At a critical time for the uprising, Dan Poulton examines the prospects for Syria's divided opposition movement
The question of revolutionary potential in Syria is not a question of whether a popular uprising exists independent of western imperial powers and their regional stooges. It is a question of the relative organisation and strength of each contending side, taking into account both state forces and imperialist forces.
Clearly there is an ongoing popular uprising in Syria, as there was in Yemen and as there was in Libya until the bombs started raining. No one on the serious left would dispute this. But while the Syrian uprising is not limited to armed resistance, its critical ‘achievements’ have taken place on a military footing.
The danger is that this effectively sidelines mass popular mobilisations. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) instructs Syrians to stay at home during fighting and reports suggest that thousands are fleeing the country as the civil war intensifies.
Attempts by Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) to act independently of the Syrian National Council (SNC) or the FSA have encountered difficulties, as evidenced by the failed surge to capture Damascus and Aleppo of recent days.
As the Boston Globe reported: “Syria has one of the largest air forces in the Middle East, and its use in battling the rebels could give the government a critical advantage over a rebel force that has struggled to acquire heavy weapons.”
In Damascus: “…a frontal assault on the rebels by some of the government’s most elite soldiers starting late last week largely smashed the toeholds they had claimed, although skirmishing continued to flare on Monday. Syrian television broadcast photographs of government soldiers kicking down doors and hauling off suspected insurgents on the city’s outskirts.”
And in Aleppo, where more advances appear to have been made by FSA forces, US foreign secretary Hillary Clinton clarified the western approach to such gains.
As the New York Times reported:
‘In Washington, the secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking as though the Syrian insurgency’s momentum was now unstoppable, said its territorial gains might be leveraged into safe havens. “We have to work closely with the opposition,” she told reporters, “because more and more territory is being taken and it will, eventually, result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition.”’
Such a ‘safe haven’ would likely be co-opted by the SNC, backed by the West and FSA militias. Any anti imperialist popular resistance in the area could quickly find itself an unwelcome dinner guest and almost certainly become sidelined.
With reports that regime troops are soon to mount a massive attack on the rebels holed up in Aleppo and activists concerned they are outgunned by Assad's heavy weaponry, these are critical times for a movement under siege.
This reduction of the uprising to an armed struggle could spell disaster. In Egypt, the refusal of the Egyptian military to carry out Mubarak’s order to open fire on Tahrir Square was a turning point in the Egyptian revolution. The regime’s self-interested decision to ditch Mubarak was critical, influenced by the strength and depth of the popular movement.
Armed resistance can often marginalise street mobilisations: it’s not practical to protest in the midst of a street battle and it’s hard for striking workers to picket workplaces which often become shelters for rebel forces. In Yemen armed fighters defended mass demonstrations. Militant protest went hand in hand with defensive armed struggle.
The reliance by anti-regime elements within Syria on regime defections (as previously witnessed in Libya and indeed Yemen) is increasingly troubling. High ranking defectors are being promised privileged places in any post-Assad regime. They are not defecting out of the kindness of their hearts.
A wall is being dismantled in one place only to be re-built in another. Syrian revolutionaries must welcome defections 'from below' but refuse to abdicate power to those who have propped up a brutal regime.
Lessons from Libya and Yemen
Even if the West don’t get to ‘do a Libya’ -as advocated by Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, or ‘do a Kosovo’ -as advocated by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, there still remains the option of ‘doing a Yemen’ -as advocated by Russia. According to Russian deputy foreign minister Bogdanov, "The Yemen scenario was discussed by the Yemenis themselves. If this scenario is discussed by Syrians themselves and is adopted by them, we are not against it."
In Libya Gaddafi’s regime was smashed by military intervention and co-opted revolutionary forces. The result has been instability and sectarian chaos. Goodbye revolution.
In Yemen meanwhile, Saleh’s regime has been kept intact and Saleh merely replaced by his right-hand man, Hadi. The gains of the popular uprising were wound back as a duplicitous ‘Gulf deal’ saw rebel barricades taken down and regime forces back patrolling the streets.
The central institution of the Yemen uprising, the Joint Meetings Parties (JMP), played a conservative role in the revolution itself and is now in a power-sharing arrangement with the old regime it claimed to so vehemently oppose.
One can easily imagine the SNC performing the same role in Syria after Assad’s almost inevitable demise. Revelations that Assad will deploy chemical weapons on any ‘external’ intervention may well bang the final nail into his diplomatic coffin.
The only way of establishing popular power in Syria now would be the rapid formation of a revolutionary body capable of rivalling the influence of the SNC and FSA and firmly rejecting western intervention.
With Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Britain and the US swooping like vultures on the divided Syrian revolution, relentless opposition to any imperialist intervention in Syria by our Western rulers is all the more vital.
Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner. His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.
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