which first emerged in Hama when Baathists took power in 1963… The Muslim Brotherhood was divided over the Vanguards’s campaign, and a wing of the party advocated dialogue with Hafez to convince him to implement real reforms and ease his grip on public life, and to that end it cooperated with the likes of Hikmat al-Khani and Shishakli [Omar al-Shishakli, a famous doctor and the nephew of Adib Shishakli the former ruler of Syria]. But it was precisely such nonviolent collaboration that Hafez felt jeopardized his authority. So Hafez’s overriding strategy was to wage military campaigns against entire cities and towns like Aleppo and Hama from which brotherhood leaders hailed, under the guise of combatting terrorism. There were mass arrests, summary executions, and unspeakable torture in prisons of anyone suspected of having even the remotest link to the Brotherhood; this guilt by association extended to family members, friends and acquantiances. All too often, many people met a tragic demise due to their name, birthplace, or look, or simply because of mistaken identity.” (225-229). In the early months of 1980 the stream of events came to a head, and a wave of strikes and protests begun in Hama soon spread to Aleppo, Baniyas, Homs and Latakia. Omar al-Shishakli was called to a meeting with Mustafa Tlass, Hafez al-Assad’s old friend from military academy days. Al-Shishakli was tortured and murdered. Several other leaders of the peaceful protest movement of 1980 were likewise murdered. Having decapitated the peaceful protest movement, Assad could carry on with the collective punishment of rebellious communities in the name of fighting terrorism. That year he subdued Aleppo, killing 2,000 and arresting another 8,000. In the cold days of early February 1982, Hafez al-Assad encircled Hama. The captains on the ground were mainly Alawite. They rampaged the city in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Estimates of the number of dead range from 10,000 to 25,000. Dozens of neighborhoods were completely razed to the ground. The government’s reckoning of the number of Muslim Brotherhood in the city was no more than 500 (Batatu, p.203). Those who survived often lived under the shadow of the knowledge that their loved ones had been taken to some jail to be tortured indefinitely. Sometimes people came back. Sometimes news of someone’s death came back instead.
Khaled al-Khani survived, and like many Hama natives he tried to join the Baath party in the hopes of getting into college. A Baath committee came to his high school to interview the potential new recruits. My American audience should imagine junior ROTC. They asked him what his father’s name and profession were. He said that his father had been killed by the army.
From Sam Dagher: “All six got up, removed their jackets and took turns slapping and punching Khaled. He was knocked to the floor and screamed as he was kicked. The principal rescued him. ‘I am so sorry, gentlemen. Leave it to me, I am going to teach this scoundrel a lesson,’ said the principal as he escorted Khaled out of the room and hid him in his office. Khaled was supposed to say that Islamist terrorists had killed his father. He was supposed to forget those who witnessed his father being captured by regime forces and taken with thousands of other men to the porcelain factory where he was tortured and gruesomely executed. Hamwis [residents of Hama, the birthplace of Arab Socialism] had to live with the regime’s lies even in the privacy of their homes. To cope, many massacre survivors became convinced that Hafez was the nation’s strict yet benevolent father who punished Hama only because he was left with no other choice… The uncontestable truth was that the regime had meticulously planned the assault on Hama in 1982, completely subdued a few hundred Islamist fighters in about ten days, then vengefully massacred thousands of civilians, raped women, looted homes, and razed neighborhoods, and then at the end wanted victims to believe that ‘terrorists’ had done it to them.” (p242).
Hama, the birthplace of Syria’s socialist movement rose up in the late 70s against the rising authoritarianism. The spirit of solidarity shown in the spreading protest movement is all the best of what democratic socialism should be: people fighting to have a say in what happens in their lives. Syria is a place where the whole world comes together, where Ancient Greek philosophy and algebra were rediscovered by Europe through the crusades. That enlightenment and culture, Assad’s Syria had to kill all of that. And for 30 years it would seem he had. Syria’s isolation in the region after the peace deal between Egypt and Israel is probably part of why Hafez al-Assad refused to intervene militarily when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, displacing half a million people, indiscriminately bombing civilian neighborhoods and intentionally allowing Phalangists to massacre Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila. But as Hanna Battatu rightly points out, this must have deeply offended Syrians who witnessed this refusal to face the Israelis at the same moment that the regime was “cleansing” Hama, Aleppo and a dozen other places and disciplining civil society to never ask for anything better (p. 203).
After Hama, the Assad regime didn’t face any real threats to its power until 2011. The dual compulsion to rally to worship the cult of Assad and to remain silent about any and all abuses and shortcomings of the regime was the norm for 30 years. It was a time when society was completely dominated by the state. It was a fulfillment of Robespierre’s dream. As we will see, no such arrangement is total, and through the harshest such winter one can still sow the seeds for a new spring.
We will talk about the US left’s failure to understand Syria, but viewed from a broader lens the western left has failed to fully digest the fact that the Arab Spring that erupted in 2011 was a repudiation of the states that came from the anti-colonial movement in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2006 Albert Memmi’s masterful Decolonization and the Decolonized appeared in English translation, and this book goes a long way towards correcting this failure in leftist thought. “The end of colonization should have brought with it freedom and prosperity. The colonized would give birth to the citizen, master of his political, economic, and cultural destiny. After decades of imposed ignorance, his country, now free, would affirm its sovereignty. Opulent or indigent, it would reap the rewards of its labor, of its soil and subsoil. Once its native genius was given free reign, the use of its recovered language would allow native culture to flourish. Unfortunately, in most cases, the long anticipated period of freedom, won at the cost of terrible suffering, brought with it poverty and corruption, violence, and sometimes chaos.” (p. 120). As we saw in the discussions regarding Capital, the Civil War, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War and all the rest of it: when we discuss a historical epoch, event or conflict in terms of ideological character types, as chess pieces moving around a board with well defined rules, we rob real people of their humanity and agency. When instead of that we consider people’s basic humanity, their ability to make choices given a particular circumstance, and then intensively investigate who they were and why they did what they did, then we always seem to upset the predetermined narratives. Memmi does all of that for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Decolonization, not blaming either side for their own victimization but also not letting anyone off the hook for their disastrous mistakes. Consequently he is able to do something few who write about the Middle East, especially leftists, have attempted: to consider the actions of the various governments in the Middle East and North Africa as equally worthy of criticism, on an equal moral standing with any western government. He is therefore able to discuss the failures of these governments in terms of what the peoples of the Middle East are responsible for, and in terms therefore of what they can do to improve matters. His book Decolonization foretold the Arab Spring, identifying its causes: systemic inequality and corruption. I highly recommend reading Memmi. In this podcast we have discussed the failures of one particular regime, that of Hafez al-Assad, and we’ll return to discuss the revolution against him. But first we want to discuss a form of left nationalism that in some parts of the left leads the way in understanding anti-colonial struggle. We’ll come back to Syria, but first we should enrich our understanding of the state type that is based on the worship of a beknighted leader by coming to terms with high Maoism.
Anderson, Eric A. The role of the military in Syria: the Shishakli years (1949-1954). Diss. 1971.
Batatu, Hanna. Syria's peasantry, the descendants of its lesser rural notables, and their politics. Princeton University Press, 1999.
Hourani, Albert. A history of the Arab peoples: Updated edition. Faber & Faber, 2013.
Memmi, Albert. Decolonization and the Decolonized. U of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Memmi, Albert. The colonizer and the colonized. Routledge, 2013.
Rogan, Eugene. The Arabs: a history. Basic Books, 2012.
Singh, Naunihal. Seizing power: The strategic logic of military coups. JHU Press, 2014.
Weiner, Tim. Legacy of ashes: The history of the CIA. Anchor, 2008.
Yassin-Kassab, Robin, and Leila Al-Shami. Burning country: Syrians in revolution and war. Pluto Press, 2018.PA