Understanding Syria’s Revolution: A Response to Mairead Maguire’s Article on Syria

12523893_1151394188205964_4884563690814751694_nArticle first published in Peace news: http://peacenews.org/2016/01/26/33329/

The respected Mairead Maguire in her article “Syrian Peace Groups: This is not a Civil War, it is a Set of Foreign Invasions” claims that “Syria will be driven by outside interference and destructive forces within, to suffer the same terrible fate of Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Yemen, and so many other countries.”

In this piece I make the following points:

  • Maguire talks about geopolitics and foreign interference, but ignores the privatization and neo-liberal “reforms” that led to a social explosion.
  • The U.S. government has never wanted an overthrow of the Assad regime, but only desired changes of faces in top posts.
  • Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have mostly pushed through various ways to transform the revolution into a sectarian religious war, but numerous Syrian revolutionary forces have continued to fight for the initial objectives despite desperate odds.
  • The amount of support for Assad from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah dwarfs the aid given to anti-regime fighters of every sort.

Mairead Maguire, as a majority of observers, has analyzed the Syrian revolutionary process in geopolitical terms, from above, and ignores the popular political and socio-economic dynamics at the bottom. This is problematic and forgets that the Syrian revolutionary process is part of a regional movement, which has and continue to shaken the entire MENA region, with new popular uprisings that started last summer in Iraq and Lebanon. The revolutionaries in Syria are fighting, like the other activists in the countries of the region, for freedom and dignity and also against the authoritarian regimes and the Islamic groups and jihadists who are opposed to their objectives.

Maguire completely forgets that neo liberal policies were accelerated massively when Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez Al-Assad, who was in power since 1970. These policies, accelerated by the savage repression of any popular or working class protest since the early 2000s, have had devastating effects. At the same time, the Assad regime became more dependent on the Assad Makhlouf family clan, with a resulting over concentration of patronage, opportunities and corruption in its hands at the expense of the older regime clients. Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, represented the mafia-style process of privatisation led by the regime. A process of privatization created new monopolies in the hands of relatives of Bashar al-Assad, while the quality of goods and services declined.

Assad also weakened the Baath party apparatus and workers and peasant unions because they were viewed as obstacles to neo liberal economic reform. So the regime starved them of funds and attacked their powers of patronage. As explained by Raymond Hinnebush, a scholar, “this debilitated the regime’s organised connection to its constituency and its penetration of neighborhoods and villages. The gap was partly filled by the security services, which however were underpaid, corrupt and lax, moreover, Asad curbing of their ability to dispense patronage and legal exemptions, such as tolerance of smuggling, reduced their ability to co-opt societal notables such as tribal elders, symptomatic of this was the mid decade outbreak of several localized sectarian / tribal conflicts (between Bedouin and Druze in Sweida, and between Alawis and Ismaelis in Masyaf), which manifested an erosion of the regime. Where citizens would once have gone to local party or union officials for redress or access, increasingly they approached tribal, sectarian and religious notables.” (1)

On the economic level, the private sector before the popular uprising was contributing to the up to 65% of the GDP (and more than 70% according to other estimates), while it is also the biggest employer as approximately 75% of the labor force in Syria work in the private sector. (2)

On the eve of the uprising of March 2011, the unemployment rate stood at 14.9%, according to official figures — 20-25% according to other sources; it was respectively 33.7% and 39.3% among those aged 20-24 and 15-19 years. In 2007, the percentage of Syrians living below the poverty line was 33 %, which represented approximately seven million people, while 30% of them were just above this level. (3)  The proportion of poor is higher in rural areas (62 %) than in urban areas (38 %). Poverty is more widespread, more rooted and more marked (58.1 %) in the northwest and northeast (the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh), where 45% of the population lives. (4)

Real GDP growth and real per capita income has been decreasing since the beginning of the 90s. This has pushed the regime to continue its neo liberal policies and search for more private capitals. Meanwhile ownership of land was increasingly concentrated in a small number of hands. A frontline of a satirical newspaper put it well “after 43 years of socialism, feudalism returns.”

In agriculture, the privatization of land at the expense of several hundreds of thousands of peasants from the northeast, from 2008, because of drought, should not be perceived as the consequence of a simple natural disaster. The growth and intensification of the exploitation of the land by big agribusiness companies – including lands previously retained for grazing, and even the illegal drilling of wells -, as well as the establishment of lines of selective water meeting the requirements of the new major owners – facilitated the corruption of the local administration which accompanied the agricultural crisis. In 2008, 28% of farmers were exploiting 75% of irrigated land, while 49% of them had only 10% of the latter, which is evidence of the progress of inequalities within agriculture. (5) Small farmers with land on the outskirts of cities were actually selling their smallholdings for increasingly large amounts as funds from abroad (particularly the Gulf) pour into the country.

The Assad regime policies were totally led by neo liberal dynamics, with its priority on capital accumulation and growth to the neglect of equality and distribution. The private sector became the main agent for investments and employment, which however could not fill the gap left by the public sector decline. In the same time, investments by the state in social services diminished considerably, while subsidies were progressively removed or diminished in agriculture inputs, fuel, etc.… The responsibility of social services was given increasingly to private charities, and therefore bourgeoisie and conservative layers of the society. In the area of health notably, the regime withdrew considerably, letting an increasing space to charitable associations, and especially religious ones. In 2004, Of 584 charitable organizations, 290 were registered Islamic organizations, of which most are active in Damascus and its suburbs. They are based in local mosques and poor neighborhoods Of the more than 100 charitable organizations in the capital, approximately 80 per cent are Sunni Islamic: these operate s network that serves about 73,000 families with a budget with a budget of around 842 millions of Syrian Pounds (SP) or 18 millions of dollars to more than 73000 families. (6)

Neo-liberal policies have re enforced religious associations, both Islamic and Christian, in Syria and their network of diffusion, increasing their role in society at the expense of the State. Bashar al-Assad actually continued a strategy of fostering Islamic conservative sectors as his father did.

We should not forget as well the regime’s authoritarianism against any form of dissent in the country and this for decades, completely ignored by Maguire.

In addition to the socio-economic and political reasons underlying the popular uprising in Syria, Maguire has spoken of proxy wars against the Syrian regime. Foreign forces on the side of the regime have been much more present and played a crucial role in saving the regime, while the so-called friends of Syria have not acted as real support to the Syrian revolution as we will see.

Regime change?

“The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” Kerry told reporters in the Russian capital after meeting President Vladimir Putin.

Kerry’s words were said on Dec. 15, 2015. For some people that was a shock, and many, have actually been supporting the idea that regime change has been the objective of the USA and western imperialist states in general since day one of the uprising in Syria and actually in the region.  This is actually far from the truth.

The objectives of the USA and Western powers since the beginning of the uprising in Syria have never been to assist and help the Syrian revolutionaries or to overthrow the Assad regime. The USA has tried on the opposite to reach an agreement between the Assad regime (or section of it) and the opposition linked to Western, Turkey and Gulf regimes, represented today by the Syrian National Coalition Of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

This “Yemeni type solutions” maintains the structure of old regimes and guarantee the neo-liberal and imperialist order that was existing prior 2011.

We can see this through the past years policies of the USA regarding Syria, while not forgetting that at the beginning of the uprising the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the dictator Bashar al-Assad as a “reformer” and added that “many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” (7)

In 2011, as the regime continued the crack down on protests and soldiers began to peel away from the army, U.S. intelligence officials identified officers from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect who potentially could lead a regime change. Washington’s policy in 2011 was to get to the point of a transition in Syria by finding cracks in the regime and offering incentives for people to abandon Assad, but regime cohesiveness held, and the crackdown intensified. (8) In August 2011, Mr. Obama publicly called for Mr. Assad to step down, but without changing the core of its policy regarding Syria as we explained above: the regime must be maintained with only superficial changes.

As we can see in the Geneva guidelines of June 30 2012, which was agreed to unanimously by the Permanent five 5 members of the UN Security Council, it would be permissible for Assad to serve on the transitional governing body. Indeed, he could preside over it. All that was required was the consent of the opposition delegation. Similarly, delegates representing the Syrian Arab Republic—the regime and the government—could withhold consent to persons nominated by the opposition.

In addition to this, the absence or the lack of any kind of “large,” organized and decisive military assistance of the USA and/or Western states to the Syrian revolutionaries is another proof of any this lack of will for any radical change in Syria. The Wall Street Journal published an article in January 2015 on this CIA aid saying:

“Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones—and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks. When they appealed last summer for ammo to battle fighters linked to al Qaeda, the U.S. said ‘no.’” (9)

In addition, the United States has opposed since the beginning of the uprising to supply various FSA forces with anti-aircraft missiles capable of taking down warplanes. (10)

The plan of Barack Obama’s, which was approved by the U.S. Congress of $500 million to arm and equip 5,000-10,000 Syrian rebels, but was never implemented, was not aimed at overthrowing the Assad regime, as we can read in the text of the resolution:

“The Secretary of Defence is authorized, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to provide assistance, including training, equipment, supplies, and sustenance, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups and individuals for the following purposes:

  • Defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and securing territory controlled by the Syrian opposition.
  • Protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria.
  • Promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.” (11)

This program has been a total a failure. “The program is much smaller than we hoped,” conceded the Pentagon’s policy chief, Christine Wormuth, saying there were between 100 and 120 fighters currently being trained, while adding that they were also “getting terrific training.” (12) A top military general told Congress that the U.S. had successfully trained just “four or five” opposition soldiers.

The chief of staff of the US-trained Syrian rebel group Division 30 actually resigned from his position and withdrew from the program, on Sept. 19, 2015. Citing problems such as “the lack of sufficient numbers of trainees,” and “the lack of seriousness in the implementation of the project to establish the 30th brigade.”  (13) The other problem faced with the United States to constitute armed groups in Syria loyal to their interests was and is also thwarted by the reality on the ground. This is because of the decision of a large majority of opposition groups to cooperate with Washington only if they are able to maintain their independence and autonomous decision-making, and if the collaboration includes a clear plan for the overthrow of the Assad regime. (14)

In October 2015, even Senator Lindsey Graham challenged Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Joseph Dunford on the U.S. strategy in Syria. He asked about the possibility of overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying, “This is a half-assed strategy at best.” (15)

Finally in recent days, the Syrian National Coalition Of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces cast doubt on whether it would go to Geneva 3 for the “peace negotiations,” because they notably accused the United States of adopting unacceptable Iranian and Russian ideas for solving the conflict.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on their sides, are the states that want the most to see the fall of the Assad family, but not of the regime and its institutions. The monarchies of the Gulf and private networks within these countries have wanted to transform this popular revolution into a sectarian civil war because they fear a democratic Syria and a propagation of the revolution in the region that would threaten their power and interests. As a reminder Saudi Arabia and Qatar enjoyed good relations with the Assad regime before the uprising in 2011. They supported politically and economically Islamic fundamentalist movements such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar Sham, Army of Islam and other similar groups that have a sectarian and reactionary ideology in total opposition to the spirit of the revolution. These groups also attempt to reduce the role of the popular committees, sometimes through violent ways. They also propagated a sectarian religious discourse through their various medias.

The transformation of the nature of the revolution into a sectarian war would also able them to scare their own populations in the following way: all changes in the region are susceptible to result in a sectarian war and we should therefore encourage the status quo, in other words, the maintenance of these dictatorial powers.

This said, popular resistance has been witnessed until today, despite being the most ignored aspect of the uprising in Syria in most of the analysis. The level of mass self-organization has been one of the most important throughout the regional uprisings because the authority of the regime disappeared in some extended areas. It is true that this situation has changed considerably with the extreme militarization of the uprising and a war context not allowing space for mass demonstrations and scenes of popular resistance like in the beginning of the uprising and until 2013, while Islamic fundamentalist groups have increasingly become dominant on the military field in some areas. This said, many individuals and small groups, although very much weakened, nevertheless still exist in some areas among local coordination popular groups. Pockets of hope and popular resistance exist in Syria and are composed of various democratic and progressive groups and movements opposing all sides of the counter-revolution, the Assad regime and Islamic fundamentalist groups. They are the ones still maintaining the dreams of the beginning of the revolution and its objectives: democracy, social justice, equality and no to sectarianism.

The revolutionaries in these areas still organize through popular councils at the levels of villages, neighborhoods and regions. The popular councils have actually been the true spearheads of the movement that mobilized the people for the protests and organization of daily life in areas where the regime disappeared.  The regions liberated from the regime developed forms of self-organization based on the organization of the masses. Youth and other form of coalitions also exist in Syria with varying types of activities.

Rami Jarrah, a Syria activist journalist of ANA Press (an open source news platform established during the uprising and operating in Turkey and Syria), who was recently in Aleppo reporting from the liberated areas that are being attacked every day by Russian planes along with those of the Assad regime, described how popular civil institutions “are playing a strong role in governing society. Because there’s no one government in power, local volunteer-run councils lead various development projects throughout Aleppo.”  (16)  He added that “What we see here is that democracy is already being practiced,” while “the militarized groups had far more authority year ago and there is less of that now. Citizens have taken control and have a voice.”  (17) Despite the vary harsh situation in Syria, many popular groups and activists are still struggling for the initial objectives of the revolutionary process (democracy, social justice, equality and no to sectarianism). They should not be ignored.

Now let’s compare with the political, economic and military support provided by the allies of the Assad regime. The security and intelligence services of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) have been advising and assisting the Syrian regime since the beginning of the uprising. These efforts have evolved into an expeditionary training mission using Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Ground Forces, Quds Force, intelligence services, and law enforcement forces. The IRI has been providing essential military supplies to Assad and has also been assisting pro-regime militias. (18)  In addition to its military assistance, the IRI has also provided 3 important loans to the Assad regime of respectively  $1 billion in January 2013, of  $3.6 billion in August 2013 and $1 billion in June 2015. Trade between the two countries also grew from approximately about $300 million in 2010 to $1 billion in 2014. (19)

On its side, Russia has long supplied Assad armed forces with the vast majority of their weaponry. The Russian state has continued to ship substantial volumes of small arms, ammunition, spare parts and refurbished material to pro-regime forces. In January 2014, Russia stepped up supplies of military gear to the Syrian regime, including armored vehicles, drones and guided bombs. (20)

In the end of summer 2015, Russia greatly expanded its military involvement on the side of the Assad regime, including providing serious training and logistical support to the Syrian army. (21)  On Sept. 17, 2015, the regime’s army started using new types of air and ground weapons supplied by Russia, while satellite photos taken in mid-September showed Russian forces developing two additional military facilities close to Lattakiyya.  (22)  On Sept. 30, Russian reached a new level with the beginning of its direct military intervention to save the Assad regime. A report published by the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, (23)  wrote that since the beginning of the Russian military, Sept. 30, until Nov. 15, 80% to 90% of Russian strikes have not targeted areas controlled by Daech, while more than 520 civilians were killed by the Russian airstrikes. About more than 100,000 civilians have been forced to flee their regions because of Russian bombings. Russian bombings also destroyed dozens of hospitals and doctors and patients were killed in these raids.

Moscow might have targeted more jihadists after the attacks in Paris but continues to bomb massively areas not controlled by Daech, mostly Islamist fundamentalist forces, FSA groups and civilians. For example on Nov. 28, 2015, the Russian military aviation destroyed in central Idlib province an aid dispensary containing a bakery that produced over 300,000 pounds of bread per month and a well providing safe-drinking water to an estimated 50,000 people. (24)  Many popular neighborhoods in Aleppo and Idlib and their countryside have also been the targets of Russian bombing. (25)

A report of Amnesty, published on Dec. 23, 2015, focused on six attacks in Homs, Idlib and Aleppo between September and November 2015 in which at least 200 civilians and around a dozen fighters were killed. (26) On January 20, 2016, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that Russian airstrikes , which started on 30 September 2015, have killed 1,015 civilians, including more than 200 children.

Let’s come to the objectives of these airstrikes, which are clear: save and consolidate the political and military power of the Assad regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin actually said on Sept. 28, before the beginning of the Russian airstrikes: “There is no other way to settle the Syrian conflict other than by strengthening the existing legitimate government agencies, support them in their fight against terrorism.” In other words crush all forms of opposition, whether democratic or reactionary, to the Assad regime under the so called “war on terror.”

The Lebanese Hezbollah has also been a key foreign actor assisting the Assad regime militarily. Hezbollah’s increasing military role in Syria took various forms ranging from veteran Hezbollah fighters commanding squads of Syrian soldiers, essentially acting as Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO), to the less experienced Syrian regular troops in street fighting in Homs.  (27) They also took care of the training of some pro regime militias known as “popular committees” (28)  and of some of the new recruits in the army.  (29) Estimates of Hezbollah fighters in Syria number between 3,000 and 5,000, including elite fighters, experts and reservists, at a time and rotating in and out of the country on thirty days deployments. (30)  Iraqi Shi’a militants are also fighting in Syria in support of the Assad regime.

Well this is indeed a full scale war that was launched, but not from the USA and not against the Assad regime… but against the Syrian people.



1 Syria: From authoritarian upgrading to revolution, 98-99
2 ibid 24
3 “Syrian Arab Republic, Third National MDGs Progress Report 2010”, http://www.undp.org/content/dam/und…
4 FIDA, “République arabe syrienne, programme d’options stratégiques pour le pays”, December 2009, http://www.ifad.org/gbdocs/eb/98/f/…
5 FIDA, “République arabe syrienne, programme d’options stratégiques pour le pays”, December 2009, http://www.ifad.org/gbdocs/eb/98/f/…
6 Khatib Line, Islamic Revivalism in Syria, The rise and fall of Ba’thist secularism,2011, 119
10 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-usa-missiles-idUSBREA1H0YI20140218
11 https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R43727.pdf
12 http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/16/us-military-syrian-isis-fighters
13 http://uk.businessinsider.com/division-30-syrian-rebel-chief-of-staff-quits-2015-9
14 See https://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2014/09/30/syria-an-analysis-of-the-international-coalition-intervention-led-by-the-usa
15 http://www.c-span.org/video/?c4557020/senator-lindsey-graham-us-strategy-syria
16 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yasmin-nouh/syria-journalist-video_b_8821100.html
17 http://www.orient-news.net/en/news_show/96904/0/A-look-inside-of-Aleppo-with-Rami-Jarrah
18 http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/IranianStrategyinSyria-1MAY.pdf
19 http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2015/06/02/iran-s-stakes-in-syria-s-economy/i9cj
20 https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/will-russia-intervene-syria
21 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11845635/Vladimir-Putin-confirms-Russian-military-involvement-in-Syrias-civil-war.html
22 http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/22/us-mideast-crisis-russia-bases-idUSKCN0RM21520150922
23 http://www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/reports/1447972413#.VlLxZiTA1sv
24 http://syriadirect.org/news/50000-people-without-access-to-drinking-water-after-reported-russian-airstrike-hits-well
25 https://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2015/12/20/???-????-???-?????-????-russian-bombing-on-the-city-of-idlibhttps://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2015/12/10/???-????-??-????-??-????????-?-?????-???https://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2015/12/03/rami-jarrahs-report-from-aleppo-the-fight-against-terror-or-nothttps://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2015/11/29/massacre-by-russian-airstrikes-in-rural-idlib
26 https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/12/syria-russias-shameful-failure-to-acknowledge-civilian-killings
27 https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-battle-for-qusayr-how-the-syrian-regime-and-hizb-allah-tipped-the-balance
28 http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/26/us-syria-hezbollah-special-report-idUSBRE98P0AI20130926
29 http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/863267/en-syrie-le-hezbollah-a-acquis-et-professe-une-precieuse-experience-antiguerilla.html
30 http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Hezbollah_Sullivan_FINAL.pdf

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