Democratic revolution against Assad AND the Gulf-backed forces

Taking Aleppo from outside goes to the detriment of the popular movement
by Wilhelm Langthaler
The military escalation in July, opened by the assassination of four high ranking regime officials, is an acid test both for the regime as well as for the various and diverging opposition forces. Will the current battle help to decompose the ranks of the regime, increase the stream of defections and eventually lead to a military coup to eliminate the Assad-Makhlouf-Clique? Or will the increasingly militarist strategy embodied by the attempt to take over Aleppo by means of an outside assault prompt the closing of the regime’s ranks and alienate parts of the population?
Anti-regime demonstrators in the province of Idlib, June 29, 2012

The blast

The bomb blast of July 18 inside a governmental building killing four top leaders of the security apparatus was a very heavy blow for the regime. Regardless whether the perpetrators were part of the opposition or opponents within the regime it shows an acute stage of weakness, destabilisation and insecurity. Everybody was looking to the reactions of the top echelon of the apparatus.

At the same time news from the massive loss of territorial control in the countryside, oer border crossings and an almost complete withdrawal from the Kurdish area enhanced the picture of the possibility of a quick end of the regime. Then there were the armed insurgency in Damascus reaching close to the centres of power in the quarters which had been centres of civil rebellion before.

From within the milieu of oppositions there have been plausible reports emerging that there is a steady and increasing stream of military and also civil defections. At the same time the Assad-Makhlouf family is loosing its trust in the state machine and relies increasingly on the instruments under their direct control whether intelligence, military and paramilitary forces.

That very days could have even been the appropriate moment for a coup d’état – which did not take place.

The Aleppo trap

Instead the armed insurgents in Damascus were put down by the regime with relative ease. There seem to have been a kind of withdrawal without decisive battle. But in spite of drawing a political conclusion from this partial defeat – namely that the situation was politically not ripe for an armed uprising in the capital – an important section of the armed opposition, the FSA Salafi combine, rushed towards a much bigger endeavour under much worse political conditions: the attack on Aleppo.

Aleppo is the commercial centre of the country under the control of a conservative bourgeoisie allied with Assad. It has been the place with the fewest protests. Only recently democratic activities flared up at the universities and demonstrations took to the street. Also commercial strikes by closing down shops have been reported. The regime answered as usual with heavy repression as they did not want to loose its last refuge. The democratic movement has been in its very first stages and was far away from steps towards armed self-defence which had been organic in the hotspots of the rebellion already months back.

In difference to the centres of the rebellion Deraa, Homs, Idlib etc. and even Damascus there is no home-grown armed self-defence in Aleppo and also the entire civil network which elsewhere supported the armed rebellion was only at its beginning. In Aleppo an outright military assault from outside is going on, something foreign to the local population.

Also leftist forces from within the opposition report that for the first time there is a Salafi/Islamist hegemony – which actually corresponds to the militarist concept and also to the superior armament secured by foreign funding. In other places, contrary to the regime’s narrative, the Salafis are there but at the margins. One can assume that while in the centres of the rebellion the military forces of the Muslim Brotherhood co-operate with the local civil-military committees of which they are part, in Aleppo they might lean more to the Salafis under the pressure of militarism which is not alien to them either.

So a battle is raging over Aleppo by two outside forces, the rebels on one hand and the regime’s forces on the other hand. It will be a bloody showdown which the local population will fall victim to, killing at the same time their legitimate democratic aspirations.

It is possible to support one side in a war without supporting every single battle. The battle for Aleppo definitely goes against the democratic interests of the popular masses. We condemn the armed Salafi and other sectarian forces backed by imperialist proxies who want to hijack and destroy the democratic revolution.

Armed struggle

Most of the Syrian leftist forces have been opposing the strategy of armed struggle and opted for a popular movement and a political solution of the Egypt type. Their arguments were plausible. Armed struggle will converge with the demand for foreign intervention along the Libyan example. As there is the Hama precedent and sectarianism in the air, it might easily deteriorate in a sectarian struggle and ultimately plunge the country into a sectarian civil war as they are known from the Lebanese and Iraqi neighbours. Only a civil democratic movement can secure the unity across the different communal groups.

Unfortunately the Assad clique was frontally against the massive democratic mass movement. Also their Russian and Iranian backers were unable (or not sufficiently willing) to force upon their allies significant reforms. Assad refused even the reform proposals of their allies in Moscow and Tehran intended to save their regime (but not necessarily the Assad-Makhlouf familiy). Apparently the real constitution of the regime is built on the exclusive rule of the Assad-Makhlouf family and cannot be democratized. The only answer they had was bloody repression targeting any dissent.

So armed self-defence increasingly became a more than legitimate necessity and, as many soldiers defected, developed organically from within the popular movement.

At the same time the predictions of the left partially became true. The foreign-backed forces massively campaigned for foreign military intervention, fuelled sectarianism while mainly the Gulf have been sending funds and arms trying to create proxy forces executing their political agenda.

But these attempts do not automatically mean that the popular democratic rebellion ceased. Out of it also a network of armed groups organically connected to the movement has been growing. Hundreds of groups emerged and heavy political conflicts are being reported over the political line of the uprising. Despite the fact that the Salafis as well as the Muslim Brotherhood have the largest foreign backing, money, arms, all type of logistics, that does not mean that the other forces, who stick to the democratic demands, who do not want to become Gulf or Turkish proxy forces or who do not want to accept Salafism, vanished.

The latest reports from Damascus tell us that many fighters stem from the popular quarters were the armed uprising tried its fortunes while the Salafi forces only attacked at the outskirts with foreign fighters.

The fact that all use the label of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is politically misleading. The FSA leadership is essentially an outside political group (like the SNC) funnelling support towards inside which all armed groups need. But the real command structures are inside and represent to popular democratic interests to a larger extent. It is understandable that they look for foreign logistic support but that does not mean that they fully bow to foreign agendas. The fact that they were not vocal against the SNC-FSA is, however, also connected with the reluctance of the left to positively refer to the popular democratic wing of the armed rebellion.

Actually the SNC-FSA leadership is in great difficulties. The campaign for a Libyan type foreign intervention broke down while the armed rebellion expanded by the help of the local popular forces. Also their coalition with the Gulfi-Salafi forces, which probably will lead them to a bloody defeat in Aleppo, might increase their problems. And not all of them follow the hard line that a political solution is impossible. It is mainly this position which can explain the reluctance of army commanders to stage a coup against the Asad-Makhlouf clique.

Another expression of the crisis of the Western, Gulf and Turkey-backed foreign opposition coalition SNC is the survival or even consolidation of the democratic leftist NCB – despite the enormous pressure they endure partially also due to the self-chosen distance from all armed forces – as well as other leftist groups closer to the popular armed uprising. In Libya one will remember that such forces did virtually not exist.

On the other hand, nobody, however, can deny that the armed rebellion and the mass defections decisively contributed to the death agony of the Assad regime. This was possible because the uprising got the massive backing of the local population and even the ranks of the army. The armed uprising is to an important extent home-grown and popular, while the foreign support is an attempt to usurp it. If the uprising advances on the popular democratic track it can win. If it follows the militarist and sectarian line it will loose or produce a civil war. Military action must be conceived to yield political results, to conquer political hegemony and to eventually seize power with inferior military means.

Coup d’état and armed insurrection

The main question remains political also regarding the armed movement. There are many signs of decomposition of the regime and its last pillar. Both the minorities and the commercial bourgeoisie are hesitantly moving away from Assad. There are reports that the Shabiha face problems with new recruitment. These tendencies need to be strengthened which needs further time.

The civil-military co-operation, which seems to exist in many places, needs to be developed and enhanced in the sense of instruments of democratic popular power. These will be convincing examples while Salafi-type rule would be the best political help to Assad.

Then there remains the pivotal question of the army. Any popular revolution must see to bring parts of the army on its side. Rank and file defections are not enough. Parts of the entire command chain must switch side preparing a military coup against the ruling clique which could go together with a generalized armed popular insurrection.

Politically the Assad clique is totally worn out. Their inability to democratic reform show their fear of the people and their own apparatus. Important sections of the soldiers and also of the officers’ corps sympathise with the revolution and will want to get rid of the Assad group. The defection of Manaf Tlass, a high ranking commander and a former associate of Assad’s inner cycle who opted for reform, hints at this.

The opposition needs to politically pave the way for a coup by proposing a political solution for a transitional government including some reform-minded top brass – as the NCB and the left did but was constantly attacked by the foreign-backed forces. This demand is not directed against the popular and armed movement. It does need its constant pressure to enforce a solution but it also needs the institutional contacts to Russia, Iran and co to facilitate it.

The outcome might not be a revolutionary government, maybe not even a fully democratic one. Neither the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia could so far provide for full democracies. Possibly, given the popular mobilisation of the last 18 months, the role of the popular forces could be also much bigger than in other Arab countries. In any case it would open the door to and lend space to a broad popular democratic movement like in Egypt averting the acute danger of prolonged civil war. It would block foreign meddling and intervention and it would marginalise the Salafi danger of armed sectarianism.

This scenario is not only a revolutionary dream, it is a concrete possibility. It would provide a powerful push to the Arab popular uprising and the global popular anti-imperialist struggle.

August 2, 2012