Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 16, 2013

A guide for the perplexed on Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

Leftists trying to figure Syria out

From the very beginning my interest in Syria has been focused on what was taking place inside the country rather than on the Great Game that absorbed Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and Pepe Escobar. If your point of departure is that there is some kind of global chess game in which a pawn might have to be sacrificed for the sake of a checkmate, then naturally you will be willing to see Bashar al-Assad’s enemies vanquished no matter the justice of their cause. One supposes that in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance associated with an approach more Metternich than Marx, the global chess game left tended to avoid reading or mentioning any literature that put the rebels in a favorable light. Instead, every single misstep was seized upon to make it seem that they were a Taliban-like threat to a secular and progressive regime even though with somewhat naughty authoritarian tendencies.

I am sure that those who continue in this vein will have little use for the material outlined below, all of which is available online, but for those sitting on the fence or simply curious this might prove useful:

Reports from the mainstream media:

1. Anand Gopal

Gopal wrote an extremely important article for the August 2012 Harper’s Magazine titled “Welcome to Free Syria” based on his visit to the northern town of Taftanaz. I heard Gopal speak at the last Left Forum and can assure you that he is a man of the left. Here is a passage from the article:

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.”

2. Anthony Shadid

Shadid, who died from an asthma attack in Syria in 2012, was the NY Times chief correspondent on the Arab Spring. I can recommend nearly everything he wrote but most of all the May 10, 2011 article titled “Syrian Elite to Fight Protests to ‘the End’”. Focused on Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, one of Syria’s richest men, Shadid points out that “Mr. Makhlouf represents broader changes afoot in the country. His very wealth points to the shifting constellation of power in Syria, as the old alliance of Sunni Muslim merchants and officers from Mr. Makhlouf’s Alawite clan gives way to descendants of those officers benefiting from lucrative deals made possible by reforms that have dismantled the public sector.” He also quotes Makhlouf’s fairly direct statement that Israel has a keen interest in seeing Bashar al-Assad succeed: “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.”

I also strongly recommend the September 4, 2011 article titled “Syria’s Sons of No One“. It might not reassure the Marxist purists who genuflect to Bashar al-Assad but it makes sense to me:

“Until now, we’re in a huge prison,” Abdullah said. “For 50 years, this society has been closed. Do you think there are people having conversations with the intellectuals? Do you think there’s freedom of expression? Ideas for politics?” He continued: “How do I ask someone who was sitting in prison all his life, with all the windows closed, about these things? All he knows how to do is cry and say, ‘Oh, God!’ when someone beats him.” He drew the metaphor out further. The prisoner was banging on the wall, clanging on the door, and the West, even amid all this tumult, was asking what it meant. “Do you want an Islamic state or a civil state?” he said. “What does it even mean? The prisoner just wants to get out.”

Iyad offered, “There is a volcano here.”

Abdullah nodded in agreement. “The people don’t know what they want, other than freedom,” he said. “They want to get rid of this ruler, stop the corruption, end the bribes and no longer have to live under repression and the security forces. Let’s get rid of this ruler, then we can build institutions, then we can build parties, we can build awareness, and then we can figure out exactly what we want. Under the bullets, we can’t talk about the future.”

3. Rania Abouzeid

On April 23, 2013, she reported on Raqqa for the New Yorker Magazine in an article titled “A Black Flag in Raqqa”, a reference to the Islamic flag that the jihadists had raised in the city they just seized control of over the objections of many of its residents. The article is useful as a guide to the tensions between the grass roots movement and the well-armed guerrillas who rely more on strength of arms than political persuasion to achieve victories. She writes:

For the next few hours, the men engaged in a combative and highly charged discussion. It was about the black banner, but more than that about the direction the Syrian uprising has taken. The men of the house feared that it had been hijacked by Islamists, led by Jabhat al-Nusra, who saw the fall of the regime as the first step in transforming Syria’s once-cosmopolitan society into a conservative Islamic state. All four men said they wanted an Islamic state, but a moderate one.

A few days earlier, a massive black flag bearing the shahada had been hoisted atop a flagpole in Raqqa city’s main square, in front of the elegant, multi-arched governorate building. “We will become a target for American drone attacks because of the flag—it’s huge,” said Abu Noor, a wiry young man who worked in a pharmacy by day and at night volunteered to guard the post office near his home against looters. “They’ll think we’re extremist Muslims!” (There haven’t been such strikes in Syria yet, though the possibility is much discussed here.)

Scholarly articles:

1. Bassam Haddad

Haddad is the editor of Jadilayya.com, an important source of scholarly analysis of MENA (Middle East and North Africa). In the Spring 2012 MERIP journal, he wrote a piece titled “The Syrian Regime’s Business Backbone” that was much stronger on the class composition of the ruling class than the masses but still quite necessary reading. Haddad has spoken at the Brecht Forum in N.Y. and seems fairly left in his orientation, although I suspect that he has been bitterly disappointed by the failure of the Baathists to carry out reforms. He argues along the same lines as Anthony Shahid:

By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.

2. Housam Darwisheh

He is a Syrian academic now based in Japan. His paper “From authoritarianism to upheaval : the political economy of the Syrian uprising and regime persistence” can be read here. Among the points made in his article is the environmental backdrop of the crisis that led to the uprising:

Climate change also unexpectedly eroded the legitimacy of the regime. Waves of drought caused severe rural poverty and sparked massive rural-urban migration, generating unprecedented polarization between urban and rural areas and between the haves and have-nots, a situation that did not exist in Syria before. A demographic transition shaped by rapid urbanization and internal migration, exacerbated by streams of refugees from Iraq, put further pressure on the state’s ability to provide services such as housing, clean water and health. Whereas large cities such as Damascus and Aleppo with relatively developed infrastructure could absorb waves of migrants, underdeveloped cities, such as Dar’a, Hama and Homs, suffered deterioration of already poor conditions.

3. Raymond Hinnebusch

He is the author of “Syria: Revolution from Above” and many other books on the Middle East. His article titled “Syria: from ‘authoritarian upgrading’ to revolution?” can be read here. He is mainly interested in examining class relations in Syria:

The reformists, in practice, focused on making Syria a centre of banking, tourism and cross-regional trade, turning it into a version of Lebanon. Invest- ment was predominantly in tertiary sectors, as Gulf capital has little interest in manufacturing: up to $20 billion was invested in luxury housing and hotels. The absence of rule of law deterred long-term productive investment in industry and agriculture and the return of much of Syria’s enormous expatriate capital. Only 13 per cent of investment after 2000 was in manufacturing, while a flood of cheap imports allowed by trade liberalization drove small manufacturers and micro- enterprises out of business; indeed, reduced tariff protections for industry served as an incentive for investment and entrepreneurship to move from industry into trade. The economy grew at a rate of 5 per cent in 2006 and 4 per cent in 2007 and 2008, and while this enriched the crony capitalists around the regime and the treasury managed to extract a share as well, it did not provide nearly enough jobs to compensate for cuts in public employment and little of it ‘trickled down’ to ordinary people.

Syrian voices:

1. Nader Atassi

He is a young Syrian from Homs now living in the USA who blogs at http://darthnader.net/. He is a self-described anarchist whose commitment to the revolutionary cause in Syria speaks more to his understanding of class than a hundred apologists for al-Assad speaking in the name of Marxist orthodoxy. In fact the more I hear from such people, the more I think that their Marxism owes more to Stalin than any Marxist I value. He was interviewed recently at Truthout, where he stated:

In the city of Darayya in the suburbs of Damascus, where the regime has waged a vicious battle ever since it fell to rebels in November 2012, some residents have decided to come together and create a newspaper in the midst of all the fighting, called Enab Baladi (meaning Local Grapes, as Darayya is famous for its grapes). Their paper focuses both on what is happening locally in Darayya and what is happening in the rest of Syria. It’s printed and distributed for free throughout the city. [The] principles [of] self-governance, autonomy, mutual aid and cooperation are present in a lot of the organizations within the uprising. The organizations that operate according to some of those principles obviously don’t comprise the totality of the uprising. There are reactionary elements, sectarian elements, imperialist elements. But we’ve heard about that a lot, haven’t we? There are people doing great work based on sound principles who deserve our support.

2. Joseph Daher

He is a member of the Syrian revolutionary Left and a PhD student at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland who blogs at http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/. He was on the same panel as Anand Gopal at the last Left Forum, calling in through Skype. I find him among the more reliable and inspiring voices from Syria. On September 8th he spoke about the determination of ordinary Syrians to create democratic institutions both in opposition to the regime and to the jihadists:

In the neighborhood of Bustan Qasr, in Aleppo, the local population has protested numerous times to denounce the actions of the Sharia Council of Aleppo, which gathers many islamist groups. On 23 August for instance, the protesters of Bustan Qasr, while condemning the massacre through chemical weapons committed by the regime against people in Eastern Ghouta, were also calling for the liberation of the famous activist Abu Maryam, once more jailed by the Sharia Council of Aleppo. They continue until today to demand his release. At the end of June 2013, in the same neighborhood, the activists hailed “go f*c* yourself Islamic council,” protesting the repressive and authoritarian politics of the latter. Popular outrage was also expressed following the assassination by foreign jihadists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group (ISIS) of a 14-year old boy, who allegedly made a blasphemous comment in a joke referring to Prophet Mohammad. A protest was organized by the popular committee of Bustan Qasr against the Islamic council and the islamist groups. Activists hailed “what a shame, what a shame, the revolutionaries became shabiha,” and compared the Islamic council to the Syrian regime’s secret police, a clear allusion to their authoritarian practices.

3. Robin Yassin-Kassab

Robin is a novelist who blogs at http://qunfuz.com. “Aziz’s Story” is his latest post:

Why did Selemiyyeh rise? For the same basic reason as the rest of Syria – in reaction against the terrible decades-long oppression of the Assad regime. Here, as illustration, is Aziz’s personal story.

When he was 19 he was a student of Information Systems Engineering, as eager as any of his townsmen to earn academic qualifications. He was also a young man with a passion for aeroplanes. When he met an Iraqi ex-pilot he was spurred to research and write a long article on the role of air power in the Iran-Iraq war. He managed to publish the article in “Avions”, a specialist magazine in France.

That was his mistake. He thinks something in the article must have upset the Iranians, Assad’s closest allies. He was arrested and tried for the crimes of “seeking to undermine national unity, and the disclosure of military information.” He was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment. After the first year, and after paying a thousand-dollar bribe, his parents were able to pay him a two-minute visit. During this agonisingly brief encounter they were insulted by the guards, but at least they knew their son was alive.

Get it? Two and a half years for writing an article on air power in the Iran-Iraq war. How the “anti-imperialist” left can rally around a government capable of such depraved action is a mystery beyond comprehension.

4. Anonymous

This is an article by a young man who I got to know fairly well through conversations over Skype for more than a year: http://syrianfreedomls.tumblr.com/post/54663959595/a-story-untold-from-syria

What Marxists say:

1. Hassan Khaled Chatila

Interestingly enough, an interview with him appeared originally on the Kasama website, no doubt a function of Chatila’s affiliation with what was likely a Maoist group called the Communist Action Party. I am not sure the article disappeared inadvertently after they moved to a new format or else they decided that it clashed too much with their “line” on Syria that resembles the PSL’s or Counterfire’s. Fortunately, you can still read the interview at Links. Chatila’s article appeared at the very start of the uprising. He writes:

The revolt is not generalised across the country and society. It is more like a series of neighbourhood uprisings than a centralised revolution. The main actors so far have been educated youth and unemployed youth seeking access to modernity.

Industrial workers take part as individuals, but many of the people in the streets are what I would call lumpen proletariat, people who are unemployed or without regular jobs, who have to live as best they can. They work a few days here and there, mainly in services for the bourgeoisie, as maids, porters, doormen, etc. They have no social security or other benefits. The other component of this movement comes from the lower middle class, especially young unemployed university graduates. About 20 per cent of young graduates are unemployed. They can’t get married because they have to live with their parents, due to both unemployment and the severe housing shortage.

I would not use the word lumpen myself but agree with the underlying thrust of the analysis, namely that the prime actors are in the informal economy, which was the case in Nicaragua in the 1980s. These are the people that Mike Davis wrote about in “Planet of Slums”. One imagines that much of the left is ready to throw such Syrians under the bus because they are not coal miners or steel workers carrying lunch pails to their job, with copies of a sectarian newspaper under the arm. Once you are ready to dispense with such fantasies, the authors and articles cited here would be a good place to begin getting grounded in reality.

2. Yassir Mounif

There is an interview with this young academic who received his PhD from a Lebanese university in a recent issue of International Viewpoint, the magazine of the Mandelista Fourth International.  He just returned from Syria and offers these observations:

I think that the left has a real task ahead of it. It has to really formulate a new position, a more coherent position. A position where one can be at the same time against the war and also against dictatorship. And as long as they don’t do that, I think that they won’t have any kind of credibility. People in Syria will see that as almost a license to kill because the Syrian regime has been actually broadcasting those demonstrations on Syrian State TV, showing how much it is popular in the West and that people are demonstrating in the streets of New York and other cities showing those pictures of Asad. Actually the Syrian regime is not even able to organize such demonstrations or rallies in Syria, so it was very happy to see that emerging in many parts. And many of the people who are demonstrating actually don’t know anything about the reality that Syrians are living, and their struggles, and their fights, and their everyday resistance, and what they’re trying to build, and the creativity in what they’re doing.

3, Michael Karadjis

Although I used to have violent debates with him about Yugoslavia, I find myself in awe of his ability to grasp the complexities of the Syrian revolution. He is a long-time member of the Australian group called the Socialist Alliance that started out over forty years ago as a clone of the American SWP. They have gotten sharper as they have gotten older, while the SWP has gone into orbit around the lost planet of Zyglish in the Merxandor galaxy. Here is a passage from Karadjis’s “Is there ‘a US war on Syria’? The Syrian uprising, the Assad regime, the US and Israel”. It is a direct challenge to the prevailing “wisdom” that the FSA must only get its weapons from sources vetted by the “anti-imperialist” left that has no problems with MIG’s firing S25 missiles, each carrying 400 pounds of TNT, into apartment buildings in Homs or Aleppo.

In the meantime, it is important to stress that it is the regime that is imposing a “military solution” on a massive scale; in such circumstances the FSA has the right to get arms for self-defence from whoever it wants. Blaming whatever tiny trickle of arms the FSA gets for continuing military conflict is simply stating that the FSA should commit suicide in order to achieve the peace of the graveyard. To begin to ever-so-slightly equalising the fire power of the two sides – with the regime still absolutely dominant[1] – does not mean advocating a military solution. It just means people have the right to protect themselves against getting blasted to bits. It may even strengthen the possibilities for a negotiated solution, which at present Assad has no reason to consider.

4. Corey Oakley

Oakley is a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia, a group that comes out of the “state capitalist” tradition and that is having talks about possible merger with Karadjis’s group. Needless to say, Syria will not be one of the sticking points. In “The left, imperialism and the Syrian revolution”, Oakley writes:

Prominent British leftists Tariq Ali and George Galloway have come out stridently in opposition to the insurrectionary aims of the uprising, claiming that the revolution has been taken over by reactionaries and arguing that a negotiated settlement with the regime is the only answer. Ali, in an interview with Russia Today, said the choice was between a “Western imposed regime, composed of sundry Syrians who work for the Western intelligence agencies…or the Assad regime.” Galloway, the left populist MP best known as a campaigner against the Iraq war, goes even further, denouncing the Syrian resistance for not accepting the peace plan advanced by the UN.

Much of this left-agonising about the Syrian revolt reflects the legacy of Stalinism, which led many to identify leftism with various despotic but “anti-imperialist” regimes that opposed the West and oppressed their own people in equal measure. But others on the left not weighed down by the legacy of Stalinism echo Galloway’s attitude over Syria. John Rees, until a few years ago a leading member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, wrote last month that he was in “broad agreement” with Galloway and Ali.

Sad but true.


  1. Thanks a lot, Louis. But I live in Scotland, not London. (so much for my social life).

    Comment by Robin Yassin-Kassab — September 16, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

  2. Still perplexed but I appreciate the article marshalling the case for the anti-Assad forces. I have seen articles claiming that Israel wants Assad to win and others with equal conviction claiming Israel wants the popular forces to win! Other contradictory examples abound. But it seems clear that it is terrible to support Assad on any grounds and it is terrible to oppose the insurgents if they are who they claim to be. And supporting the still-likely American bombing-to-come of Assad is a dreadful option. Is this what the American elite mean by “hard choices”?

    Comment by Kirk Hill — September 17, 2013 @ 2:22 am

  3. Syrian civil war is a more complicated situation than sunni Islamic zealots vs secular alawite Baathists. That is certainly true.

    But the Syrian civil war is also a proxy war between imperialist hegemonic forces led by the U.S. and counter-hegemonists led by Russia is also true.

    Both accounts are true.

    Comment by Bankotsu — September 17, 2013 @ 3:53 am

  4. Merxandor? Isn’t that the latest lipid-lowering drug? I thought I just saw a 30-minute infomercial about it.

    Comment by ld — September 17, 2013 @ 7:05 am

  5. An excellent compendium, Louis. I would add Ghaith-Abdul Ahad, the Guardian journalist who has done some of the finest journalism from the frontlines, providing a real sense of the complexities, contradictions, and simply human experience of the struggle. One of his best, I think:

    Comment by Brian S. — September 17, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

  6. Agreed, but one could go further and say that the acid test of the Syrian and larger Arab revolutions definitively exposes the bankruptcy of “anti-imperialist” leftism. There are historic reasons for this, the first and foremost of which is that the Middle East and South Asia more generally is the site that puts the definitive seal on the failure of US imperialism as global *hegemon*, highlighted by Obama’s failure to whip up domestic support for an attack before the fact, a truly remarkable event that seems to slip the left’s intellectual grasp. What it means is that, if there is no hegemon, there is no “counterhegemonic bloc” possible either. Instead the US has been forced to deal on terms of relative equality with an imperialist rival, Putins’ Russian Federation. It means we are in a world system without a global hegemon, one more akin to the world of Lenin and Trotsky than to the postwar. It means that a specifically anti- US or NATO imperialism is no longer a strategic line of march.

    That on the “great chessboard”. We shouldn’t disparage this question – the radical left should pay detailed attention to it, as it will define the conditions for political intervention. The problem is that much of that Left has been approaching it with an outdated and now wrong framework. And it will take more than simple negation to fix it.

    And again, the mass antiwar sentiment before the fact is highly significant. It is all part and parcel of the deep changes, both ideological and otherwise material, in the composition of the US working class. The old imperialist working class is in deep decay. That is creating a historic opening for us, if we can straighten our own BS out. More later, likely on NS…

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — September 18, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

  7. “It means we are in a world system without a global hegemon, one more akin to the world of Lenin and Trotsky than to the postwar. It means that a specifically anti- US or NATO imperialism is no longer a strategic line of march.”

    That’s not true. U.S. is still the hegemon.



    Comment by Bankotsu — September 19, 2013 @ 3:28 am

  8. […] I should add that I took an initial stab at providing such a resource in 2013: http://louisproyect.org/2013/09/16/a-guide-for-the-perplexed-on-syria/ […]

    Pingback by A resource guide for understanding Syria | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 14, 2015 @ 8:26 pm

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