Syria: not victims but citizens

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Max van Lingen spoke to author Leila al-Shami about collecting Syrian voices from the grassroots for her book, Burning Country.

Why did you want to write a book about the Syrian struggle?

Both Robin and myself felt the information coming out of Syria was very poor. The media focused mainly on the humanitarian crisis or the rise of Islamic groups and extremism. Syrians were either seen as victims or as terrorists.

We wanted to challenge this view by letting Syrians themselves narrate how they saw their country and the struggle; to give the voices of activists and ordinary citizens that had been involved in the revolution and the war a platform to communicate what has been happening.

Our analysis should be based on what’s happening in the grassroots and not just on this chess game of states or the international impact of the crisis which ignores local agency.

Why didn’t you speak to supporters of the regime?

We wanted to promote Syrian revolutionary voices. We interviewed people from all different sects in Syria — Muslims, Christians, Ishmaelis, Alawis, as well as Kurds and Arabs. But, while we didn’t interview the pro-regime side, we did try to put into context the position of people we may not agree with. That included trying to explain why many Alawis continue their support for the regime and also putting the perspectives of Islamists into context.

Why do you think part of the international left has been reluctant to support the revolution or outright hostile towards it?

Prior to the Arab spring the experiences with activism in the Middle-East had been limited to the issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the issue of the US intervention and occupation of Iraq. When the Arab spring happened and it spread to Syria, people applied the lens of US imperialism to Syria.

But the situation in 2011 was dramatically different. There had been a transnational revolutionary wave. People said they no longer wanted to live under these regimes that had been oppressing them for so long.

Some on the left failed to respond to the fact that this was a popular movement from below. They see the Assad regime as a secular and socialist regime in some existential battle with the US and Israel.

When Hafez al-Assad came to power through a military coup [in 1971] there were socialist aspects to his programme, but he turned away from that and started implementing neoliberal reforms.

Bashar al-Assad has continued these neoliberal reforms, concentrating wealth in the hands of those who are connected to his regime, while impoverishing large sections of the population.

The Islamisation of the revolution has reduced its international appeal. How profound do you think this development is?

A large part of the military struggle is now dominated by Islamists of various stripes. From the more moderate Islamist groups, that are still prepared to work within a democratic framework, to the more hardline Syrian Salafist groups. And, of course there are the international jihadi groups, such as Daesh, which are really a counterrevolutionary, third force.

Syrians have been struggling against Daesh as they are struggling against the Assad regime. The Free Army is still there and has a large support base, but is no longer the only actor.

But there were specific reasons why the revolution Islamised. One was the search for weapons and funds. Especially after the Ghouta-massacre, Syrians knew there wasn’t going to be any help from the West. That’s why they started to look to the Gulf states. The result was a changing rhetoric and a more Islamic vocabulary.

Islamist groups have also often been able to provide fighters with a salary, which is a key thing when the economy has collapsed and people are starving.

But we shouldn’t only focus on the military aspect. There is also a strong civil society, which is still playing a very important role in Syria’s revolution.

In Maarat al-Numan there have been around 200 days of continuous protests against Assad and against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the new name for Nusra). The people in Maarat al-Numan have been very clear about their rejection of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

But in Aleppo the situation is very different. Jabhat played a large role in breaking the siege on Aleppo and temporarily freeing those 300,000 people from siege.

It is ridiculous to think these people are going to reject them in the current situation.

Do you think the break between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Al-Qaeda was the result of popular protest?

Possibly. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has played a very clever game in Syria. They’ve been responsive to local popular pressure. They are not only respected for their fighting abilities and their battlefield achievements, but also for their ability to distribute aid or services and assist the local population in that way.

They probably realise they do have a constituency in Syria and think that the break with Al-Qaeda might help them win influence in Syria in the future.

But I think a lot of Syrians are very aware that, whether it is linked to Al-Qaeda or not, it has a very restrictive, dangerous and sectarian ideology, which does not appeal to the vast majority of people in the country.

So, the support for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is superficial?

Syrians will support whoever is protecting them from the massive bombardments by Assad and its allies as defending them from slaughter, but this doesn’t mean they will support a political project by that group for a future Syria.

I think that at that point Syrians will reject some of the more extremist groups that have been involved in the military struggle and they will start to turn to the civil society voices which have been the ones that have kept the original values of the revolution alive.

As we saw in February, when there was a significant reduction in hostilities, people were back on the streets in large numbers calling for the regime to fall, for democracy and holding the flag of the revolution (not the black banner of the jihadists).

Another contradictory development you describe is the militarisation.

When the revolution started to militarise a lot of civil society was against it. They were afraid it would cause the revolution to lose legitimacy and lead to more extremism and sectarianism. This obviously came true. But militarisation wasn’t a decision made in a meeting or through a vote. Instead thousands of individual decisions were taken under fire.

What do you think of the negotiations?

If we could achieve a sustainable cease fire, that would be what every Syrian wants. But I don’t hold out much hope and I don’t think the Syrians hold out much hope. These negotiations seem to be little more than political theatre. The US is now aligning itself with Russia in Syria. It seems it is not prepared to take on the Assad regime anymore, and it is even prepared to allow the regime to stay in power to focus on what the Americans feel is the biggest threat.

As long as the international community continues to see Islamic extremism as the main problem, any negotiation is going to have very little relevance to Syrians.

For Syrian civilians the primary issue is to stop the bombing by the regime and its allies, which have been responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths, the destruction of the cities and towns and the refugee crisis and creating the conditions in which salafist-jihadism thrives.

Why has the Kurdish struggle had much more support from the international left than the Syrian revolution?

First of all I think it is important we do support the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. The Kurds have been horribly repressed by the Arab regimes and Turkey. There have been amazing grassroots initiatives which seem a real return to community and democracy, including a real strengthening of the role of women.

Sadly, people on the left have overlooked similar initiatives in the Arab areas. In the liberated areas across Syria people have also set up revolutionary bodies and community structures and are practicing grass-roots democracy in places like Daraya, Aleppo and Idlib.

Another problem is that people confuse support for the Kurdish struggle with support for the PYD. The PYD is exhibiting very strong authoritarian tendencies, which people on the left should be questioning. We’ve heard about the repression of civil society and we’ve seen activists of Kurdish opposition groups being arrested and detained.

Some people feel there are no groups they can support among the rebels.

There are many, many positive things to support in Syria. There are local councils trying to administer to local communities, while being under severe bombardment. There are humanitarian relief and aid organisations, such as the White Helmets, who are doing amazing work, risking their lives to rescue victims of air strikes from the rubble.

Activists have set up women’s centres, independent media centres and human rights organisations. I think the real question people have is whether these groups are the strongest actor at the current time. They aren’t, of course, but they are people in struggle and they should be the people the left support.

All the states intervening in Syria are making a massive mess. We have just seen the statement by 160 Syrian prominent intellectuals who are democrats and secularists rejecting the Russian and US interventions.

The only hope for Syria is there people on the ground that are continuing to promote democratic ideals, that are continuing to reject sectarianism and extremism.

We should be doing everything we can to give them as much support as possible, so they can continue their work and they can grow in strength.

When there is finally a solution for this conflict, which I don’t think is any time soon, I hope that civil society will be able to resume the prominence they had prior to the militarisation.

Max van Lingen is a leading member of the International Socialsts in the Netherlands