Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 1, 2012

Welcome to Free Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Today a commenter on my blog demanded to know “the particularities of the rebel forces, [and] the classes they represent” in Syria as if I were on the witness stand in a criminal trial. Now this guy was not half as bad as some of the trolls who show up from time to time calling me a member of the Israel lobby or the next Christopher Hitchens, etc. You know the type, the kind of person whose whites of his or her eyes can be seen as they walk toward you on the sidewalk from sixty feet away. For the conspiracist left, the Syrian rebels are the latest version of UNITA in Angola or the Nicaraguan contras. How do they know this? Well, Turkey is providing aid to them and Hillary Clinton went to Turkey. That’s all you really need to know. This, of course, is the leftist version of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”.

Fortunately, there’s an article in the latest Harper’s by Anand Gopal titled “Welcome to Free Syria” that sheds some light on the living humanity that has risen up against the Baathist dictatorship. The article is behind a paywall but this longish excerpt should be sufficient to motivate you to get the magazine and read it in full.

* * * *

Ibrahim Matar served in the army unit that put down the early protests in Daraa. He didn’t believe the government’s assertions that the protests were organized by Al Qaeda, but he felt it was too dangerous to desert. When he finished his service, in November 2011, he came home to a transformed Taftanaz: ordinary people were running the town. “It was like a renaissance,” he said, “a new look at life.”

During the massacre, he fought alongside the rebels and then abandoned the town at night. When he returned to his scorched home, he headed straight for his prized library. “I saw the burned paper,” he told me, “and tears came to my eyes.” He had been studying for a master’s degree in English translation and had maintained the library for years, collecting books by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett. “Some say Godot is God,” he said, “but I say he is hope. Our revolution is now waiting for Godot.”

Matar brought me to a mosque that sits next to one of the mass graves. Inside, there were heaps of clothes, boxes of Turkish biscuits, and crates of bottled water. An old bald man with a walrus mustache studied a ledger with intensity while a group of old men around him argued about how much charity they could demand from Taftanaz’s rich to rebuild the town. This was the public-affairs committee, one of the village’s revolutionary councils. The mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.” He turned to me and explained, “We’ve gone to every house in town and determined what they need”—he pointed at the ledger—“and compared it with what donations come in. Everything gets recorded and can be seen by the public.”

All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting—twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands—it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

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

“We have to take from the rich in our village and give to the poor,” Matar told me. He had joined the Taftanaz student committee, the council that plans protests and distributes propaganda, and before April 3 he had helped produce the town’s newspaper, Revolutionary Words. Each week, council members laid out the text and photos on old laptops, sneaked the files into Turkey for printing, and smuggled the finished bundles back into Syria.

The newspaper featured everything from frontline reporting to disquisitions on revolutionary morality to histories of the French Revolution. (“This is not an intellectual’s revolution,” Matar said. “This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.”)

Most opposition towns elect a delegate to one of the fifty or so district-wide councils across the country. At the next level up is the Syrian Revolution General Command, the closest thing to a nationwide revolutionary institution. It claims to represent 70 percent of the district-wide councils. The SRGC coordinates protests and occasionally gives the movement political direction: activists in Taftanaz told me that they sometimes followed its suggestions concerning their publications.

The SRGC sends representatives to the Syrian National Council, the expatriate body based in Turkey that has been Washington’s main interlocutor, but the relationship between the two organizations is complicated, and many in Taftanaz expressed their disdain for the SNC. “Who are they?” Omar asked me. “What have they done? They are busy talking to foreigners but they don’t know the situation inside Syria.”

I asked Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst who studies the Syrian opposition at the Institute for the Study of War, about the U.S. approach to these two different rebel organizations. She said she doubted the usefulness of “supporting a group like the SNC, which on paper pays tribute to all the Western ideals we hold dear but has absolutely no legitimacy on the ground.”


  1. That’s some mighty powerful reporting. Not one iota reads like fiction — for what possible motive would some socialist minded journalist have for making this stuff up?

    It rings true and as such these are clearly the makings of an organic Syrian Soviet, not dissimilar to what Hezbollah organized in Lebanon a few years back when Israeli aggression was successfully thwarted for the first time in history.

    Sounds to me like the Syrians have done more than anybody on the planet to solve the gravest crisis facing the worlds toilers – the crisis of proletarian leadership.

    This could be a model for a Soviet in the Arab Spring. The downtrodden masses in the Mideast (to say nothing of the MidWest USA) need to hear this story or courage, self sacrifice, bravery & organizational prowess combined with democratic accountability & transparency.

    No wonder Obama loathes to help these rebels. No wonder Putin aids Assad. No wonder there’s paramilitary death squads rounding up young people.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if both Putin & Obama are arming these paramilitary militias in sync & providing logistical & intelligence support to crush at all costs this model of organization for the world’s poor, this bad apple that threatens to spoil the imperialist barrel.

    If only OWS had the organizational sophistication of the Syrian toilers – peasants & workers who live on less than 5 bucks a day with meager education & scant modern communications.

    Long live the Syrian Soviets and we urge & hope & even pray they retain their political independence from the illegitimate bourgeois sell-out influences within the SNC!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 2, 2012 @ 1:12 am

  2. I should add for those unsure the word “Soviet” in English roughly means: “Workers Council.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 2, 2012 @ 1:25 am

  3. So the real question for revolutionaries is that what if an Assad tank were about to deal a death blow to one or more of these Soviets in session, that is, some peasant’s and workers’ council figuring out who gets what was about to be decimated? — and then suddenly a Nato warplane were about to send a hellfire missile into that Syrian Army tank and destroy it before it wiped out that Soviet session? Trotsky’s answer clearly would be like the analogy of the working class fighting alongside bourgeois troops against fascists in any bourgeois government, so long as the workers maintained their political independence.

    How can the current Syrian Army not be considered a fascist army utterly dependent on the post USSR business arrangement?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 2, 2012 @ 4:28 am

  4. Imperialism will not accept Soviets, they will not arm, fund and lobby for that end (and clearly they have been arming, funding and lobbying to get rid of Assad). If Syrian soviets become a reality then the imperialist powers will do everything they can to destroy it. If NATO suugest they are sending planes to save Soviets I could only think “Some idiots would believe anything”.

    On the evidence being Hilary Clinton went to Turkey, this is pitiful really. It is clear that the rebel forces are being heavily armed via Turkey, and it is equally clear that imperialism has Western educated puppets just ready to be elected.

    So the question is will the left be prepared to stand with the Syrian people and fight the imperialist takeover of their country, because that is the ultimate battle here.

    Comment by Steve — August 2, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

  5. Imperialism will not accept Soviets, they will not arm, fund and lobby for that end (and clearly they have been arming, funding and lobbying to get rid of Assad).

    Look, you schmuck, you asked about who the rebels were, as if they were UNITA or something. I answered you and now you raise another red herring. I don’t give a shit if they are getting guns from Turkey. You obviously want to see them disarmed because you are a pro-Assad flunky. Get lost.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 2, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

  6. I was responding to Karl’s points. I am willing to accept that not all the rebels are Western backed puppets or members of Al Qaeda, I am simply pointing out that imperialists have a huge interest in the country and are ready to impose their own leadership and when that happens then the Syrian rebels have a new enemy who must be defeated.

    Comment by Steve — August 2, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

  7. Incidentally, I don’t have you down as a Zionist or a closet supporter of imperialism or anything like that.

    My problem is that these articles that attack the left are distortions, most of the anti imperialist left are not apologists for Assad. My problem with you is that you play down the role of imperialism, how can you do that in a region that has been shaped by imperialism more than any other and continues to be shaped by it more than any other?

    Comment by Steve — August 2, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

  8. My problem is that these articles that attack the left are distortions, most of the anti imperialist left are not apologists for Assad.

    You’re right. Except for Voltairenet, Global Research, MRZine, and Counterpunch, most of the left is like you–wary of the rebels and ready to condemn it for getting weapons where it can. Frankly, if I were a member of the anti-Assad opposition, I would buy or take weapons from the devil.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 2, 2012 @ 4:37 pm

  9. “Frankly, if I were a member of the anti-Assad opposition, I would buy or take weapons from the devil.”

    If I were a member of the Assad regime I would do a deal with the devil and take weapons from anywhere and I guess by that rule of thumb we would use those weapons in anyway we see fit. Mass killings of opposition are all on the cards, carpet bombing of civilian areas to frighten resistance is Okey dokey. etc etc etc. But this doesn’t really get us very far. The main point isn’t that the rebels are accepting money from the imperialists it is that imperialism is acting like a vulture ready to pick up the scraps. And imperialism has a group of puppets ready to be elected. Imperialism is a huge factor in this and all talk of rebels and Soviets cannot change that reality.

    Comment by Steve — August 2, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  10. Look everybody, It’s clear these destitute Syrian toilers trying to organize local councils with democratic transparency in fear of their lives while adding up who should get what in the end are revolutinary heroes that are one in a million on a world scale & whose sanctity should be protected at all costs and Louis is right in this case — I don’t care if Dick Cheney himself managed to thwart an attack on their village by hellfiring some Syrian Army tank that was about to molest them, I’d be on the side of Dick Cheney’s orders in that case, however, I’d never conceive in a million years Obama (or Cheney) helping the historically oppressed downtrodden masses in such a fashion unless it were by sheer accident.

    Steve is right at least in this regard. Imperialism will never, unless by accident, aid a Soviet. Even in WWII about all they did was send some trucks.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 3, 2012 @ 2:34 am

  11. The bottom line is the Assad regime is equivalent to Franco’s in Spain and in the USA we wish we had the volunteers as courageous as the Lincoln Brigades because we could sure use them at the helm of OWS — but that’s another, albeit the same, struggle.

    The question is which side are you on? It was a way more complicated question in Spain during the 30’s because the USSR had some political legitimacy stemming from the very 1st OWS, that is, the Bolsehvik Revolution, the degeneration of which fooled lots of progressives but now that this case is akin to Spain in the 30’s but with both Putin & Obama in 2012 being an underminer of the Syrian Revolution rather than Stalin & Roosevelt, it’s easy for the masses to be confused, despite it being a more simpler political imperative today, when shells are being salvoed onto ancient metropolises and young people are being rounded up by death squads no doubt trained & funded by the CIA.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 3, 2012 @ 5:23 am

  12. Someone in this thread is forgetting that after the civil war, capitalists from all over the world began concluding commercial agreements with the early Soviet government. Not only will imperialists accept Soviets, they will try to profit from them once it becomes clear they won’t be gotten rid of so easily.

    Steve should look at a map and find a place called Libya if he thinks the choice facing Syria is between Assad’s dictatorship and an imperialist puppet state.

    Comment by Binh — August 3, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

  13. I would like to believe that the article by Anand Gopal is truthful and accurate. But if it is, the need to oppose any direct or indirect imperialist intervention in Syria is even more urgent.

    There seem to be people here who would welcome imperialist bombings of Syria in the hope that such bombs would land on Syrian government forces that are in the midst of attacking a ‘soviet’. It’s more likely, IMO, that such imperialist (or Saudi or Turkish) bombs would ‘accidentally’ land on such a soviet.

    Comment by Red Snapper — August 4, 2012 @ 5:35 am

  14. Louis writes, “Frankly, if I were a member of the anti-Assad opposition, I would buy or take weapons from the devil.”

    Louis, you would buy weapons from the devil to fight off those who disagree with you on your blog. But I doubt you are doing it yet, since the devil isn’t, AFAIK, Jewish, and the best you’ve come up with so far is ‘schmuck’.

    Comment by Red Snapper — August 4, 2012 @ 9:17 pm

  15. Karl Friedrich makes an analogy with Spain during the 1936-39 revolution and civil war. But in that conflict, the political and class nature of the various forces were generally quite clear, including the anarchists, Trotskyists, quasi-trotskyists (POUM), left and not-so-left socialists, etc., etc.. Last but, unfortunately, not least were the Stalinists who acted as the vanguard of bourgeois-republican counter-revolution, which they described to the world as defending ‘democracy’ against fascism. While much of this wasn’t widely publicized outside of Spain, those who wanted to know could and did find out, even without the Internet.

    In Syria, OTOH, nothing is clear politically.

    Comment by Red Snapper — August 5, 2012 @ 12:10 am

  16. Obviously business comes before anything to the capitalist, so once their side lost the civil war they were prepared to do business but, and this is the point, imperialism will not send in planes to defend Soviets! They will first try to defeat them in any way they can. Also can I remind Binh of that period of history called the ‘cold war’, where US foreign policy was strategically directed at the eradication of communist movements.

    Dick Cheney is the man who unleashed shock and awe on the Iraqi population (with all the arguments produced here by Louis, Karl etc), killing thousands. He didn’t lose a single minutes sleep so I am told, don’t you see the problem with holding these guys up as saviours? Is it really just me?

    Incidentally I don’t think the choice is between the puppet state and Assad, just I reckon that is the likely short term outcome, with puppet state the favourite. Imperialism has no choice but to unleash carnage in Syria, it is a gamble but is the only card imperialism has to play and they have no problem in playing it.

    Comment by Steve — August 5, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  17. […] (The article is behind a paywall, but a long excert can be found at Louis Proyects blog) […]

    Pingback by The Syrian revolution and its critics : AntiCapitalists — August 5, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  18. “and this is the point, imperialism will not send in planes to defend Soviets!” And what was imperialism sending to the (Stalinized!) Soviet Union in WW2? Barbie Dolls? They even sailed warships to Murmansk at risk to ship in war material. (I’ll add my opinion that it was Soviet military production and not this aid that was decisive, contrary to what too many historical revisionists would have you believe. But material aid is material aid).

    And Stalin was counterrevolutionary, and imperialism is counterrevolutionary, and…hey, put 2 and 2 together!

    Comment by Matt — August 7, 2012 @ 4:04 am

  19. US imperialism just put a 1 ton robot on Mars – should revolutionary Marxists oppose it?

    Comment by Matt — August 7, 2012 @ 4:07 am

  20. […] many areas, local revolutionary councils have appeared. Louis Proyect extensively quotes from an article written by Anand Gopal. It describes all kinds of village councils running local effairs in districts where the revolt is […]

    Pingback by Talking ’bout a revolution? « Rooieravotr — August 16, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

  21. […] and Yemeni bourgeois-democratic revolutions were genuine mass revolts while their Libyan and Syrian counterparts were foreign-engineered or foreign-backed-and-therefore-hijacked – advanced by […]

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  22. […] and Yemeni bourgeois-democratic revolutions were genuine mass revolts while their Libyan and Syrian counterparts were foreign-engineered or foreign-backed-and-therefore-hijacked – advanced by […]

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  23. […] over many years was eloquent denunciation of both the U.S. occupation and the Taliban. When he writes in support of the Syrian uprising, as he did recently in an extensive article for Harper’s magazine, you […]

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  24. […] reporter who spent time in Afghanistan and Libya, wrote what is probably the only on-the-ground class analysis of the revolution’s social forces, specifically the town councils that govern post-Assad […]

    Pingback by Aiding the Syrian Revolution: a Guide to Action — August 26, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

  25. […] many areas, local revolutionary councils have appeared. Louis Proyect extensively quotes from an article written by Anand Gopal. It describes all kinds of village councils running local effairs in districts where the revolt is […]

    Pingback by Talking ’bout a revolution? | Ravotr — January 7, 2013 @ 11:48 am

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