The social and political roots of the Syrian revolution

The revolutionary uprising in Syria that started in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, and the current struggle there, have had a huge impact on my political party, the Organization for Democratic Action (ODA-DAAM, henceforth DAAM). Because of Syria’s proximity to Israel and Palestine, developments there directly affect Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Hamas is close to the Islamic Brotherhood in Syria and elsewhere, Fatah is close to Arab regimes such as Assad’s in Syria and Sisi’s in Egypt, while the Salafi and Jihadist movements influence Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.

One’s position on the Syrian revolution is a litmus test for any one who is politically active. Therefore, it is a precondition for building a Jewish-Arab political party in Israel, such as DAAM, that we find Palestinian partners, inside and outside Israel, who support democracy in Syria. We are talking here about the tragedies of two peoples with a common cause: the Syrians and the Palestinians. Then there are the Israelis, who are generally indifferent to the fate of both Palestinians and Syrians. The Israelis do not see in Syria a revolution, they only see extremist Islam and religious struggles. Berlin seems to them much closer than Damascus.

Let us start from the present. Today (January 30, 2016), the delegation of the Syrian opposition decided to participate in the 3rd Geneva conference to discuss the fate of Syria. This is a tragedy. Oslo was also a tragedy, but it was supported by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. In fact, the decision to establish DAAM came from our understanding that Oslo was the surrender of the Palestinian revolution. The difference between the two tragedies is that the Syrians do not believe in the Geneva 3 negotiations. They are participating because they have lost control over the situation in Syria.

We are in a stalemate. The opposition cannot topple Assad, while Assad’s government cannot rule Syria. Neither the Syrian government nor the opposition can accept the other side as a partner, yet the Americans and the Russians have forced them to convene, which is absurd. No less absurd is the flow of hundreds of thousands of Syrians into Germany, because they have a country they love but cannot go back to.

The Syrian opposition sought help from everyone they could think of: from the Turks, the Saudis and mainly from the Americans. Yet last week when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came to Riyadh, he simply adopted the Russian point of view; threatening withdrawal of support, he ordered the Syrian opposition to go to the negotiations without preconditions, not even a halt to the bombings and the starvation. That is why the Syrians feel that Kerry betrayed them and that they are alone.

So much for the present situation. Now let us go back to the beginning. When the revolution started in 2011 it was a surprise. People tried to understand what had led to the uprising. Examining the past, one can trace similar developments that led to the Arab spring. The common denominator among these countries was that their regimes were trying to apply the same economic formula, abandoning the old state-regulated economies and moving into neoliberalism. This shift in policy served small elites, who became rich and corrupt, while most people were abandoned to poverty without functioning social services or social safety nets. This was true for countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. It had nothing to do with ISIL, which did not exist then.

In Egypt, in 2008, the revolution began with a wave of strikes in the Mahala al-Kubra textile factories. The workers called for a general strike on April 6. They were supported by a group of students who formed the April 6 movement. Thus in Egypt the workers played a very fundamental role in the revolution; it was by no means the creation of the Facebook youth alone. The workers’ incessant strikes during the uprising helped bring Mubarak down. In Tunisia too, the strikes of the Gafsa phosphate miners, which started in 2008, played an important role in the revolution. Then came the Libyan uprising, in which the USA intervened militarily to bring down Kaddafi. On seeing this, Syrians believed that here was their opportunity to topple the Assad dynasty. They believed that peaceful demonstrations like those that had occurred in Egypt would bring Assad down. Unlike the Egyptian case, however, the regime began slaughtering the demonstrators. The belief that the West would intervene as it had in Libya turned out to be naive.

Mubarak, Kaddafi and Assad (the father) had much in common. All came from the military, ruled their countries for 40 years, and wanted to bequeath their states to their sons. Their countries and citizens meant no more to them than a springboard for becoming vastly rich, so they could pass the wealth and power to their sons. Corruption was rampant. For example, anyone who wanted to study in a university, get a diploma, or even get out of prison after the end of the sentence, had to pay large sums, reaching $30,000. In the embattled cities of Syria, today and yesterday, corruption even exploits the hunger under siege. Jaish al-Islam, a jihadist group, buys food from Assad’s army officers and sells it for a fortune to those of the starving people who can pay.

In 2008, when the wave of strikes started in Egypt, DAAM recognized that this was the start of a revolution. We wondered who the strikers were, because until then the only demonstrations in Egypt had focused on the Palestinian issue, never on Egyptian causes.

We applied the same logic to the Palestinian struggle. We have always believed that one cannot help the Palestinians if they do not first help themselves. They have no economy or social infrastructure, while Israel has both, in addition to a strong army. We have always said, “You have to develop your social infrastructure. (Hamas) rockets and missiles alone will not bring down the Occupation and will not lead to independence. If you have a culture, an economy, a cohesive society, and a strategy, you will not need the missiles. To say ‘God is Great’ does not help either.”

We saw this pattern in Lebanon too, where the Hezbollah, an ultra-nationalist Shiite movement, was ready to sacrifice Lebanese and Palestinian lives in Lebanon. DAAM called their bluff, claiming that Hezbollah was using the anti-Israeli tactic in order to take power in Lebanon, just as Hamas did in Gaza. Neither poses a real threat to the Israelis, nor has either of them won any war against Israel: they have just wanted to establish their own power. Is it a wonder, then, that today Hezbollah is killing Syrians, not Israelis?

During the uprisings of the Arab Spring it became clear that the Arab peoples saw through the lies of the anti-Israel slogans. How did this happen? Let’s analyze the case of Syria. At the turn of the century, after Hafez al-Assad died, Syria went through a deep economic change from a nationalized to a market economy. The Assad family took over the infrastructure and communications, while it left commerce to the big Sunni families. In June 2000, Hafez Assad died and his son Bashar returned from the UK with a western education. People hoped for more freedoms. At the beginning of his rule Bashar Assad allowed a degree of political openness in what was called the Damascus Spring. Within 3 months, however, it ended, and arrests of those who felt too free resumed. After the assassination of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri in 2005, local protests and Western pressure forced Bashar Assad to retreat from Lebanon. This withdrawal affected Syria’s economy adversely, because Lebanon had been a source of bribes and smuggling for Syria’s rulers. It was a blow to Assad, who could not stop the Lebanese from throwing him out.

At the same time, opposition forces published the Declaration of Damascus. These forces included (1) the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who accepted the democratic rules of modern states; and (2) a leftist party called the People’s Democratic Party, led by Riad Turk and independent figures well known for their opposition to the Assad regime. That was the beginning of a new independent opposition in Syria.

In the articles of Yassin Haj Saleh, written between 2006-2009 (in Syria on one foot, Arabic edition), he predicts not an uprising but an explosion, either a popular one or a religious one. He foresaw that a sectarian explosion might occur because the regime did not allow the normal development of the nation through a democratic process. He also talked about the problem of terrorism, explaining that the government applied the name “terrorist” to every form of opposition. He suggested that the government may itself have staged a series of mysterious bombings. In 2006 he talked about the influence of the internet on the people, and he spoke of poverty and the large social gaps as causes of a future social explosion.

On page 108, Haj Saleh anticipated that the marginalized people of Syria will resort either to jihad or to politics. He explained that if the regime keeps investing in oppressive security methods rather than in solutions to social problems— promoting neoliberal economics without democracy—this will be a formula for sectarian strife. In 2006, he could not predict a revolution in Syria since the country had neither political parties nor unions. Nor did external Arab forces like Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey play a big role there.

When the revolution erupted in March 2011, Assad was ready to fight against his people to the last one, while Syrians believed that the West would intervene and not let it happen. The revolutionary youth rallied around the Syrian National Council (SNC), which was a natural continuation of the Damascus Declaration, consisting of the Left, the Islamic Brotherhood, and figures such as Burhan Ghalioun and George Sabra. The SNC got immediate international recognition and a seat at the Arab League. Then Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two big enemies of the Arab Spring, who fear the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and democracy on the other, began counter-revolutionary intervention.

Qatar, for its part, believed that if Saudi Arabia continued opposing the revolutionary wave, the rule of the Saudi royal family would be endangered. Qatar threw its support behind the Muslim brotherhood, using both money and its al-Jazeera satellite channel. Saudi Arabia saw the new, democratically elected president of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi, as a major danger, so it staged a military coup led by the present Egyptian president Abed al-Fattah Sisi. Meanwhile, in Syria, the Saudis started pumping up Salafi and Jihadist forces like Ahrar A-Sham and al-Qaida.

Then—in November 2012— the Saudis, with the help of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made a kind of coup in the national leadership of the Syrian opposition, putting their man, Ahmad Jerba, at the head of a new, more “representative” body called “The National Coalition of the Opposition in Syria.” In the meantime, Assad released a bunch of jihadis he had kept in his jails. He knew their expertise with weapons, and naturally they started to use them. Syria’s peaceful demonstrators now stepped aside, because from the start they had intended a peaceful revolution. During this whole period, the West held useless international conferences, expressing solidarity with the Syrian opposition but not giving any kind of material or military support.

In the summer of 2013, Assad used chemical weapons against the people of Gouta A-Sharqia near Damascus, breaching all international commitments and crossing President Obama’s famous red line. He promised to act forcefully against the Assad regime, and the Syrian people pinned their hopes on him. We in DAAM supported any action that would stop Assad from massacring his people, and we waited for Obama to act. At the very last minute, Obama decided to wait and see what British PM David Cameron would do. The rest is history. Britain’s Labor Party opposed any action, as did some of Cameron’s own Tory party, so Obama found an excuse to back off. Instead of attacking, he reached an agreement with Russia on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, leaving the regime untouched.

At the end of 2011, Obama pulls his army out of Iraq. At that very minute, Iraqi PM Nouri al-Malaki, representing the ruling Shia majority supported by Iran, starts a wave of repression against the Sunni minority, which had begun a peaceful rebellion in the Sunni areas of Anbar province. The Americans continue to support al-Malaki. Suddenly, in June, ISIL storms Mosul, the Iraqi army vanishes into thin air, and all its expensive American arms fall into the hand of ISIL, which is run by the defrocked Baath officers of Saddam Hussein’s army. At the same time, Assad retreats from the northeastern Syrian desert, enabling ISIL to invade without resistance and declare the Syrian city of Raqqa as the capital of the Islamic State.

Where does that leave us? Assad has already destroyed Syria, its people are starving and dying, but Obama’s new strategy is to fight ISIL. After 9/11, the Americans lost faith in Saudi Arabia and opted for Iran as a more reliable partner. Iran may represent a problem in the Middle East and is a bitter rival of Israel, but it presents no threat to Europe and New York as ISIL does. Therefore, Obama signs the nuclear agreement with Iran, disregarding Israeli and Saudi opposition. The USA works with Iran in the fight against ISIL in Iraq, while Iran sides with Assad and Russia against the (by now) fundamentalist opposition supported by the Saudis and Turkey. At the same time, the Saudis fight the Iranian intervention in Yemen with low-profile American support. All this goes to show how confused American policy is in the region, and why the US is so discredited.

The protracted war in Syria was leading to the disintegration of the Syrian Army. Young people were refusing to enroll in the Army to fight a lost war, regime supporters had lost faith in the possibility of defeating the opposition. For their part, however, the Syrian refugees in Turkey understood that although Assad’s regime is weak, the opposition is not strong enough. This led to the massive emigration to Europe in summer of 2015. At that point Vladimir Putin decided to bring in his air power to save the Assad regime. Under the pretext of fighting ISIL, the Russians started bombing the Syrian Opposition, spreading destruction and killing civilians.

In the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement, the Obama administration fell in love with diplomacy. The refugee crisis in Europe, the barbarian attacks in Paris staged by ISIL, and Russia’s intervention in Syria were seen by the Obama administration as offering a golden opportunity to go for another successful diplomatic agreement in Syria. The US convened a new international gathering in Vienna, with the participation of its new partners, Iran and Russia. Here a new formula was reached, in which the demand that Assad give up power was dropped. After the Vienna talks, the UN Security Council voted unanimously for a resolution establishing a framework for negotiations, with no mention at all of Assad’s fate. Following this resolution, the Syrian opposition formed a new High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in the Saudi capital of Riad. The committee includes for the first time Jihadist formations supported by Saudi Arabia. These are now accepted as a legitimate part of the opposition forces.

At Kerry’s urging, the veteran Syrian opposition agreed to participate in a new Geneva convention to negotiate an agreement with the Assad regime, despite its disbelief that such an agreement is reachable as long as the Russians keep bombing the opposition. Meet the HNC in Riad, Kerry put an ultimatum: If you don’t go to Geneva, we will withdraw our support. Under these circumstances, the HNC decided indeed to go to Geneva, but under one very clear condition: stop the Russian bombing and stop the starvation of Syria’s besieged cities.

The present conditions are these: in Iraq a sectarian Shia government, supported by Iran and the US, is waging a war against ISIL and repressing the Sunnis. In Syria the Assad regime continues its barbaric war against democracy with the support of Russia, Iran, and the passive agreement of the Obama administration. Under these conditions there are no real prospects of “containing and defeating” ISIL, which was the aim that Obama declared more than a year ago. As long as Iraq is being ruled by a sectarian government under a religious constitution, the Sunni population will seek refuge with ISIL. And as long as Assad remains in power, ISIL will stay in northern Syria. The Russian idea that Assad is the key to a solution leads only to more carnage and more refugees. Assad must go and be held responsible for the mass murder of 250,000 civilians, the destruction of more than 2 million homes, and the displacement of more than 10 million Syrian citizens. We in DAAM support all democratic forces in Syria that agree to build a new country based on religious tolerance, democracy, and social justice.


About Yacov Ben Efrat