Marxism and the Struggle Against Counterrevolution in Syria
By Michael Snyder:
The Syrian Revolution is facing the gravest dangers in the nearly six years of its existence. Putin and Assad have unleashed industrial carnage on Aleppo on a scale unseen since the last inter-imperialist world war. Obama has locked-in the U.S.’s role as a partner in this genocidal onslaught by stepping up strikes against JFS (the former al-Nusra) since the election; paving the way for Trump’s foreign policy. Factions under the umbrella of the FSA have increasingly subordinated themselves to the Turkish state, which has directly entered the conflict amidst rhetoric about a new Ottoman Empire; further poisoning relations between the Arab opposition and the Syrian Kurds who fear Turkey as their main oppressor. The dominant Kurdish party, the PYD, has done its best to stoke this chauvinism by labeling the Arab Sunni masses as ISIS (even while it continues to orient its propaganda abroad towards leftists), moving from collusion to open collaboration with Russia and Assad, and stamping out all dissent in the regions it rules. The launching of an assault on Raqqa by its military wing, the YPG/SDF, aided by U.S., EU, and Australian airstrikes, and mass arrests of Arabs in “liberated” villages and towns, is driving new recruits into ISIS. Meanwhile, clashes between the YPG/SDF and the Turkish-backed FSA factions are escalating, as both forces advance towards the strategic town of al-Bab – threatening to drive a final stake of fratricidal hatred through the aspirations of the workers and poor of all of Syria’s sectarian and ethnic backgrounds that made and have sustained the revolution.
Syria’s horror is also the tragedy of the international proletariat today. The success of the counterrevolution there would only be the prelude to its export around the world, wherever the masses rise up against the poverty and oppression that await us all under capitalism. The lack of solidarity and outright defection to the camp of counterrevolution by the majority of the Left has completed its degeneration into total irrelevance or worse, leaving a legacy that will undermine other struggles for years if not decades to come – legitimizing the rulers’ “war on terror” to be turned on all Muslims and eventually the entire working class, and clearing a path for the radical right to slither out from the rubble under which it had been buried for seven decades.
For those who have stood by the Syrian Revolution and upheld the solidarity and internationalism of genuine socialism, to abandon it now, when the future appears grimmest, would only complete the tragedy. This terrible conflict has merely confirmed what we have always proclaimed: that only the proletariat, armed with its communist class-consciousness, can lead the struggle for freedom and justice and deliver humanity from the clutches of capitalist barbarism. It is not yet too late for Syria; recent months have seen the revival of popular mobilizations at any and every opportunity. It is certainly not too late for the workers of the world; the triumph of the human spirit demonstrated by those men and women who have not been cowered by bombs, shot, or shell, whose will to fight has withstood poison gas, starvation, rape, and torture, whose self-dignity has not been broken either by a world that has demonized and abandoned them or leaders who have failed and betrayed them, is the best testament to that.
Those of us who are not in Syria can only assist to the best of our capabilities. We can provide little if anything in the way of material assistance. We will not discover any shortcuts to overcome the limited influence of the revolutionary left and the weakness of the organized working class in the states where we reside. Nor will we compel our rulers to take back up the humanitarian mantle, which they could only ever be bothered with when it served to conceal their own bloody crimes. But those of us who live in countries where bombs are not yet falling, and where the cries of dying children are still far enough away that they can be heard only by those who choose to listen, do have enormous advantages. On account of the exploitation of the globalized working class and the suffering of millions in its ranks past and present, this system can still afford some of us with the leisure time, democratic rights, and, now, the unprecedented access to information and means of communication that are necessary for our class to achieve the clarity to change the whole course of history.
Marxists have a duty to continuously strive for that clarity and explain as patiently as possible the way forward that is still open for the Syrian Revolution and the Arab Spring. We are not so presumptuous as to imagine that we can perfectly understand the situation from abroad or substitute for the revolutionary socialist leadership that is needed on the ground, nor are we so deluded as to exaggerate the chances of our analysis having any impact on the consciousness of people within Syria today – though we assume personal responsibility for our meager efforts which many will inevitably see these defects in. Only by doing our best to propose a way out of this crisis can we ever hope to be taken seriously when we say that, even in the likelihood of the Syrian Revolution’s defeat, Marxism remains relevant and a necessary tool for our class in the many struggles it faces ahead.
The most influential argument of the defeatists and the more sophisticated representatives of the counterrevolutionary-left (such as Max Blumenthal) is that there is no military solution to the conflict. On a strictly factual level, this has been true for a long time; ever since it became clear that the Syrian ruling class in its overwhelming majority was rallying around Assad, that the polarization of capitalist society had reached a point where it would not break ranks when confronted with the demands of the poor. Yet, no one has been able to propose an outcome that doesn’t include a military element. The misleaders of the opposition have had more than five years to try their strategy entirely focused on gaining and holding territory. The key to a breakthrough depends on making the armed struggle subordinate to a strategy of championing and spreading the revolution.
The politics of the revolution and the organizational imperatives of armed defense have already become so entwined that there is no chance of detangling them. Cities, towns, and villages where the masses rose up in defense of a democratic, secular, and anti-sectarian vision – where they established grass-roots organizations to manage their own affairs – have had to accept the growing influence of anti-democratic, sectarian-Islamist and Arab- and Kurdish- chauvinist forces, and of the regional and imperialist powers backing them, because these were the only available channels through which their immediate defensive needs could be met even to a minimum degree. But the would-be successors to Assad in the FSA, Al-Nusra, the PYD, etc. have been held back from the worst excesses to which they are inclined thanks to continuous pressure from the masses. If there was a Marxist party active on the ground in Syria, it would need to put forward concrete proposals for the military conflict as part of an effort to sharpen the revolutionary mobilization and divide the rank-and-file combatants along class and democratic lines.
There are two armies that could have a significant impact on the civil war right now: the Euphrates Shield, composed of Turkish-backed FSA factions, and the YPG/SDF. Both occupy positions in close proximity to Aleppo, which may be regarded as the capital of the revolution on account of its being the largest city in the country, the site of continuous protests and grass-roots organization, and the primary objective of the counterrevolution. Everything possible must be done to get these armies – both of them – to intervene in the battle over the city. There is little if any hope of convincing the Euphrates Shield’s commanders to launch such an operation – even though some elements within it recently pushed for a march on Aleppo, they can’t be expected to defy Turkey and the U.S. as well as Assad and Russia to do so; there is even less hope from the YPG/SDF’s leaders, who have shown no initiative independent of the PYD. It is to remove any risk of such a development that Putin and Assad have incited the two armies to fight between themselves over al-Bab.
However, were we in a position to agitate amongst the soldiers, in coordination with continued mass demonstrations in the cities, there would be a chance of affecting policy under the heads of the commanders. Again, it is impossible to know how to formulate arguments that would be convincing to people on the battlefield without actually being there, but some of the basic outline is clear enough. In both armies, the workers and poor, as well as all those who genuinely support the masses’ democratic and anti-sectarian aspirations, need to confront the hopelessness of the current battle plan and diplomatic efforts and the disastrous impact of the divisions between Arabs and Kurds. In the Euphrates Shield’s ranks, revolutionaries would firmly oppose serving Erdoğan’s goals of carving out a “safe zone” – actually a massive concentration camp for refugees who will be forced back to Syria from abroad and driven out of those areas which have continued to hold out against the government – and transforming the FSA into a proxy force in Ankara’s war against the Kurds. A drive on Aleppo could flip this balance of forces; not without great risks, but no greater than those which face all Syrians if we accept the present course without a fight. While rejecting Turkey’s attempt to dictate the terms of the conflict, soldiers and civilian demonstrators can insist that it maintain its flow of weapons and other material support. Let Erdoğan try to reject this and expose himself before the masses of Turkey and the entire Middle East as complicit in the annihilation of Aleppo – the FSA should defy him to so openly align with Assad against the supposedly “Islamist” stronghold in that city after he has so recently whipped up Islamist rhetoric at home to purge his own state.
The Euphrates Shield can not only save hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters in Aleppo, but also, at the same time, seize a golden opportunity to break the Kurdish forces away from their alliance with Assad. The FSA’s misleaders have not only failed to weaken the regime, but also put the opposition in a position where the strongest and most organized part of the Syrian people have come to identify it, and all Arabs, with their chief oppressor: the Turkish state. Interethnic relations have degenerated to the point where being anti-sectarian is not enough. By declaring that they refuse to serve as agents for the oppression of the Kurds, that they refuse to fight them, that they will not invade the territory controlled by Rojava except insofar as it is strictly necessary to take a step towards Aleppo, the Euphrates Shield would position itself as the surest champion of their rights and their only real ally in the world. We don’t want the Kurdish forces to continue to stand apart from the revolution of all sects and ethnicities in Syria, but without such a show of faith that outcome is assured.
A similar case could be made amongst the YPG/SDF ranks and the masses that identify with Rojava. The PYD promises freedom and sovereignty for the Kurds, but they are actually sabotaging any hope of this goal for which that people has been fighting for a century. There was a revolution under the banner of democracy and solidarity, yet the PYD can find no other Arab to work with than Bashsar al-Assad. The Kremlin claims to support the plan for an autonomous Rojava within a Syrian federation, but is making sure that the Kurds remain permanently weak and at the mercy of whatever terms it and Damascus are generous enough to offer them: Putin gave the greenlight for Turkey to intervene in Syria to block the YPG/SDF’s attempt to unite the territory under its control. The PYD imagines that the Syrian Kurds can at least secure that freedom which they have already achieved during the past five-and-a-half years by using the Americans as a counterweight to Russia. But even if we do not find Trump and Putin soon working together against Rojava, by encouraging two imperialist powers to remain in the country permanently its misleaders are only setting the Kurds on a course to slavery. They will become the pawns of the great powers in their competition with each other and in their disputes with the Arabs and Turks. Rojava will be trapped in a vice of hatred by the people of the region on all sides, and widely reviled as a comprador regime – the source of others’ misery and oppression, just like that which the Kurdish people have suffered from in the past.
Marxists believe that there is a way out of this trap. We know that if the commanders try to reach an agreement with those of the FSA behind closed doors it will come to nothing. The leaders of the anti-Assad armed opposition are guilty of anti-Kurdish chauvinism, just as those who claim to speak on Rojava’s behalf have smeared all Kurds as anti-Arab chauvinists. But were the YPG/SDF to throw its forces onto the side of the Syrian Revolution at this critical moment, the threats currently facing the Rojava Revolution would vanish. Assad and Russia are counting on this army not intervening in their barbaric assault on Aleppo – in fact, they have, with the PYD’s complicity, used it to prevent anyone else from helping the people of that city, who risked their lives and those of their children to proclaim that all of Syria’s people deserve dignity and rights. If the rank-and-file in the Euphrates Shield see Kurdish soldiers defy the dictator to put out his fire in Aleppo, the Kurds will no longer have to fear the opposition acting as Turkish proxies or threatening their families back home; in fact, we can be reasonably certain the FSA’s ranks will soon follow the YPG/SDF to break the siege of the city. If the broader Arab and Turkish masses see this army take such a step, hundreds of millions of its enemies will be converted into friends. Let their rulers continue to try to preach hatred for the Kurds; let Erdoğan try and attack the Syrian Kurdish forces when doing so would sabotage the liberation of Aleppo before the eyes of all – it would be his loss, not theirs.
The danger posed by Assad and his backers, Russian imperialism above all, is nothing to be taken lightly. But if the Kurds do not confront that danger now, it will be a Damocles’ sword permanently at their throats. When the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto rose up against the Nazis, their fellow Poles did not join them, because their leaders believed themselves too weak to openly confront such a powerful enemy. That timidity only bought them one more year on this earth however; then it was the turn of all Poles to be slaughtered. The PYD boasts about their supporters abroad, but what do they have to show for this? A few dozen foreign volunteers – brave comrades no doubt, but not enough to alter Rojava’s fate. The terror inflicted on Aleppo has won sympathy from people all over the world. Seeing no hope for it, they grow demoralized and cynical, prey to the same forces that are tearing apart this country. Fascists are on the rise everywhere, and they are convincing millions that all Syrians and all Muslims are sub-humans. Even Daesh is gaining popular support in Raqqa because of the YPG/SDF’s assault on that city together with U.S. imperialism and its allies, and the PYD’s policies of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing against Arabs in the lands it claims for Rojava. Will the U.S. take the risk of allowing ISIS to survive? If it does, will the EU, and thereby accept millions more refugees into its borders? There is some power we can pressure to keep sending the Kurds support, and we can use those resources against the Islamists much more effectively by getting them into the hands of those who have fled its rule and continue to suffer under it, who would surely rise up did they not fear Rojava as another oppressor in the waiting. The evil forces on the rise in Syria and around the globe would be immediately set back if we can unite the struggles of Kurds and Arabs.
The oppressors and exploiters of the world’s people are intervening in Syria not become they are strong, but because they are so weak. How do working people live in Russia, in Iran, in the areas under Bashar’s rule? They are poor, dehumanized, living little better if not worse than what the Kurds have known. Even in America, where living standards have been much higher, things are getting worse and the masses fear that their rulers will damn them to the same conditions. Have we not seen that people in these countries and all over the world have stood up for themselves in the past, and are willing to do so now? If Syrians can unite for their own freedom, they will show all of them how to do the same. The imperialists will face threats to their system in too many other places to permit them to continue to focus all of their firepower on Syria; soon Putin, and eventually even the U.S. rulers, will confront revolutions at home. The Syrian Kurdish masses face a stark choice – either show the audacity of truly free people today, and fight for the international socialist revolution which alone can make their freedom permanent, or permit the national-chauvinists to reforge the people’s chains and cover Rojava with infamy.