Much of the left internationally has given open or covert support to the Assad regime in Syria. The Morning Star in Britain went so far as to call the defeat of Aleppo a “liberation”. Why do left-wingers support a murderous regime instead of people fighting for their freedom? What is the role of Islamist forces in the conflict? Leila al-Shami, co-author of the book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”, gives an interview which provides some answers to these questions. She was interviewed by Max van Lingen, editor of the Dutch newspaper “The Socialist”. The interview was translated into German by Frank Simon, and then into English by Colin Wilson.
What was the main reason you wrote the book [Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War]?
Robin Yassin-Kassab and I felt that reporting about Syria was poor. It wasn’t that there were too few reports, but that they rarely represented Syrian concerns. The media reports mainly about the humanitarian crisis or the rise of Islamic groups and extremism. Syrians are seen either as victims or as terrorists.
We wanted to challenge this point of view by letting people speak for themselves. We wanted to offer a platform for activists who were involved in the revolution and were affected by the war. A left-wing analysis should be based on what the people are doing – not just on what is happening in terms of high politics between states or what the international repercussions of the crisis are.
How did you choose the people you spoke to?
We were connected with the revolution in Syria from the beginning. We already knew a lot of people. When we spoke to these activists, they brought us into contact with other people. So we gained a variety of insights into life in Syria from people from both rural and urban areas, both women and men. We interviewed people in Syria from all religious communities and nationalities: Muslims, Christians, Ismailis and Alawites as well as Kurds and Arabs.
Syria and the Arab Spring
Why do you think a large part of the international left was either very guarded as regards the revolution or even openly hostile towards it?
Many leftists look at Syria within a framework of existing ideas. Before the Arab Spring, their experiences of the Middle East were limited to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the US war and subsequent occupation of Iraq. When the Arab Spring began and the revolution in Syria grew, the left looked at Syria in the context of US imperialism.
What is wrong with this approach?
The situation had changed dramatically in 2011. Suddenly there was an international revolutionary wave in the region, which caused a huge change in people’s thinking. People said they no longer wanted to live under these regimes, which had suppressed them for so long. Most of the left, however, did not respond to the fact that there existed a mass movement from below. They saw the Assad regime as a secular socialist regime that was at war with the US and Israel. But that’s not true.
Can you explain that in more detail?
To start with, it is not a secular regime. In the course of the revolution, we have seen how the regime made use of the various religious communities to carry out a policy of divide and rule. Secondly, it is not a socialist regime. The implementation of neoliberal policies had already begun under Hafez al-Assad, and this increased under Bashar al-Assad.
Bashar al-Assad aimed to integrate Syria more closely into the world economy, for example through an economic “Association Agreement” with the EU. The neoliberal policies he pursued led to a concentration of wealth in the hands of his relatives and the people associated with the regime, while large sections of the population lived in poverty. As a result, one of the main demands of the revolution was social and economic justice.
Syria, the USA and the “regime change”
Some left-wingers reduce the Syrian revolution to a US attempt at “regime change” by supplying arms deliveries to Syrian groups. What do you think of that view?
It is not true that the US has delivered large amounts of weapons to Syria. The US delivered some supplies, but for a long time only light weapons, night vision equipment and ready-to-eat meals. Subsequently, they provided some anti-tank weapons so as to maintain a stalemate. The US did not provide the heavy weapons that Syrian rebels would need to defend themselves against the regime’s air attacks, such as air defence missiles.
What is the specific US military strategy?
The US is looking for proxies to carry out the “war on terror” on its behalf. The Southern Front – an alliance of democratic and nationalist groups which refused to work with Islamists – was forced by the US and Jordan to stop fighting the Assad regime. This allowed the regime to concentrate on other areas, including Daraya, which has fallen to the regime after a long siege and systematic starvation of its people. The US has also provided weapons and air support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are dominated by the Kurdish YPG, because they fight only against Daesh.
The “Islamisation” of the revolution has without doubt reduced its international appeal. How significant do you think this development has been?
A large part of the military struggle is led by Islamists of different kinds, ranging from moderate Islamist groups operating within a democratic framework to Salafist hardliners. International jihadist groups such as Daesh, on the other hand, are counter-revolutionary, they represent a third force. Syrians have fought against Daesh, as they have also fought against the Assad regime. The Free Syrian Army still exists, and has widespread support, but it is no longer the only actor.
The Islamisation of the Revolution
What were the reasons for the “Islamisation” of the revolution?
After the poison gas attack on Ghouta in 2013 at the latest, the Syrian people knew that they were not going to get any help from the West. So they turned to the Gulf States. The result was a more pronounced Islamic vocabulary. Many fighters switched to Islamist groups because these were able to provide weapons and funds. These groups were able to provide pay, which was decisive in the face of economic collapse and hunger.
Although the military struggle is the biggest part of the picture, a strong civil society also exists, which still plays a very important role in the Syrian revolution. In Maarrat al-Nu’man there were more than 200 days of continuous protests against Assad and against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the Front for the Conquest of the Levant, the new name of the al-Nusra Front). [The Al-Nusra Front are jihadists, with links to Al-Qaeda until July 2016 – ed.] The people of Maarrat al-Numan clearly rejected Fatah al-Sham, but the situation in Aleppo is quite different. There, Fatah al-Sham played a major role in breaking through of the siege of East Aleppo, in which 300,000 people were liberated. While the international community abandoned the people of Aleppo, Fatah al-Sham came to their aid. It is absurd to think that people in this situation will reject them.
Militarisation is another contradictory development you describe.
When the revolution began to militarise, a large part of civil society opposed that. People feared that the revolution would lose its legitimacy and that this could lead to increased ethnoreligious sectarianism. Obviously this was what happened – but militarisation was not a decision that was made at some meeting or through some vote, it happened because thousands of people were under fire from the regime. They had the choice between taking up arms to defend themselves and being massacred.
Where now for Syria?
What do you think about the negotiations in Geneva?
I don’t put any great hopes in them, and I don’t think that the Syrian people do either. As far as Syria is concerned, the US has now formed an alliance with Russia. The US is ready to leave the regime in power while it focuses on what the it regards as the greatest threat. As long as the international community sees Islamist extremism as the main problem, any negotiations will have little significance for the Syrian people.
How strong is support for Assad? Can he continue to rely on the Alawite population?
Some Alawites have given the revolution solid support, although the overwhelming majority are behind the regime. There are several reasons for this. While some Alawites benefit from the regime, the absolute majority still live in impoverished communities in the coastal region. They fear, however, retribution by supporters of the revolution in the event that the regime falls and an Islamist alternative comes to power.
In this respect, we can say that the Alawite population is more opposed to the revolution than supportive of the regime – there is also dissatisfaction with the regime within the Alawite community. Many Alawites have protested against conscription, and people who are close to the regime are concerned about the influence of Russia and Iran. Many Alawite militias are no longer under the control of the regime. The main actors on the front lines are external forces, such as Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias, which are under Iranian control.
Are there still groups among the rebels which Syrians can support if they don’t want either the regime or Islamism?
There are many positive things that one can support in Syria. There are local councils which attempt to manage their communities for themselves, even though they are affected by heavy bombing. There are humanitarian aid organizations like the White Helmets, who do a great job and risk their own lives to save the victims of air raids from the rubble. Activists have established women’s centres, independent media centres and human rights organisations.
Of course, at present these initiatives are not the most influential players, but they represent people who are fighting. Left-wingers should support these people. They don’t control what is happening, but that doesn’t mean that we should give our support to states instead. We should support neither the USA nor Russia. All of the states intervening in Syria are causing utter chaos there.
Leila al-Shami has been active in the human rights movement in the Middle East. She is the co-author of “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”. The book is published by Pluto, and is available from their website.
The German version of this interview is available on the Marx21 website.