Article published in March 2012
This article is the last part of a three-part series exploring key questions and debates that have emerged in relation to the Syrian revolution that has been ongoing since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. The first part, “Who is Behind the Popular Movement?,”. The second part, “A Sectarian Movement?,”.
Part 3: Strategy, Tactics and Geopolitics
The Syrian revolution has always been characterized by its non-violent actions, from demonstrations to civil disobedience and strike campaigns as we saw in December 2011. But the regional and international press is focusing exclusively on the clashes between the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This has been contrasted with the peaceful nature of revolutions in places like Egypt. The use of arms by some sections of the Syrian opposition in self-defence has been condemned. The US and western countries have declared their refusal to arm the FSA.
In assessing the strategy of the FSA, it is worth remembering that there were more than 800 martyrs during the three weeks prior to the overthrow of Mubarak. At one point protesters used violence to resist the thugs sent by the Mubarak regime to invade Tahrir square. People in Syria and elsewhere have the right to defend themselves and their families against the oppression of an authoritarian regime. Did we deny this right to the Palestinian resistance against the racist, colonial occupation of their territory by the Israelis? Obviously not. The right to self-defence against the regime’s repression is not in contradiction with the peaceful struggle of the popular movement and the overthrow of the regime.
This said, there is a need for debate around the role of the FSA in the revolutionary process.
Currently, the FSA is not a single and unified institution. It is more a label representing a number of independent armed groups located in various areas of Syria. These groups are not well-armed or well-funded. The FSA purchases their weapons locally on the black market, from arms dealers and smugglers who are profiting from the violence in Syria, while also sometimes purchasing weapons via smugglers from Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. They also capture weapons from security forces in attacks on regime arms depots.
The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) (discussed in the first part of this article) analyse the situation of the FSA in the following terms: “Our Revolution’s fate has been left to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), composed of defected regime soldiers and civilians carrying weapons in self-defence. This group lacks any sustained support, and lacks a unified command and control. At the same time, the FSA has remarkably and courageously defended unarmed civilians and their areas with their light weaponry and small munitions. Predictably, the regime’s repressive military machine has been able to focus its oppression and anger on residents of those areas where the FSA has taken up positions, and engage in acts of reprisal that have doubled the numbers of victims and resulted in humanitarian crises and disaster-stricken areas in many parts of the country.”
“Alternatively, the lack of definitive and organized support for the FSA has led to an absence of effective leadership in the military opposition. This has negatively affected the FSA’s performance and could have disastrous consequences for the entire nation after independence from the current criminal regime. The existence of dispersed and scattered brigades with differing interests, loyalties, and courses of action, combined with the possibility of a flow of weapons from abroad, presents the risk of independent militias that will not focus on the national interest (best-case scenario); this could lead to action and communication with external forces that have conflicting agendas (worst-case scenario).”
The LCC and different groups such the Syrian revolutionary left have called for unification of the various armed groups in Syria under a civil authority towards which they would be accountable. The actions of the FSA should also be coordinated by local opposition groups, so that their needs will be met in protecting the demonstrators. The struggle of the Syrian people must not be transformed into in a violent clash with the militarized regime. Such a battle would give the upper hand to the regime.
The Syrian army is composed of about 295,000 active members. Some 175,000 of those are conscripts with varying levels of training and commitment. However, the army also includes a number of highly trained and capable units, including the Republican Guard Division and the 4th Mechanized Division, totaling between 25,000 and 35,000 in number. These units are under the command of Maher Assad, brother of Assad. Further, there are an additional 100,000 paramilitary forces linked directly to the ruling Baath Party. There is also the internal security apparatus which includes police forces linked to Syrian Military Intelligence, the National Security Bureau, the Political Security Directorate, Air Force Intelligence, and finally the General Intelligence Directorate. The latter division alone is comprised of about 25,000 men, and is directly linked to the highest levels of the government.
This is why we support the role of the FSA in an exclusively defensive and coordinated role with forces on the ground such as the LCC and other groups struggling against the regime, addressing the objectives of the Syrian revolution
Notwithstanding the need for a unified and accountable FSA, this should not detract from the project of building the revolutionary and popular movement, as stated by the LCC: “We must work with local leading activists to focus on continuing and improving their revolutionary activities and increasing their efficiency. The discourse on peaceful civil disobedience has not yet reached the majority and persuaded them of its effectiveness. Many methods of civilian resistance have yet to be used, or have been used only briefly.”
Local groups and coordination committees are the effective and direct organizational format for the revolution. The political groups should support them and work on developing a clear and unified revolutionary strategy. From there we can build a revolutionary coalition bringing together the majority of dissidents.
Syria is now the scene of a contest between the different regional and great powers, all of whom have put their own interests above those of the Syrian people. The US and its allies in the Gulf Arab countries, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia, hope to hijack the revolution and take control of Arab revolutions. Western and Gulf countries aim to use Syria to weaken Iran, by undermining the alliance between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. Russia, China and Iran support the Assad regime for their own geo-political interests, and fear that the US would increase their influence in a post-Assad Syria.
Statements from the NATO, the US and even the European Union have demonstrated a complete lack of will to launch a military offensive in Syria. The reality is that no one has interest in the fall of Assad regime, which has avoided direct confrontation with Israel for nearly four decades, while repressing radical and progressive parties and popular movements. At the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in 1976, the Syrian regime entered Lebanon to assist in repressing Palestinian and progressive forces and put an end to their revolution, coordinating their actions with fascist right-wing parties such as the Phalange.
Even the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the most vocal opponent to the Syrian regime these past months and the largest foreign investor in Syria before the beginning of the uprising, has declared recently by way of Foreign Minister al Faisal that “nobody is against the Syrian regime, but we are against what it is doing.” There is a deliberate refusal to recognize popular opposition to the regime within Syria. On its side, Israel, by way of Ehud Barak, has asked Obama and the USA to ease the pressure on the Syrian regime.
One possible scenario envisioned by the different actors from allies to enemies of Assad is that of a political transition controlled by Gulf and Western countries exemplified by Yemen, which keeps the structure of the regime as it is while sacrificing the head of state. The only actor that would not be satisfied would be the Syrian people and their allies, many of whom are envisioning a truly revolutionary alternative.