Monday, September 19, 2016

Rohini Hensman - The Fate of Syria Under Assad

Relying on Assad and his allies and supporters for information about the war is as stupid as it would have been stupid to rely on Bush and Blair for information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, or on Netanyahu to tell us what is happening in Palestine.

It would be safe to say that without the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, ISIS would not have existed today. The invasion gave Al Qaeda its first opening to enter Iraq, even as it engendered a large number of embittered Baathists, thus providing the conditions for an unlikely alliance between Baathists and Al Qaeda in opposition to the US occupation. It was this that later mutated into ISIS.

Does it follow that we should see the Syrian civil war as a consequence of US imperialism? The answer is, ‘No’. The Syrian uprising of 2011 was one of several Arab uprisings against the devastation caused by the neo-liberalism of brutal authoritarian regimes throughout the region, the chain starting with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010.

In Syria, as in other countries where the uprisings took place, neo-liberalism had enriched a small coterie around the ruling elite, while the vast majority of people were left to suffer plumetting living standards. The demonstrations started with demands for reform of the regime rather than its overthrow – an end to corruption, the release of political prisoners, repeal of the Emergency Law and so on – and were entirely peaceful. Assad’s response, however, was one of extreme violence.

The event that catalysed the Syrian protests of 2011 into a full-scale uprising took place in March of that year in the city of Deraa. Fifteen schoolboys, all below the age of 15, had plastered their school walls with the slogans they had heard chanted in Tunisia and Egypt, including the key slogan of the Arab uprisings, ‘al-Shaab yureed isqat al-nizam’ (‘The People Want the Downfall of the Regime’). The children were arrested and tortured in custody, their fingernails ripped out.

Parents who pleaded with the local head of political security for their release were insulted and turned away. When several thousand family members and their supporters gathered to protest on March 18, security forces responded with water cannon and bullets, killing four. The next day, at their funeral, even more were killed, and wounded who went to the local hospital were detained or shot.

The government’s savage response sparked protests throughout the country by outraged Syrians, but these too were met with violence. Gruesome methods of torture and sexual abuse of large numbers of men, women and children were used, not to extract information but to terrorise dissidents into quiescence.

However, in many cases the repression had the opposite effect on the families and friends of the victims. For example, after 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatieb was tortured to death in May 2011 for participating in an anti-regime demonstration, local children walked in procession with his photograph and a banner proclaiming that he died a martyr. Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) were set up around the country; local councils were formed to organise humanitarian aid and the provision of basic services like water, electricity, education and waste disposal in rebel areas; field hospitals were set up to care for the wounded.

The regime needed to fabricate an excuse to use military force to crush this unarmed civilian uprising, and it did so by systematically trying to turn it into a sectarian conflict. It visited collective punishment on Sunnis, while extending preferential treatment to Alawis, but this was not enough. As Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami describe in their amazing book, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, which is based on myriad interviews:
"From March to October 2011, at the same time that it was targeting thousands of non-violent, non-sectarian revolutionaries for death-by-torture, the regime released up to 1,500 of the most well-connected Salafist activists from its prisons… According to a defected intelligence officer, ‘The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out; it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades… The regime wanted to tell the world it was fighting al-Qaida but the revolution was peaceful in the beginning so it had to build an armed Islamic revolt. It was a specific, deliberate plan and it was easy to carry out’. Many leaders of key Islamist militias – Zahran Alloush of the army of Islam, for instance, or Hassan Aboud of Ahrar al-Sham, as well as founding members of Jabhat al-Nusra, and Abu Athir al-Absi and Awad al-Makhlaf, important figures in ISIS – were beneficiaries of Assad’s ‘amnesty’” (pp. 120-121).

Assad then proceeded to try and wipe out not the Islamists that he himself had unleashed but the democratic opposition, using every conceivable means including barrel bombs, poison gas and the starvation sieges of entire neighbourhoods. The LCCs called on the opposition to continue their non-violent struggle, arguing that armed struggle would marginalise the civilian opposition and in any case would be out-gunned by the incomparably better-armed regime… read more: