Syria's Revolution: bloodied but unbowed

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With the regime of Bashar Assad desperately trying to cling to power, the death toll has risen to 30,000 fighters since Syria's revolution began. Simon Assaf argues that the revolution remains popular, non-sectarian and led by Syrians themselves, despite the claims of some commentators

It is a bitter war that has engulfed Syria - one that has transformed the Arab world's most popular revolution into a struggle that can only end in the defeat of Bashar Assad's regime, or the death of the revolution, and with it any hope of change. At the heart of this revolution is the demand for an end to one-party rule, arbitrary detentions, repression, corruption and poverty. The revolution was born in the poor villages and spread to the vast working class areas of all the major cities. It has been marked by huge popular demonstrations, and the emergence of a national grassroots movement organised around Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) and other similar bodies.

The revolution is united in the call for national unity. Its most popular slogan remains: "The Syrian people are one". It is anti-sectarian, cuts across all ethnic and religious groups, and has been driven forward by the masses of workers, students and agricultural labourers who, inspired by the Arab Spring, are demanding social justice. This is a popular revolution, its motor were the thousands of small and large protests that erupted most nights and after every Friday prayers. It carries with it an aspiration of change after 40 years of rule by the Assad clan.

Bloody repression
However, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the regime of Bashar Assad was incapable of delivering even the mildest of reforms, and to the consternation of its allies, met every upsurge in popular anger with bloody repression. Assad gambled from the beginning that sheer brutality would be enough to dowse the rebellion. The few reforms he did offer were met with incredulity, designed as a sop to his supporters rather than to address any of the demands rising from the streets.

As the repression grew more intense, sections of the army mutinied and turned its weapons to the defence of the popular movement. In the face of such withering repression an armed uprising became the only option for many people. Growing numbers of revolutionaries joined the defectors to form brigades known collectively as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). There are now over 100,000 fighters engaged in daily battles with regime forces.

As the armed uprising spread, regime forces became trapped in their bases. Unable to seize back rebel areas, the regime resorted to a strategy of "massacre" - indiscriminate artillery barrages, tank rounds, warplanes, cluster bombs and the crude "TNT barrel bombs" dropped from helicopters. Alongside these are the sudden sweeps of working class neighbourhoods that leave hundreds dead (often killed in their shelters). The recent massacre of between 800 and 1,000 people in the Damascus suburb of Daraya has been the bloodiest single incident of the revolution, but it is being repeated daily on a smaller scale in dozens of cities and towns.

Tallied next to the daily lists of the dead are the names of large numbers of factory workers, farmers, students and urban poor, testifying to the class nature of the rebellion. In one incident regime forces massacred 150 in a raid on their factory, in another 15 sugar workers were killed. Such incidents are all too common. The regime has reduced large parts of Syria to ruins, destroying factories, hospitals, markets, homes, shops and infrastructure such as water supplies and electricity in its war against the people. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees, both internally displaced and those who crossed the borders. Vast parts of Syrian cities are now deserted battlegrounds.

Over the past few months fighting has spread across hundreds of fronts in all major cities, towns and villages, pushing the death toll close to 30,000. Early in the uprising many feared the loss of life would be greater than the 800 killed in the 25 January Egyptian Revolution. Some thought it could reach as high as 5,000, few expected it to reach such a dramatic total, and many are now saying that even this figure - compiled by the LCCs - is an underestimate. Over the past few months the weekly toll of officially recorded deaths is over 800, the majority of them civilians and rebels.

July offensive
The power of the FSA has been growing steadily since January 2012, but took a dramatic turn in July when thousands of fighters took the battle to the capital's Damascus, and Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its commercial centre. The first wave of fighters that flooded into Aleppo came from the countryside, known as Reef Haleb, but students and workers soon swelled their ranks. Since then a citizen army has emerged, often formed around groups of defected soldiers and officers. Despite being outgunned, they withstood the first regime counter-offensive on the city, and have been gradually extending their control over its neighbourhoods. The tenacity and success of the rebel army in Aleppo have confounded all expectations.

The battle for Aleppo has exposed the limits of the regime's power. Short of reliable troops, and mistrustful of the conscripts, it has resorted to pressganging young men into service. Regime forces have retreated to a series of heavily defended compounds, and used indiscriminate airpower and artillery to pound rebel neighbourhoods. A similar pattern is developing elsewhere. One rebel commander estimates that the revolution now controls 80 percent of the country, but is held in check by concentrations of well-armed regime troops.

Damascus has been less fortunate. Assad's forces quickly pushed out the lightly armed rebels, and he has been taking his revenge on the capital's rebellious working class districts. Hundreds of shops have been burnt, homes bulldozed and any sign of resistance met with overwhelming force. No one has been spared, including the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, which is being punished for giving shelter to Syrian refugees and fighters.

This war is taking its toll on the country, and has left many people, including revolutionaries, in despair. Amid the chaos and horror the heart of the revolution remains intact, but it is facing mounting challenges, not just for its survival but also for what will emerge out of the ruins of war.

There is a glimpse of a future Syria away from the front lines. In liberated areas forms of civilian control are taking root. Many of the LCCs that sprang up in the early days of the revolution have morphed into civilian authorities, in some places successfully putting local administration under popular control. These local councils are coalescing into a national network with the backing of the main rebel brigades. The formation of the councils is a sign of the deepening of the revolution, even under the most difficult circumstances. But this popular control has to confront huge problems created by the scale of destruction, growing shortages and lack of funds.

Independence of the revolution
The often confusing picture that is emerging on the ground testifies to the perseverance and difficulties the revolution faces, but also to the fact that it is forced to take the regime apart piece by piece. The slow progress of the uprising belies the fact that the revolution has strong backers in the West and among some Arab regimes. The greatest myth about the Syrian revolution is that it is being armed and trained, and effectively working in the interests of the Western powers and its Arab allies. If this is so, then the rebels are ill served by their masters.

In one of her many reports from inside Syria Time magazine journalist Rania Abouzeid attempted to track the trail of weapons coming in from the northern border with Turkey. She writes, "What is remarkable is that this substantial strip of free Syria has been patched together in the past 18 months by military defectors, students, tradesmen, farmers and pharmacists who have not only withstood the Syrian army's withering fire but in some instances repelled it using a hodgepodge of limited, light weaponry. The feat is even more amazing when one considers the disarray among the outside powers supplying arms to the loosely allied band of rebels."

She reports that far from a coordinated strategy to arm the revolution the efforts by outside powers have been shambolic. There is little evidence of a substantial amount of weapons coming in from Turkey (apart from the black market), less from across the Jordanian border, while old stock (much of it useless) is coming from Iraqi cities such as Fallujah and Samara. Clearly very few weapons are coming in, and certainly not Western arms. There are no signs in Syria, for example, of the wire-guided anti-tank missiles that appeared near the end of the Libyan uprising. Most of the rebel weapons are crude field guns and homemade rockets, a few captured tanks, some mortars and limited anti-aircraft weapons. All of these have been seized in raids, or brought over by defectors.

A common complaint is that rebels have more volunteers than weapons. Many go into battle hoping to pick up a discarded rifle; others make near-suicidal raids on regime checkpoints to seize guns and ammunition. Rudimentary networks of weapons workshops have sprung up, but these are no match for the stockpiles of sophisticated weapons available to the regime - designed to withstand a two-year war with Israel - or the regular shipments of arms from Iran and Russia.

Attempts to set up client militias have also been met with limited success. The Telegraph newspaper reported that the Saudis spent a small fortune on one brigade consisting of only 50 men. Qatar's efforts have also been limited. Both the foreign-sponsored brigades as well as the foreign Salafi fighters represent a fraction of the rebel army. The FSA brigades have reacted with deep mistrust to any offers by outside powers to buy their loyalty, and have refused to accept the "conditions" on receiving arms even when supplies were desperately short. Loyalty to the independence of the revolution has been a dominant feature of the uprising and continues to remain a strong part of it.

Similarly, attempts by Western powers, the US in particular, to find "friendly forces" have come to little. The West has lost faith in Riad al-Asaad, the self-appointed head of the FSA that was until recently based in Turkey. Instead the West is to groom a new military hierarchy drawn from more recent high-ranking defectors.
The much-heralded launch of the Western-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), which aims to put all rebel battalions under central control, has also had limited success. Key brigades have refused to recognise the SNA command, remaining loyal to the defectors's civilian councils that emerged in the early days of the armed uprising.

Sectarian civil war?
The scale and ferocity of the uprising, and the growing dependence of the regime on the minority Alawi community have fed fears that Syria is now in the grip of a sectarian civil war. This danger must not be underestimated and remains a deep concern for many of the revolutionaries. But if this was a sectarian war it would have been over by now, as the Sunni Muslims represent 70 percent of the population.

Both the revolution and the regime draw their support from across the many religious and ethnic communities. The vast majority of Kurds support the revolution in its social objectives, but also have faith in the revolution to end the decades of discrimination. Among the Christians and the Druze the picture is more complex. The regime has played on their fear that Syria will become a Salafi-controlled state, yet neither community has been the target of the revolutionaries, and these communities are deeply divided between regime supporters and those who support the revolution. The regime still retains the loyalty of large numbers of Sunni Muslims, especially from among the middle classes and the wealthy elite.

Bashar Assad and many leading members of the regime are drawn from among the Alawi minority. Alawi towns and villages are recruiting grounds for the notorious Shabiha militia responsible for waves of massacres, and have been targeted by acts of revenge by rebels. But the situation among the Alawis is deeply contradictory. There is deep bitterness inside the community towards the Assad clan, its corruption and monopolies. Some Alawi villages and neighbourhoods have openly sided with the revolution, and many are fighting alongside other minorities in the rebel brigades. Many fear they will pay for the massacres committed by the Shabiha, and the regime has stoked fears of revenge. This has made the Alawis fearful of the revolution, and trapped into supporting the regime. However, the Syrian Revolution is not a sectarian civil war, but a popular uprising. Its demands and aims remain unchanged since its first day, and sectarianism has never been a part of it.

Arab revolutions
Western efforts to shape the outcome and direction of the revolution face another challenge. Egypt's new president Mohamed Morsi has been attempting to form a coalition of major regional powers that rejects direct Western involvement in Syria. Morsi has allied with Turkey to invite Saudi Arabia and Iran to form a group dedicated to solving the "Syrian question". Morsi is offering Iran full diplomatic relations if it withdraws its support from Assad. His efforts have not yielded any results, but they point to the rising influence of an Egypt that no longer represents US interests in the region. Morsi's diplomatic moves point to the deepening problems faced by the West since the advent of the Arab Spring, and Syria remains an important part of this revolutionary wave.

Since its outbreak the revolution has faced many dangers: the scale of the repression and bloodletting, the fear of sectarianism, the meddling of Western powers and the collapse of the country. Yet this revolution has proved to be remarkably resilient and has maintained its independence. The revolution is far from over, but it is facing many dark days, and as winter approaches so will the problems mount.

Simon Assaf regularly tweets information about the Middle East from @SWassaf