Following a demonstration to mark the fourth anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, Mark Boothroyd argues the reputation of socialist organisations has been seriously damaged by their failure to stand alongside Syrians who have continued fighting for freedom in terrible conditions.
Mark Boothroyd was a founder of the Syria Solidarity Movement.
15 March 2015 marked the fourth anniversary of the Syrian Revolution. On 14 March, over a thousand Syrians from across Britain marched through central London to mark the start of the uprising against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The march was loud, with activists chanting and singing the revolutionary songs that have been the hallmark of the Syrian uprising through four years of demonstration, protest and bloody fighting.
Despite reports to the contrary, the Syrian revolution is not over. Its flame is kept alive by the Syrian diaspora, who from Brazil to Romania, Germany to Malaysia, Michigan to London, keep actively supporting the Syrian revolutionaries struggling for freedom in terrible conditions.
The revolution stills burns brightly in those parts of Syria which have remained liberated from Assad and Da‘esh (ISIS). In Idlib, the only province largely liberated from Assad, demonstrations occurred in many towns and villages to mark the start of the revolution. In Free Aleppo, threatened by siege and surrounded on three sides by the regime and Da‘esh, rallies were held accompanied by the traditional dancing and singing which has been a hallmark of the revolution from the start.
Mostly bravely, and demonstrating the immense resilience of the Syrian people through four years of barbaric repression, demonstrations were held in the liberated suburbs of Damascus. Among the bombed rubble of buildings which have received countless barrel bombs and shells from the regime’s armouries, revolutionaries gathered to remember the martyrs and reiterate their determination to keep fighting for the overthrow of the regime.
The march in London was lively, with many young Syrians leading the chants and singing. Despite everything the mood of the march was positive and quietly hopeful. This is in contrast with this time last year: the situation is not as dire as it was a year ago, and revolutionary forces have secured some small but important victories, defending Aleppo from encirclement and liberating many towns and villages in the south of Syria.
One year ago
If we look back to last year, in March 2014 the Assad regime was on the offensive against the rebels. The regime took advantage of the rebel’s decision in January to fight Da‘esh, a decision that cost them thousands of fighters as they drove Da‘esh out of Syria and into Iraq. The regime offensive rolled back substantial rebel gains, and lead to the loss of long held rebel towns like Yabroud, badly damaging rebel morale and resources and reducing their hold on many provinces.
While the rebels were reeling from attacks by Assad regime forces backed by Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Da‘esh turned its retreat into Iraq into an offensive, taking Mosul and securing huge amounts of US weaponry from the retreating Iraqi army.
This was to be used against the Syrian rebels when Da‘esh returned a couple of months later, storming back into Syria and seizing most of the East of the country including Raqqa, before declaring their ‘caliphate’ in the summer. At the time, rebels sarcastically remarked that the first US weapons they saw in the conflict were in the hands of Da‘esh fighters coming from Iraq.
Now there is a stalemate, with the regime unable to advance, but rebels struggling to make significant gains, Da‘esh pre-occupied with fighting in Iraq, and on the retreat before Kurdish and rebel forces around Kobane.
Hope over despair
Given what has happened what reason do Syrians have to be hopeful? For those who have not been following the uprising, there appear to be few. For those who still support the struggle, there are many.
The sheer persistence of the rebel opposition is one. Despite facing unrelenting attacks for four years, with the Syrian regime backed to the hilt by Russian imperialism, and bankrolled by the Iranian government by as much as $500 million per month to sustain the Syrian economy, the rebels have held out.
Militarily, the regime has not been able to retake many areas of the country, and its army is now running out of men. Many young Syrian men have fled regime areas or gone into hiding to avoid the vicious conscription campaign brought in to provide more cannon fodder for Assad’s forces. Those who are caught end up on the front lines, and within weeks or days many are returned home, dead or injured. This is causing massive resentment among even those supportive of the regime, with activists in regime areas calling on people not to die for Assad’s throne. Minority communities like the Druze have protested against the regime and refused to fight for it.
Into this gap have stepped Hezbollah fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Afghan mercenaries who are leading the battles around Dara‘a and Aleppo. This brings the rebels into direct conflict with the Syrian regime’s backers, and gives their involvement ever more the character of a foreign occupation. This is drawing opposition even from within regime’s ranks: a leading general defected, and two of Assad’s spy chiefs were sacked after one viciously attacked the other over Iranian involvement in the Dara‘a province.
In the last several days, Islamic brigades, FSA battalions and the Nusra Front have liberated Idlib City, capital of the rebel held Idlib province, providing an immense boost to opposition morale and piling pressure on the Assad regime whose supply lines between Latakia and Aleppo are now under threat. The regime forces were shown to be hollow, crumbling in Idlib in just four days, in a city they have had three years to fortify and defend.
Is the revolution dead?
Politically, the principles of the revolution are kept alive by civil protest groups, and by revolutionary brigades. Protests continue every Friday against the regime, although they are far less numerous than they were 2-3 years ago as people struggle daily to secure enough food to eat and fuel to warm their homes and shelters.
Most mainstream Islamic rebel brigades are signatories to a Revolutionary Covenant, committing them to a free, just, multi-ethnic, multi-sect government once the regime is toppled. The Southern Front, a coalition of Free Syrian Army groups has issued a Transitional Statement outlining a process for establishing a democratic post-regime government in Syria.
In the liberated areas, Syrians use their freedoms to resist the injustices forced upon them by the war. Food shortages in rebel areas draw protest marches, and many towns and villages have protested the abuses or corruption of rebel factions, or the implementation of strict Islamic practices which are alien to Syrian culture.
And the spirit is kept alive in the refugee camps. Protests continue among Syria’s vast refugee population, approaching 4.5 million people across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and the borders of Syria. Many became refugees when regime forces attacked their neighbourhoods or cities to attempt to quell protests, or instituted scorched earth campaigns to wipe rebel towns and villages off the map. Many of those who lead the civil, non-violent movement left when threatened by the regime, or as the conflict became militarised and there was little room for peaceful protest between the regime and the rebel groups. They are now in the camps, and work to sustain the revolutions principles, hoping to return to Syria once the regime is gone, and restore Syria.
Isolated and desperate in the capital of human suffering
This is not to say the situation is not devastating. Over half the population has been displaced; 4.5 million are refugees outside the country. A conservative estimate puts the death toll at 250,000, with over a million injured, many of them disabled for life. 250,000 people are still being held in regime jails, and there are an estimated 200,000 people missing. 650,000 people are living under siege from regime forces in towns and cities across Syria. Syria is now the capital of human suffering.
Added to this, the Syrian people feel completely abandoned and isolated. The international community in the form of the world’s governments has failed to come to their aid, and their revolution has been slandered by most progressive and anti-imperialist forces around the world. The barbarity unleashed by the regime with the tactic support of all the imperial powers has engendered little more than hand wringing from most socialist or progressive groups, and in many cases merited diversionary propaganda or outright apologism for the crimes of the regime.
Large sections of international Palestine solidarity movements have remained shamefully silent on the issue. A brave few (see also here) have been consistent in their solidarity and their work has moved parts of the solidarity movement from an initial silence to more engagement, due to the position of Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk, but the overall solidarity with Syrian revolutionary activists and protests over the treatment of Syria’s people by the regime remains painfully and disappointingly weak.
This was in evidence on the march when there were only a handful of socialist activists in attendance. There were no trade union banners, no political parties, no solidarity campaigns save the Syria Solidarity Movement. At the rally at the end of the march speakers were all ones who had a direct relation to what was happening. Paul Conroy, a journalist who reported from the besieged neighbourhood of Baba ‘Amr in Homs in 2012, spoke about his commitment to keep reporting the truth, to stop the governments of the world attempting to rehabilitate the Assad regime and bury the revolution. Fatima Khan, the mother of Abbas Khan, a British surgeon kidnapped by the regime and murdered in prison, called for Damascus to “rise up” and get rid of “killer Assad before he kills you!” Clara Connolly from the Syria Solidarity Movement asked simply “Where is the left?” expressing the shock and resigned disappointment of many that a revolutionary struggle whose effects are going to be as long lasting and as strongly felt as the Nakba or the war on Iraq, could receive so little solidarity.
And it is very little solidarity. While Muslim communities across Britain were sending dozens of ambulances and aid convoys to Syria, young British Muslim men were travelling to Aleppo to drive ambulances, and doctors were travelling to Turkey and even into Syria to perform operations on the tens of thousands of wounded, socialist organisations have not even managed to send a single ambulance to aid the opposition.
While the opposition wrote their cries of desperation across a thousand banners, youtube videos and Friday protests, the Left were paralysed by an unwillingness to break with Cold War ideologies, and defunct anti-war institutions. The selective internationalism of the anti-war movement has meant a generation of young Muslims have been radicalised outside, and in many cases in opposition to the narrative pushed by organisations like Stop the War. In the absence of solidarity efforts in Britain, some of these youth have taken it upon themselves to join the struggle against Assad, fighting and dying with the Free Syrian Army or Islamic brigades.
With the rise of ISIS, and the erasure of rebel groups from the narrative over Syria, both in the mainstream media and the left, this democratic revolution has been obscured, and many Muslim teenagers radicalised by the atrocities they witness online are now heading to Syria not to fight for freedom but for Da‘esh.
In the absence of political and material solidarity from radical and revolutionary progressive forces, liberal and conservative voices have dominated the narrative of how to aid Syria. This has had a marked effect on Syrians’ own solidarity efforts. A revolution which was anti-imperialist to its core has felt left with little option other than to beg the imperial powers for aid.
On 16 March 2015 the Assad regime responded to Syrian opposition celebrations by dropping chlorine gas on the town of Samrin. Six were killed and over 100 wounded in the attack. The attack came just ten days after the UN passed a motion condemning the regime’s continued use of chemical weapons.
In response, the White Helmets, Syria’s volunteer Civil Defence organisation who save people from the rubble of barrel bombings and other regime attacks, issued a call for a No Fly Zone over Syria, to stop the bombs and protect civilians.
Faced with these demands, some on the Left will declare this is ‘pro-imperialist’ and use this as an excuse to not take action. This will just be a continuation of their policy of the last four years of inaction over Syria, and provide no support for the people on the ground suffering and dying. This in turn leaves no one for Syrians to turn to, except Islamic organisations and the ‘international community’. Syria, whose country is occupied by Israel, is home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and who share a border with Iraq, do not need lectures on the dangers of imperialism. What they need is support and solidarity.
If there are any activists left who want to rescue the Left’s reputation over Syria, they need to overcome this narrow minded and dogmatic position and engage with Syria solidarity efforts and the Syrian opposition community.
Supporting Syrians doesn’t necessitate advocating a No Fly Zone. There are dozens of grass-roots solidarity projects which can be supported, either providing support for refugees, medical aid to field hospitals, financing and publicising civil society groups practising non-violent resistance, or grass-roots mutual aid efforts to rebuild economies and societies in Syria’s shattered towns and villages. It is this the Left must involve itself in, for the sake of the Syrian people, and to demonstrate in practice its professed support for freedom and democracy.
Syrian non-violent groups have launched a campaign aimed at reaching out to Western activists and bringing them into solidarity work with the Syrian cause. Their campaign is named Planet Syria after the fact they seem to be treated like they are from another planet, despite raising the same slogans and demands for freedom as people struggling all over the world. They are calling for an international day of action on 7 April to demand an end to the barrel bombs, and negotiations to find a peaceful resolution to the bloody violence which has crushed the peaceful protests, and almost destroyed the revolution.