[Midden-Oosten] Michael Karadjis: Issues in the current stage of Syrian revolution 1/2

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Do Jul 18 00:23:48 CEST 2013


Issues in the current stage of Syrian revolution

By Michael Karadjis

July 9, 2013 –   Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal    -- 

Recent weeks saw seemingly contradictory developments regarding imperialist plans for Syria. First, on June 14, the US government announced it had finally agreed to provide some small arms directly to "vetted" sections of the Syrian armed opposition, following alleged US "confirmation" that Syria's Assad regime had used chemical weapons. Then on June 18, the G8 meeting between the US, Russia and six other major imperialist powers issued a joint declaration calling for all parties to the Syrian conflict to attend the Geneva peace summit, declaring the need for a political solution.

In reality, the combination of these two developments was almost identical to what likewise occurred in the same week in early May: lots of hard talk about the possible provision of arms to the rebels due to the possible use of chemicals by the Syrian regime of Bashir Assad, and the initial US- Russian meeting to discuss Geneva and lots of talk about how both sides agree only a political solution is possible.

It may take some time to be able to properly assess the full implications of these moves. At the outset, however, two points can be stressed.

The first is that while the direct provision of an as yet unspecified amount of US arms to the Syrian rebels allows increased US leverage with both the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime, no serious commentators are suggesting this will make a great deal of difference on the ground. The US is only pledging to provide light weapons and ammunition, which are already being supplied by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While this may add to the volume of such weapons, or even allow the Gulf states to provide certain kinds of US weapons that until now they were not allowed to, the US explicitly rules out providing the main form of weaponry the rebels call for, namely, portable anti-aircraft weapons  for self-defence against Assad's massive and massively used air power.

The second is that the initial declaration of the G8, announcing that the participants are   "committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria" and calling for peace talks to begin "as soon as possible", made no mention of the Assad regime at all (some of the opposition were demanding agreement that Assad step down as a pre-condition), called for   "a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent", calls for Syria's public services to be "preserved or restored", stressing, very importantly, that " this includes the military forces and security services ", expressed their deep concern with "the growing threat from terrorism and extremism in Syria" and called on both the regime and opposition forces to "destroy and expel from Syria all organisations and individuals affiliated to al Qaida and any other non state actors linked to terrorism".

This explicit naming of Al-Qaida (meaning the Al-Nusra front, which fights the Assad regime but is not part of any of the opposition coalitions and often clashes with them as well), with no explicit mention of Hezbollah, and the call for both regime and opposition to take the war to Al-Nusra, combined with the stress on preservation of the core of the regime, including its military, really gives an idea of what this "transitional authority" will be about, and the fundamental strategy of imperialism in Syria.

UK prime minister   David Cameron 
http://www.itv.com/news/topic/david-cameron/    was not kidding when he explained several weeks ago that the US, Russia and UK "share the same aim: to find a solution to the conflict that ends the killing and  prevents violent extremism taking hold , with a transitional government with full executive powers, established with the consent of both sides, that  preserves the integrity of the Syrian state and its institutions  (http://www.itv.com/news/update/2013-05-17/cameron-and-putin-hold-syria-talks).

At this stage, the opposition Syrian National Coalition has rejected the G8's cynical call for it to fight Al-Nusra, declaring "the Assad regime is the only source of terrorism in Syria."

This so-called "Yemeni solution", involving some largely cosmetic changes of the top guard, while preserving the state apparatus and the core of the regime, but adding enough vetted members of the opposition to allow stabilisation, has been the imperialist project from the time it became clear that Assad would be unable to simply crush the revolt, and that his brutality would only lead to permanent instability and the continued strengthening of reactionary anti-imperialist sections of the radical Islamist forces, such as the Al-Nusra front, which is strongly connected to Al-Qaida.

It is important to understand this at the outset: that the "Libyan model", whereby full-scale imperialist intervention tries to militarily bring the Syrian opposition to power in Damascus, has never even come close to being the preferred imperialist strategy in the US, UK, France or elsewhere; actually it has never been an option.

Understanding this allows us to understand that the combination of "tough talk" and ending arms embargoes with peace talks   are two sides of the same coin:   The US knows very well that increasing the number of small arms won't even significantly affect the battlefield, but allows a form of pressure on the Assad regime in the context of Assad's recent victories via use of massive anti-personnel weapons and Hezbollah invaders. If unchallenged, this could lead to Assad refusing to attend Geneva or putting up too many conditions, while also driving the poorly armed Syrian rebels further into the arms of the relatively well-armed Al-Nusra.

By the same token, the long delay after the last round to tough talk some 6-7 weeks earlier (when the media were full of "the US is about to", or "may think about", allowing arms to be provided to "vetted" Syrian rebel groups), and the fact that hardly any arms reached the rebels in that period, and that every time Obama opened his mouth since it has seemed less likely than ever, was also timed to help Assad go on the offensive to mop up a little before the proposed international conference, allowing pressure on the rebels to agree to participate at Geneva without their precondition of Assad agreeing to step down. The blatantly obvious withholding of arms from rebels in southern Syria (see below) and then in the crucial battle of Qusayr makes this rather clear, as does the fact that the US has now finally moved on the question of arms as Assad and Hezbollah get carried away and head north to Aleppo.

The Syrian revolution continues – the forces involved

I will first clarify what I think is going on generally. The Syrian revolution, which broke out in February 2011 as a democratic mass revolt against the dictatorship,  is still the fundamental fact . The fact that after eight months of slaughter by the regime revolt was forced to take up arms by late 2011 does not change that.

Countless reports from liberated towns about the nature of this democratic process, under attack from the dictatorship, for example in  Taftanaz   
http://harpers.org/archive/2012/08/welcome-to-free-syria   , Saraqeb   
http://world.time.com/2012/07/24/a-dispatch-from-free-syria-how-to-run-a-liberated-town/   , Qusayr   
http://middleeastvoices.voanews.com/2013/03/syria-witness-running-the-town-of-qusayr-without-assad-81450/#ixzz2NdfWSbWK   , the Damscus outer suburb  Duma 
http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2840   , Sarmada   
http://syriasurvey.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/local-governance-in-sarmada.html     , Idlib   
http://syriasurvey.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/what-to-do-with-idlibs-islamists.html   , Azaz   
http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/syrian-rebels-tackle-local-government/2013/04/30/3f2181d8-b1b9-11e2-baf7-5bc2a9dc6f44_story.html   , parts of  Aleppo

 http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2012/1103/In-rebel-held-Aleppo-Syrian-civilians-try-to-impose-law-through-courts-not-guns   and elsewhere, are examples which deal with the real-world difficulties of revolutionary democratic governance from below, but nevertheless reveal some semblance of popular structures that surely deserve defending against the dictatorship and its tanks, scud missiles and torture chambers, and which on the whole do not show evidence of imposition of sharia law or sectarian cleansing of minorities.

While a complete run-down of the various forces and organisations involved in Syria would require another article, for the sake of clarity it is worth noting that the liberated towns and networks of activists throughout Syria are connected via the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), the main opposition force on the ground in Syria. It does not have a "political line" as it represents the spectrum of people's opinions involved in the revolution. Since the armed struggle began to dominate, the LCCs still organise all manner of demonstrations and other non-military actions.

Some units of the Syrian army refused to murder civilians and thus defected to the revolt; these armed groups all over Syria are called the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which likewise has no central chain of command or overriding "political" view as it is basically the armed wing of the LCC. Thus when leftists slander the FSA as a whole, either as dupes for imperialism (usually based on statements by some exile leader) or as jihadi extremists or criminals (based on actions of some rogue faction), they are in fact slandering the entire movement on the ground, as the overwhelming bulk of the armed forces are nothing other than these "council regimes" with arms to defend themselves, not under the effective control of exile-based leadership bodies, and not responsible for actions of any rogue group.

The neo-pacifist critique that some of the Western left have newly taken up, that says no matter how much you get slaughtered you should still turn the other cheek, can be countered by the following rather typical description of how the civil uprising became the armed uprising in the northern liberated town Taftanaz (http://harpers.org/archive/2012/08/welcome-to-free-syria/):

    By April 2011, demonstrations were popping up 
    all across the country. The Syrian army tried 
    to cut them down, firing on and killing scores 
    of civilians, only to inspire further protests. 
    The     mukhabarat, meanwhile, targeted the core 
    activists in each town       …  

    But the conscript army started to buckle, and 
    some soldiers found they could not fire on their 
    countrymen . I had met one of them in Turkey, 
    a twenty-seven-year-old named Abdullah Awdeh. 
    He was serving in the elite 11th Armored Division, 
    which put down protests around the country, when 
    one day he was directed to confront demonstrators 
    near Homs. Their commander said that the protesters 
    were armed terrorists, but when Awdeh arrived 
    he saw only men and women with their families: 
    boys perched atop their fathers' shoulders, girls 
    with their faces painted in the colors of the 
    Syrian flag, mothers waving banners.  He decided 
    to desert .             

    By June 2011, there were hundreds like him; nearly 
    every day, another uniformed soldier faced a camera, 
    held up his military identity card, and professed 
    support for the revolution for the entire world 
    to see on YouTube.  These deserters joined what 
    came to be known as the Free Syrian Army . Awdeh, 
    with his aviator sunglasses and Dolce & Gabbana 
    jeans, assumed command of a group of nearly a 
    hundred fighters.

    Many activists worried about the militarization 
    of the conflict, which pulled peaceful protesters 
    into a confrontation with a powerful army that 
    they could not defeat.  But in small towns like 
    Taftanaz, where government soldiers had repeatedly 
    put down demonstrations with gunfire and thrown 
    activists in prison , desperation trumped long- 
    term strategy. Abu Malek likened the actions of 
    the rebels to those of a mother: ‘She may seem 
    innocent, but try to take away her children and 
    how will she act? Like a criminal animal. That's 
    what we are being reduced to, in order to defend 
    our families and our villages.      

    In Taftanaz, fighters from the FSA started protecting 
    demonstrations, quietly standing in the back and 
    watching for mukhabarat. For the first time, the 
    balance of power shifted in favor of the revolution, 
    so much so that government forces could no longer 
    operate openly. Party officials and secret agents 
    vanished, leaving the town to govern itself.

Let's be completely clear: these grassroots FSA fighters are what a section of the left has come to routinely slander as an imaginary "US-Saudi intervention allied with Al-Qaida making war on Syria". Should Assad's "anti-imperialist" scuds bomb them to bits to "defeat imperialism"? This is a concrete question. As is the question of why much of the neo-pacifist left believe these fighters should be denied better arms from wherever they can get them from.

Part of the issue many have is that many of the militias that fall under the broad umbrella of the FSA are Islamist militias. For example, the Farouk Brigades are partly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (which has broad support in Syrian society, and which is regarded to be relatively "moderate" in Islamist terms and not classed as "salafist" or "jihadi"), but also contain secular fighters. Meanwhile, other militias within the FSA, which cannot be called "Islamist" in any political sense, adopt Islamic- sounding names, unsurprising in a Muslim country. This simply reflects the political broadness of Syrian society. However, assertions that all fighting groups in Syria are Islamist (a claim, made for example by the  New York Times and repeated  ad nauseum  in pro-Assad left websites) are simply untrue; anyone can, for example, look at the list of names of FSA militias that signed  the LCC declaration noted above 
http://razanghazzawi.org/2012/08/15/lcc-new-fsa-battalions-sign-the-code-of-conduct/     to see a mixture of religious, non-religious and neutral names, for example "Falcons of the Land Brigade in Hama"; or the many that are just called after the name of their town, such as "Revolutionary Military Council in Deir Ezzor" or at the list of secular Syrian nationalist names associated with the  National Unity Brigades of the FSA   
http://darthnader.net/2012/10/17/interview-with-member-of-the-national-unity-brigades-of-the-fsa      , such as the Abdel Rahman Al Shabandar Brigade    
http://youtu.be/hhdtT3-uipE   (named after a  Syrian Arab nationalist who organised the Iron Hand society against French rule ); or for that matter the first fully Christian FSA brigade or the  FSA brigade headed by a defecting female Alawite officer   
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/10/20121022105057794364.html    , hardly a symbol of Salafism.

Meanwhile, both the LCCs and the FSA should be distinguished from the exile leaderships, the Turkey-based Syrian National Congress (SNC) and the broader group that incorporates the SNC but is more representative, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (often shortened to "Syrian Coalition"), and the exile military leadership, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which officially "leads" the FSA but in practice has no control over it on the ground.

All of these internal and external organisations should be further distinguished from the hard-line "salafist" militias outside of both the FSA and these political structures, which either belong to their own umbrella armed organisations, such as the Syrian Islamic Front to which the hard-line fundamentalist Ahrar al-Sham belongs, or Al-Nusra, which acts entirely on its own, of which more below.

The intellectually lazy amalgam made by the pro-Assad and neo-pacifist left between imperialism, exile opposition leaderships, the FSA, the LCCs, the jihadists, Al-Qaida and military struggle as a tactic – i.e., everything they don't like – gets them into serious problems with reality. If it is thus assumed that these imperialist-influenced exile leaderships have driven the innocent internal uprising to militarisation in order to "make war on Syria", then the discussion between the grassroots military brigades in the town Taftanaz referred to above and the exile leadership makes for difficult reading:      Had it been wise for the guerrillas to try to defend Taftanaz rather than retreat, as they had in other towns? It was a question that Malek said Riad al-Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, had put to him at their headquarters in a Turkish border camp. "I shouted at him, ‘Who are you to ask me anything?' " Malek recalled. "‘You sit here and eat and sleep and talk to the media!
 We're inside, we aren't cowards like you.'"

Had it been wise for the guerrillas to try to defend Taftanaz rather than retreat, as they had in other towns? It was a question that Malek said Riad al-Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, had put to him at their headquarters in a Turkish border camp. "I shouted at him, ‘Who are you to ask me anything?' " Malek recalled. " ‘You sit here and eat and sleep and talk to the media! We're inside, we aren't cowards like you.'"

    When I asked Ibrahim Matar's commander in Taftanaz 
    about the FSA leadership, he answered, "If I ever 
    see those dogs here I'll shoot them myself." The 
    Turkey-based commanders exert no control over 
    armed rebel groups on the inside; each of the 
    hundreds of insurgent battalions operate autonomously, 
    although they often coordinate their activities.

    Thus the Turkey-based "FSA" leadership, those 
    who "sit and eat and sleep and talk to the media" 
    and are most exposed to the imaginary imperialist 
    conspiracy, who questioned the local FSA's decision 
    to defend themselves with arms, and they responded 
    with contempt to the suggestion that they should 
    not try to defend our families.

Dangers to the Syrian revolution

However, armed conflict does have the potential to corrupt a movement in many ways, whether via the growth of revenge war crimes, an over reliance on military means, the enhancement of already existing sectarian dynamics, the tendency towards harsher and less rational ideologies (e.g. jihadism) and the avenues it gives to foreign interference.

Not all these negatives can negate a democratic revolution as such, unless we live in a dream world (see the excellent article "   Syria or elsewhere there are no pure revolutions just revolutions   
http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/syriaor-elsewhere-there-are-no-pure-revolutions-just-revolutions   " for this point)  . However, if such factors reach a certain level, and they are combined, this could lead to a situation which is simply civil war between two equally undemocratic forces, as quantity becomes quality.

In my view, while all these factors exist at reasonably serious levels and should not be underestimated, it would be extremely premature to make this conclusion. Let's look at these factors one by one briefly.

First, like in all revolutions, the sheer brutality of the regime often results in brutality by the armed opposition forces (e.g., examples of killing captives etc). While criminal and indefensible, these actions take place within the context of the regime's extreme violence, and occur at a level dramatically more minor than the regime's systematic crimes. The  LCC's code of conduct, signed by dozens of FSA battalions   
http://razanghazzawi.org/2012/08/15/lcc-new-fsa-battalions-sign-the-code-of-conduct       , shows the lengths to which revolutionary forces have gone to try to rein in such activity, and such ongoing debate and condemnation by revolutionary forces is evidence that this alone cannot be used to equate the revolution with the regime, quite aside from the enormous difference in scale. While much was made by the mainstream media, pro-Assad leftists, rightists and Islamphobes the world over about the apparent bite into the heart of a dead regime soldier, shot in battle, less prominence was given to the energetic condemnation of this act by the FSA leadership and by the leadership of his particular brigade.

Indeed, the sheer hypocrisy of this focus on this single act can be highlighted by the reason the man, Abu Sakkar, claims to have been driven to this. By no account was this an attack on an innocent person or ordinary soldier, still less a sectarian attack on an Alawite as some claimed; after having had so many of his family killed by Assad's stormtroopers, it was when Sakkar found video on the phone of the soldier showing him  raping and murdering a mother and her two daughters,  that he was driven to his crazed act (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23190533). The minor cannibalism was symbolic, not the reason for killing the thug, which occurred in battle; yet for leftist and rightist moral hypocrites the world over, raising the heart of a dead  man in uniform, who was also a murderer, to ones mouth is far worse than raping and killing  live  people and recording it for your kicks. Sakkar ran his own militia, Omar al-Farouq, and thus was not under the discipline, even form
ally, of the higher FSA structures, which, while condemning his act, were not in a position to expel him from anything.

Second, while taking up arms for self-defence was inevitable and eminently justifiable, it is certainly true that an over-reliance on military struggle can seriously distort a struggle. That is particularly the case if military struggle goes beyond defence on to a strategy to take the state militarily,  if it is in the context that the masses in certain regime-controlled regions are not also mobilising and/or remain grudgingly beholden to the regime . In other words, a military offensive strategy can only really work, indeed only really be democratic, if it is strategically guided by the movement on the ground.

The FSA's military thrust into both Damascus and Aleppo contained grave dangers in this respect. The dangers have been limited to some extent by the fact that the FSA was simply unable to go beyond the parts of either city where it did have clear support among the masses, largely working- class areas containing a large proportion of recent migrants from the impoverished countryside, where the opposition is primarily based. It should be understood that there  is a class basis  to this division, something the pro-Assad leftists try not to dwell on: the FSA's roots are in the countryside and impoverished new urban areas around cities due to the Assad regime's turn to neoliberalism, which devastated the peasantry; the Sunni "business classes" in Damascus and Aleppo are one of the core supports to the regime (indeed, are organically attached to the regime). However, behind the bourgeoisie stands a large section of (Sunni and Christian) urban petty-bourgeoisie with little love for the r
egime, but with an understandable fear of the chaos an invading rural-based movement, especially one with an Islamist component, may bring to their lives if the revolutionary forces are not disciplined.

Thus, on the one hand, we see a flowering revolutionary- democratic council running the Damascus suburb of  Douma   
http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2840   and also similar attempts in  Aleppo   
http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2012/1103/In-rebel-held-Aleppo-Syrian-civilians-try-to-impose-law-through-courts-not-guns     . However, the much more difficult situation in Aleppo also saw how the evolution of the struggle into a military clash along a divide, with constant regime bombing and shelling and a lack of resources for the rebel side to even run a police force, could cover for outright criminality (above all looting) by elements among the rebel forces, towards the very people in the areas that had supported them.

The outcome of this is even more complex: the Islamist militias, including the hard-line Ahrar Al-Sham and Al- Nusra, later expelled the mainstream FSA militias from much of the liberated territory, and in the process were welcomed by much of the population, because whatever else is wrong with them, the consensus appeared to be that the Islamist hard-liners don't loot, and that they deal harshly with rebel criminality (a good description at http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/19/us-syria-rebels-islamists-specialreport-idUSBRE95I0BC20130619). However, many others then chafe under the new reactionary Islamist laws, and now there is active fightback by revolutionary forces  against both the Islamist repression and the thuggery of FSA elements   
http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/syria-the-people-will-not-kneel-and-will-accept-no-injustice   . In the meantime, the section of Aleppo under regime control is hardly encouraged to rise in order to replace Assad's regime of terror with either criminal militias or Islamist repression.

This brings us to the third danger, that of "salafist" forces, with an anti-democratic agenda, coming to dominate the movement and hence expunge its democratic content. Incidentally, the fact that in Aleppo this danger apparently grew stronger precisely as a reaction against indisciplined and criminal actions of some of the mainstream rebels indicates how wrong it is to conflate all these different issues. Nevertheless, it is true that the very ferocity of military struggle and regime terror can naturally increase the trend towards more extremist ideologies among the opposition.

While clearly growing stronger, there is no evidence that this trend has come to dominate the movement (see discussion above on the variety of militias within the FSA). There is however clearly a minority of truly reactionary forces that do threaten to impose an anti-democratic religious dictatorship. The recent murder of a 15-year old in Aleppo for "blasphemy" is an example of this. This murder was vigorously condemned by the Syrian Coalition, which called for punishment of the killers and described it as a "crime against humanity"   
http://www.facebook.com/SyrianNationalCoalition.en#!/photo.php?fbid=478723065546817&set=a.437287806357010.1073741828.436337196452071&type=1&theater   .

Throwing the whole Syrian uprising into the "jihadi" camp and then washing one's clean distant Western hands of the atrocities on both sides may be convenient, but what it does is undermine the very forces within the revolution that confront this reactionary trend on a daily basis (for examples of popular demonstrations against these currents and their actions, see http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/syriaor-elsewhere-there-are-no-pure-revolutions-just-revolutions, for countless photos of demonstrations with anti-sectarian slogans see http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/listen-to-what-the-syrian-popular-movement-and-revolutionaries-have-to-say/ ], other anti-sectarian actions, declarations, struggles etc., see http://darthnader.net/2012/10/13/and-then-there-was-hope/,   
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/04/201241314026709762.html   and http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/12556/the-growing-challenge-to-the-syrian-regime-and-then, and http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/syria-the-people-will-not-kneel-and-will-accept-no-injustice).

It is important to distinguish the anti-democratic nature of "salafism" as such from the fourth danger, that of the revolution degenerating into a sectarian war between largely Sunnis and Alawites. While extremist salafist groups are also likely sectarian (Al-Nusra explicitly is), whether the dynamic of open sectarian slaughter comes to pass is a different question. Islamic extremism is just as dangerous to secular Sunnis (and part of the reason for the reticence of sections of urban Sunni Damascus and Aleppo). Meanwhile, the sheer brutality of an Alawite-dominated regime could also make non-religious FSA fighters from the Sunni community turn anti-Alawite.

While either full-scale religious dictatorship or full- scale sectarian war would be totally reactionary outcomes, events in recent history, especially since the Iranian revolution, have shown that a democratic mass movement can often contain reactionary religious elements without them necessarily coming to dominate early on – the extent to which they do is largely determined by the power of the movement, as thousands of people do not come out in struggle for dictatorship, but for democracy; the anti-democratic forces rely on demobilisation or repression to assert themselves more forcefully, and their ultimate victory is not a given; and in any case we need to be careful of deeming every expression of Islam as "Islamic extremism."

In this context, a recent  Reuters special series on Syria

 http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/19/us-syria-rebels-islamists-specialreport-idUSBRE95I0BC20130619    (and http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/20/us-syria-rebels-governance-specialreport-idUSBRE95J05R20130620 ) indicates the complexity of this issue of Islamism and revolution. The town of Raqqa is in rural east Syria, the region dominated by salafist forces such as Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham (which opposes Al-Nusra's alliance with Al-Qaida and works more cooperatively with the FSA, but nevertheless also remains outside the FSA and any of the opposition political coalitions), while Aleppo is a major urban centre, where the mainstream FSA militias were initially in charge. Yet reading the series, one is struck by an apparently more open situation in Raqqa than currently in Aleppo.

Allowing of course for problems related to the reporters' perhaps limited and impressionistic research, the difference appears to be that, since Raqqa was taken outright by the armed opposition, and is far enough away from the centre of things for the regime to not focus its massive firepower on it, this has allowed the non-salafist revolutionary forces and other people such as women's groups in Raqqa, empowered by their outright victory, to openly oppose the salafists' attempts to impose reactionary religious rules on them (other reports back up this assessment, for example, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/04/the-black-flag-of-raqqa.html, or this women's demonstration against the salafists in Raqqa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9hOsyH7zasw). By contrast, Aleppo was only half-seized, via terrible conflict, and is in ongoing conflict with the regime; this state of siege has had opposite results, as described above.

Full-scale sectarian war, however, would be a more clear- cut reactionary situation from the outset, as it pits one section of the popular masses directly against the other, making revolution impossible.

The energetic support for elements among the Syrian rebels by the reactionary, anti-democratic monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar from early on (compared to the extreme hesitance of the US) can only be explained by their terror of a democratic revolution, and hence their aim to hijack it and turn it into a Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict to destroy the revolution from within, while also connected to their regional rivalry with Iran (and indeed with each other).

After much consideration, my conclusion is that the sectarian element has been exaggerated, and this Saudi- Qatari strategy has not been as successful as often thought, even though it certainly is present and serious.

There certainly has been a strengthening of the hard-line Islamist forces, such as Al-Nusra, or the equally fundamentalist Ahrar Al-Sham. This is largely due to them being much better armed than the mainstream and more secular opposition, whether by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or in Al- Nusra's case by private individuals from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and other regional Islamist networks, including the open Iraqi border where Al-Nusra "becomes" Al-Qaida of Iraq. Al-Nusra itself not only advocates religious dictatorship but is unashamedly sectarian towards Alawites and Shiites.

In fact, there have been remarkably few open sectarian attacks, let alone massacres, on Alawi or Christian minorities by radical Sunni elements of the opposition (as opposed to general war crimes), especially compared to the horrific sectarian massacres and ethnic cleansing of Sunni towns by the regime.

Nevertheless some have certainly occurred, for example, Al-Nusra's massacre of 60 Shiite villagers in the far eastern Syrian town of Hatla in early June, see http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Jun-16/220541-qaeda-linked-militants-blow-up-shiite-hall-in-syria-activists.ashx#axzz2WQuWjkI3. Even in this case, the massacre was allegedly in response to an attack on a rebel base by regime militia from that town, which happened to be Shiite, and thus the initial motivation may not have been specifically sectarian as opposed to revenge, but it clearly was a massacre of civilians and thus sectarian in effect anyway.

Moreover, the simple fact of leadership of a movement to replace the current regime by Sunni extremist groups, if that eventuated, would tend to have the required sectarian effect even without massacres. Alawites and Christians initially pro-revolution would tend to baulk at being ruled by such forces, and if not rejoin the regime, at least desert the revolution or remain neutral, in the same way as continual massacres of Sunnis by an Alawite-dominated regime tends to drive them to the opposition and possibly to more extreme elements of it.

The massive intervention of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah to aid the Assad regime's conquest of the Sunni town of Qusayr has given an enormous boost to this sectarian dynamic. To the extent that the movement heads in this direction, it is far more the fault of the regime itself; whatever its reactionary aims, the Saudi/Gulf intervention has simply not had to kind of success it aimed for, or is only starting to get more of it now after Hezbollah's reactionary and short-sighted intervention.

Saudi-Qatari adventure hits the rocks of rivalry and blow-back

The Saudi and Qatari offensive in any case does not entirely rely on full-scale sectarian war; if their particular hard-line Islamist supporters can distort the revolution enough for a Sunni Islamist-led regime to be "their" chess piece against Iran and against each other, and to not encourage democratic revolution (especially in places such as Shiite-majority Bahrain chafing under the Saudi- backed repression of the Sunni-minority princes), their purposes are largely served.

In any case, as an aside, an important snag in their strategy has been that Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear to hate each other as much as Iran and Syria and their backing of different Islamists has been quietly destructive inside the opposition.

Tiny Qatar has been "punching above its size" throughout the Arab Spring using the moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to impose an Islamist dampener on the process (in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Palestine via Hamas), without openly confronting its democratic impulse. The Brotherhood (similar to the Turkish AKP, which has emerged as its ally) believes incremental Islamism can work with bourgeois democracy. The Brotherhood on the whole has also been less concerned with anti-Shia sectarianism; witness Egyptian Brotherhood leader Morsi's overtures to Iran for example, and Qatar's formerly good relations with Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia, however, hates the Muslim Brotherhood, due to its strongly republican impulses and bourgeois-democratic field of operation, which threaten the Saudi monarchial tyranny (aside from the fact that the Saudi version of fundamentalist Islam is starkly more extreme and repressive). Of course, Qatar is also a monarchy, but with such a small population with so much oil and thus such high per capita GDP it does not feel as threatened by revolution. This article on Saudi Arabia's welcome to the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt   
http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/07/saudi-arabia-glad-to-see-morsi-go.html      explains this well (and of course the Saudis backed the "secular" Mubarak dictatorship).

Therefore, Saudi Arabia tended to back more extremist Salafist groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham (though Qatar tended to compete on that terrain as well), which were also more explicitly sectarian anti-Shia, to rival Qatar's support for the Brotherhood. That turned out to be a very narrow field of operation, because as this tended to lead to the rise of Al-Nusra as the leading Salafist force, the Saudis got burnt fingers and withdrew, as Al-Qaida's raison d'être is the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and its replacement by an open clerical dictatorship, viewing the Saudi tyrants as tools of the West despite their identical ideologies.

Most analyses agree that around mid-2012, after having been the most enthusiastic backer of the Islamist wing of the uprising, Saudi support dried up. Its new drive to send arms (partially stifled by the US) from early 2013 took place from Jordan (whereas Qatari intervention tended to take place from Turkey in the north), now more directly aligned with the US strategy of finding one mainstream exile rebel leaderships that could be hijacked. The Jordan angle is important for the Saudis: Jordan borders both Syria and Saudi Arabia and is ruled by a monarchy whose main internal opponent is the Muslim Brotherhood.


Meer informatie over de Midden-Oosten maillijst