Seeking a new redivision
Syrias opposition is increasingly dominated by Islamists and is openly backed by imperialism, writes Eddie Ford
It is now more than obvious that the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the actual Syrian state itself, is disintegrating. The government has effectively lost control of the Kurdish-dominated areas of northern Syria, now run largely by forces loyal to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) - which is broadly affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), itself engaged since 1978 in an armed struggle against the Turkish state. Heavy fighting sporadically breaks out in Damascus. Then there is the continuing bloody battle for Aleppo, the largest city with an official population of over two million.
Riad Hijab, the ex-prime minister who defected to Jordan last week, told a press conference in Amman on August 14 that the Assad regime is collapsing “morally, financially and militarily” and now controls no more than 30% of Syrian territory. There is no particular reason to doubt him. Hijab also called on the opposition abroad to “unite” and for the Syrian army to “follow the example of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s armies” and “take the side of people”. He also stated that Syria is full of officials and military leaders who are “awaiting the right moment to join the revolt” - it is doubtless true that more rats like him will desert the sinking ship.
The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, meeting in Mecca on August 15, look set to formally suspend Syria from membership: another nail in Assad’s coffin. Naturally, Iran has vociferously protested against the decision - allied as it is to Damascus basically due to geopolitical considerations. Desperately, Assad has sent a prominent aide to Beijing for talks on the crisis with Chinese officials. Perhaps signalling that the wind is about to change direction, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said it was also “considering” giving an invitation to members of the Syrian opposition.
Foreign secretary William Hague pledged on August 10 to give £5 million to the opposition. Chickenfeed, of course, from a purely financial point of view, but highly significant as an act of political symbolism. Farcically, he initially claimed that the money would be mainly spent on providing mobile phones to the opposition - which then, for example, “could be used to warn civilians of impending regime assaults”. The idea that people in Syria - whoever they are, opposition supporters or not - do not already have mobile phones is just too ludicrous for words.
The current line is that the aim is to provide “non-lethal” assistance - another obvious nonsense. Yes, the British government, for the moment, may not be directly supplying weapons and so on to the opposition. But the latter will be making damn sure, as the British government fully knows, that this “non-lethal” aid has distinctly lethal consequences - directly aiding the forcible overthrow of the Assad regime.
As for the Americans, they have given the go-ahead for Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm various opposition factions, crucially those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Various sources have been strongly suggesting strongly that there has been a major policy shift at the State Department - in favour of MB. While anti-Obama conspiracists will have a field day with this, the reality is infinitely more serious than the idea that the US president is a closet Islamist. The majority line in Washington is that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be the dominant force in Middle Eastern politics for some time to come ... and that America can do business with the winning side.
In other words, the US and its allies are now more or less openly backing the Syrian opposition - and yet Socialist Worker continues to kid itself with comforting stories about those opposing Assad “on the ground” “not acting under the mandate of outside forces”. So the revolution has “not been hijacked” and the SWP must “stand with the revolution against the regime and at same time stand against international intervention” (August 18). Yes, comrades, there are many in Syria who oppose Assad and who want nothing to do with outside intervention. But the tide has moved against them. There is outside intervention. US imperialism has clearly decided to try a cut a deal with the MB and bank on the victory of anti-Assad forces. Going into a state of denial about this obvious fact helps no-one, least of all those tendencies within Syria that have progressive and pro-working class politics.
Therefore we have to ask, who or what is the Syrian opposition? The answer is that it is made up of a kaleidoscope of almost countless parties, groups and factions - very many of which have different and often competing aims and programmes.
By far the most prominent is the Syrian National Council, an umbrella organisation consisting of several organisations - akin in some respects to the undoubtedly imperialist-backed National Transitional Council in Libya. Indeed, the NTC recognises the SNC as the sole and only “legitimate” government of Syria - which surely tells you something about its general political-ideological orientation. The SNC claims to represent approximately 60% of the Syrian opposition.
Organisationally speaking, the SNC has a secretariat general consisting of representatives of the various components, which elects a nine-member executive committee and a president whose term is renewable every three months. The current president is Abdelbaset Sayda, a Kurd who lived in exile in Sweden for many years. He has no real power and no mass base. Sayda was appointed SNC president for the sake of appearances. To show that the SNC can reach out to the Kurdish population. The dominant force in SNC is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and it uses the SNC to provide it with a liberal veneer. Eg, inside the SNC are the Local Coordination Committees, a network of various grassroots movements formed in March 2011 that have led anti-Assad demonstrations - the LCC website daily chronicles the vicious attacks by government forces, carrying amateur video footage and utilising social media to disseminate information. Currently, the LCC opposes outside military intervention and is said to consist of young activists of multiple religious and ethnic backgrounds. Nevertheless, some claim more than half of the SNC’s leadership are Islamists. In response, Melhem al-Droubi, a high-ranking member of both the MB and the SNC, said only 30% of the body was Islamist - including two members of the executive committee. Either way it is MB which is in the driving seat.
Then there is the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians, created by the union of a dozen Muslim and Christian, Arab and Kurd parties and which urges minorities within Syria to fight the Assad regime. Unlike the LCC though, the CSDS does call for outside military intervention in the form of no-fly zones similar to those deployed in Kosovo and Iraq. Others involved in the SNC are the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution - committed to a “political solution”, whilst also recognising the “importance of armed struggle” - and the Syrian Revolution General Commission, another coalition of 40 opposition grassroots groups set up in Istanbul last August. According to an initial statement, the long-term aim of the SRGC, with its “aggressive platform” for the removal of Assad, is to build a “democratic and civil state of institutions that grants freedom, equality, dignity and respect of human rights to all citizens”. The SRGC’s relationship with the SNC has been fractious - at one point it expressed complete “disillusionment” with the latter’s “endless internal power squabbles”.
Another prominent member of the SNC is the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change grouping, an umbrella movement born during the so-called ‘Damascus Spring’ of 2000-01 and which in October 2005 issued a five-page “unity” statement denouncing the Syrian government as “authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish”, calling instead for “peaceful and gradual” reform “based on dialogue” and “recognition of the other” - most notably a “fair solution” for the Kurdish question which “insures the equality of Kurds with all other Syrian citizens”. Five organisations have committed themselves to this statement - the National Democratic Rally; the Kurdish Democratic Alliance; the Committees of Civil Society; the Kurdish Democratic Front; and the Movement of the Future.
One of those five, the NDR, is itself an coalition of six groups: the ‘left’ Nasserite Democratic Arab Socialist Union; Syrian Democratic People’s Party (until 2005 the Syrian Communist Party/Political Bureau or Syrian Communist Party/ Riyad al-Turk); Arab Revolutionary Workers Party (which split from the Ba’ath Party in 1966 declaring allegiance to “scientific socialism”); the Movement of Arab Socialists; the Democratic Socialist Arab Ba’ath Party, and the Communist Labour Party - a “Marxist-Leninist” splinter group from the Syrian Communist Party.
However, to complicate matters even more, most of the parties in the NDR are actually full members of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change - a significant rival to the SNC and one that mainly functions within Syria, as opposed to the Paris-based SNC leadership. Led by Hussein Abdul Azim and other longstanding dissidents, the NCCDC consists of about 13 mostly left-leaning political parties, including three Kurdish groups. Ironically, despite its unmistakably left/secularist orientation, the NCCDC is sometimes described or denounced as more ‘moderate’ or ‘reformist’ than the more Islamist-orientated SNC, due to its calls for “dialogue” with the regime conditional on the withdrawal of the military from the streets, the end of attacks on peaceful protestors by security forces and the release of all political prisoners. Additionally, some senior NCCDC figures have attacked the call for the “overthrow of the regime” as being “unpractical, unrealistic and useless”.
But life moves on, and the NCCDC now calls for the “dismantlement” of the Syrian dictatorship. More importantly still, it says it is utterly opposed to foreign intervention - thus leading to persistent conflicts with the SNC leadership, some of whom openly call for western military intervention. Haytham Manna, one of the few NCCDC leaders who lives abroad, has offered the sharp opinion that the SNC is a “Washington club” and that anyone who agitates for foreign intervention is a “traitor”. Needless to say, the NCCDC is extremely wary of the influence that the MB seems to exert over the SNC - so it is unlikely to join up in the immediate or near future.
It is very difficult to fully keep track of the innumerable anti-Assad Kurdish groups. The only Kurdish party operating from inside Syria to have declared itself an affiliate of the SNC so far is the Kurdish Future Movement Party, which was led by Mashaal Tammo - until he was gunned down by masked men on October 7 2011 in the north-eastern city of Qamishli. The next day more than 50,000 mourners marched through city in a funeral procession for him, only to be shot at by the security forces - five were killed. Interestingly, the PKK accused the Turkish government of carrying out the assassination.
As recently noted by the Weekly Worker, the Kurdish Supreme Committee was formed on July 12 in Erbil under the auspices of the Iraqi Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani. The KSC is comprised of the PYD and the Kurdish National Council, the latter loosely modelled on the SNC and which itself is composed of 15 Syrian Kurdish parties. The key difference between the KNC and the SNC is over their approach to the issue of self-determination, with the KNC pressing strongly for Kurdish autonomy, whereas the SNC has rejected anything more than “administrative decentralisation”. Accordingly, rifts are opening up between the KNC and the SNC. A spokesman of the Kurdish Youth Movement - the largest youth movement in the Kurdish areas of Syria and a major KNC component - declared that Abdulbaset Sieda had “joined the ranks of the enemies of the Kurdish people” when in March he refused to walk out of the SNC unlike all the other Kurdish parties/representatives (apart from the KFMP). Using even stronger language, a representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria accused Sieda of “following the Turkish agenda”.
Which brings us to the Free Syrian Army - now fused with the smaller Higher Military Council. Made up of between 10,000 and 40,000 assorted fighters, such as defectors from the regular armed forces and various civilian volunteers, the FSA has often - and mistakenly - been described as the “armed wing” of the SNC. But those who condemn the FSA as a Turkish-Saudi-Qatari-Salafist client or puppet are equally mistaken, despite the obvious support it gets from the Turkish government.
In reality, the FSA/HMC is as politically/ideologically variegated as the LCC - or indeed the entire opposition itself. Hence the SNC has found it difficult to work with the FSA, which to date has refused to cooperate with the military bureau set up to much fanfare by the SNC in May - even though the official announcement specifically mentioned that the new bureau was being established in order to provide arms to the FSA. But the nominal head of the FSA, colonel Riyad al-Assad - a defector from the Syrian airforce, whose family members have been executed by the regime - has gone on record stating that he does not want any “political interference” from the SNC and that the FSA “has its own military strategy”. It hardly seems like a love affair between the SNC and the FSA, which if truth be told is poorly organised and lightly armed (the FSA’s rank and file appear to be largely Sunni, while its leadership seems mainly Alawite).
US officials and Arab intelligence officers told the New York Times in June that automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some anti-tank weapons were being funnelled, mostly across the Turkish border, by way of a “shadowy network of intermediaries” - including the MB, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. CIA officers are reportedly operating in southern Turkey, with the aim of deciding which armed groups to back - the US does not want weapons falling into the ‘wrong hands’ - groups allied to al Qa’eda, in other words. The US is also suspected of providing satellite imagery and intelligence on Syrian troop movements, and advising how to establish command and control systems.
Similarly, the FSA has acknowledged that some foreign jihadist militants, including those linked to al Qa’eda like the Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant, have travelled to Syria to join its ranks - but insists, believably, that they do not play a decisive role. The Al-Nusra Front has said it is behind a series of suicide bombings which have rocked Damascus since January. Paradoxically, official Iranian media has shown images of opposition fighters captured by the Syrian army - seemingly Islamists/jihadists from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan totally unconnected to the SNC or FSA, with their own separate agenda and programme.
The situation in Syria is highly complex and possibly just ready to bust apart into all-out sectarian carnage. And the same is true of the region. The post-World War I colonial maps, with their straight lines - drawn over the corpse of the Ottoman empire - will soon be museum exhibit. Many in the field of international affairs are predicting a redivision of the entire Middle East and the creation of a series of new states - naturally dominated by US imperialism. Of course, the cost in human terms threatens to be horrendous. A new form of barbarism.