Above: Joseph Daher, author and activist who has a new work coming out on Pluto Press. Then a solidarity demonstration outside the GPO some weeks ago.
Syria fills our screens and timelines with the results of sieges, Russian jets and barrel bombs leveling Aleppo and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the far-right is on the rise in many European countries, as they scapegoat those fleeing this hell . Rabble’s Shane Ragbags talks with Swiss-Syrian academic and activist Joseph Daher, author of Hezbollah – The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God. He chats about Syria and the fate of a protest movement that inspired others like the Movement of the Squares in Greece, the Indignados and Occupy.
People see all the foreign powers intervening in Syria and understand it as a “proxy war”, a new Cold War. What is happening?
The majority of observers have analysed the Syrian revolutionary process solely in geopolitical terms, from above, and ignored the popular political and socio-economic dynamics at the bottom. It is important to remember that the Syrian revolution is part of the uprisings which have shaken the entire Middle East and North Africa(MENA) since 2010. Those in Syria have been fighting like people in the other countries of the region; for freedom and dignity – against the authoritarian regimes and the religious fundamentalists who are opposed to these objectives.
Between all powers, there is a near consensus around certain points: to liquidate the revolutionary popular movement initiated in March 2011, stabilize the regime in Damascus and keep at the head its dictator Bashar Al-Assad for the short-to-medium term. Their objectives are also to oppose Kurdish autonomy and try to militarily defeat jihadist groups such as Daesh(ISIS). The assistance of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have been absolutely indispensable for regime survival at all levels : political, economic and military.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, 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 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, Turkey and Qatar enjoyed good relations with the state before the uprising in 2011. At the same time, we must denounce the role of Western states, which have never assisted the Syrian people, including when it comes to welcoming Syrian refugees. This has included preventing military equipment, such as anti-aircraft defences, from reaching the democratic opposition. The USA’s aim is to leverage an agreement between the regime (or a section of it) and the opposition linked to Western, Turkey and Gulf elites, represented by the Syrian National Coalition. This “Yemen-type solution”, their lesson from Iraq, maintains the structure of old regimes and guarantees the neoliberal and imperialist order that prevailed prior to 2011.
Is there still popular support in Syria for the revolution and its aims?
From the beginning, the regime specifically targeted activists and groups with democratic, progressive and secular positions opposing sectarianism and racism. They targeted those who had initiated demonstrations, civil disobedience and strike action. They undermined the propaganda of the regime that denounced the rising as a conspiracy of armed fundamentalist groups. The resulting militarization of the uprising and increasing power of Islamic fundamentalists, further repressed democratic forces and the objectives of the revolution.
This said, and although weakened, they still exist. Local Coordination Committees and popular organizations opposing the regime and fundamentalist movements still are active in various regions. In the areas liberated from the regime, local populations have developed forms of self-organization, free and independent media, provide education and campaign on various subjects such as raising awareness, democratic aspirations and so on.
Local councils, elected or established on consensus, also still exist in some regions providing municipal services to local population. It is not for no reason that the free areas of Aleppo and Douma – both run by local councils – have been the target of regime and Russian bombing, as they represent democratic alternatives.
The presence of the popular movement was witnessed in February when massive demonstrations occurred throughout liberated areas of Syria with democratic and non-sectarian slogans following partial ceasefires and respite from airstrikes. Jihadists and their symbols were absent from these demonstrations.
At the same time, we should not hide problems existing in areas, such as the lack or absence of women’s participation and involvement, the absence of religious minorities and the negative influences of some foreign countries and of some extremist groups.
While the opposition is today less diverse than at the beginning of the revolution, and more predominantly Arab Sunni, we must also remember 70 per cent of the country’s population is Arab Sunni. Other denominations are still involved as witnessed in recent protests in Druze province of Sweida. The demonstrators sang slogans demanding the fall of the regime, that “the Syrian people are one” and Syria belongs to the people and not to the Assad family. Opposition also exists in Kurdish-majority regions and others such as Salamiyah which is majority Ismaeli, and so on.
There is a lot of interest and support for the liberation struggle in Kurdish-majority areas – what relationship is there between the Syrian and Kurdish movements? The self-governance of majority-Kurdish areas controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – also known as ‘Rojava – Northern Syria’ – is a direct result of the mass movement by the people of Syria (Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians together) against the Assad regime. The popular uprising pushed the regime to conclude a deal with the PYD in July 2012, in which they withdrew from several majority-Kurdish regions in the North to redeploy its armed forces to repress the uprising elsewhere, while maintaining small presence in some areas such as Qamichli. Unfortunately, increased separation and division has appeared at times between the Syrian Arab and Kurdish movements. Notably because of chauvinism of many groups and personalities within the Syrian Arab opposition – particularly the Syrian National Coalition, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhoods and the rightwing, while being allied to Turkey’s AKP government. The Free Syria Army does not have an official position, although various figures of the leadership have opposed any Kurdish autonomy, and now the majority of FSA forces have tense relations with PYD and other Kurdish groups. At the same time, PYD policies have also been problematic such as its non-conflict orientation towards the Assad regime, support for Russian intervention in Syria. And there are some accusations of human rights violations against Arab populations. In addition, it has practiced authoritarian and repressive measures against other Kurdish groups and activists.
This said, we need to reaffirm that the defeat of the Syrian revolution and of the popular movement would probably mark the end of the Rojava experience and the return to an era of oppression for the Kurds of Syria. The Assad regime and the Islamic reactionary forces would not allow any possible development of a political experience that is out of their authoritarian program.
The best proof of this is that although a kind of non-aggression pact existed between PYD and the regime, Assad has repeatedly declared that it refuses any kind of autonomy for the Kurds in Syria. In August, the Syrian Regime Airforce bombed the Kurdish neighbourhoods of the city of Hassaka, while Assad tacitly accepts Turkish military intervention and support to FSA and Islamic fundamentalist movements against the PYD in Northern Syria.
This is why we should not isolate the struggle for self-determination of the Kurdish people from the dynamics of the Syrian revolution.
In Ireland, there has long been strong support for the Palestinian people- a cause Assad has claimed to support. What is the relationship between the Palestinian and Syrian struggles?
The history of the Assad family towards the Palestinian struggle is a bloody one. The arrival of Bashar al-Assad to power in 2000 did not change this, despite a rhetoric in support of the Palestinian issue. Clandestine student committees and youth groups who supported the Second Intifada with demonstrations and sit-ins, were the targets of Syrian security forces. Palestinians in refugee camps in Syria who participated in spontaneous actions in solidarity with the Intifada were also the target of security services. Syrian officials have also repeatedly declared their readiness to sign a peace agreement with Israel as soon as the occupation of the Golan Heights ended, while nothing was said on the Palestinian issue. Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Bashar Al-Assad, went so far as to declare in May 2011 that if there is no stability in Syria, there will be no stability in Israel, adding that no one can guarantee what will occur if something happens to the Syrian regime.
Palestinians in Syria have been targeted since the beginning of the revolution. In the first week, Buthaina Shaaban, Bashar al-Assad’s adviser, held Palestinians responsible for the crisis and accused Palestinians in the Deraa and Latakia camps of responsibility for the uprising spreading in those areas.
The Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk also had a siege imposed on it from summer 2013, with the prohibition of movement of people and food from the rebel areas in the south of Damascus. This was enforced by the regime and also the Palestinian organizations linked to it, especially the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC). Today, Yarmouk is surrounded on one side by the Assad regime and its allied militias and on the other side by the Islamic State.
The Assad regime was also responsible for the death of the great majority of the at least 3,191 Palestinians in Syria since March 2011, while 1,064 Palestinians are currently in Syrian prisons. This is why we have to remember that the liberation of Palestine is linked to the liberation and emancipation of the popular classes of all the region against their ruling elites who are all opposed to Palestinian liberation.
Will the Peace talks in Geneva provide a solution and what would that look like?
I personally don’t think it will as it does not address the political roots of the problem in Syria: the Assad regime and its allies – who at the same time are continuing its war against the Syrian people. Any political transition to put an end to the war and move towards a democratic system must include the departure of the dictator Assad and its clique in power. Otherwise the war will continue and provoke more catastrophes in terms of human lives. In this transition, all war criminals must be held accountable for their crimes, including and firstly Bashar al-Assad and his clique. It seems very difficult for the UN Security Council to play any role, without any consensus between great powers. The latest example being the veto of the Russian state to the resolution demanding the end of the bombing on the city of Aleppo beginning of October. A ‘no fly zone’, to prevent Assad and Russian bombing which is a demand of large sections of the Syrian oppositions, will hardly be imposed as there is no consensus on this issue.
The end of the war must lead to the end of the suffering of millions of people within and outside Syria and give them the possibility to return to their homes. It is also a political objective because it is the only way for democratic and progressive movements to re-organise and play once again a leading role in the struggle for a new Syria for all. A Syria without discriminations, far from the dictatorship of the criminal Assad regime and the authoritarian and reactionary practices of Islamic fundamentalist forces.
More of Joseph’s writing can be found at his website here and his latest book is out on Pluto Press. The Irish Anti-War Movement have called a public rally on Syria at the Dail for this evening, Weds 19th of October at 17.30 too.