The era of Arab Spring euphoria is long ended, having devolved into doubt, confusion or wholesale rejection. Libya and Syria put an abrupt end to the Arab Spring celebrations, with the current situation in Egypt adding to the frustration.
Part of the problem in deciding whether a particular side in these conflicts deserves support or rejection is a lack of a basic set of criteria that can help to clearly define what is happening. Thus, different analysts describe the same events as a coup, revolution, or civil war. These definitions are totally different perspectives as to what is happening, and imply that the situations should include different levels of political support or rejection.
In Syria the question remains: is the situation a revolution or a civil war? What should be the basis for judging whether or not a situation in general is “revolutionary,” and why does it matter?
Don’t miss a beat
Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.
Below is an attempt to put forth a common sense definition of revolution and apply it to the events in Syria. When such a basic criterion is applied to Syria, it becomes clear that the ongoing events in Syria should not be labeled a revolution.
The label “revolution” is critically important because it implies that the overwhelming majority of people have decided and are dedicated to a specific path for society. This means that the “masses” are passionately intervening to change society, overcoming fear and repression until their objectives are met.
In this sense revolution is the highest form of democracy, since it’s the clearest expression of the People’s will, expressed through ongoing massive deliberate action, as opposed to the non-participatory form of democracy that is the western hallmark. The label “revolution” is especially important because a movement that has earned a clear revolutionary mandate should be supported without condition, albeit not without criticism.
In order to judge whether a revolution is afoot the evidence should be examined. Clues must be unearthed to decipher the attitudes, feelings, and energy of the social movement in question. Studying revolution is an attempt to gauge mass consciousness — not an exact science but a politically crucial one. All politicians do this as they attempt electoral campaigns, and all dictatorships gauge revolutionary consciousness to see if they have the power to crush it.
What are ways to gather evidence into revolutionary mass consciousness? In some ways the old adage, “you’ll know it when you see it,” is helpful in describing revolution, since revolutions produce floods of people all expressing pent up emotions, fighting in a united cause, which creates new forms of social solidarity that’s impossible to form during non-revolutionary situations. These surreal scenes made nobody question whether the toppling of the dictator Mubarak was a “revolution.” It was simply obvious.
More specific evidence of revolutionary mass consciousness may include: gigantic demonstrations with united demands, mass civil disobedience, mass labor and student actions and strikes, occupations of public buildings, new forms of direct democracy (which may include new labor unions, new political parties, neighborhood committees, etc.) and other bold actions taken by masses of people who otherwise would take no such actions, such as confronting police and/or military, fighting off right-wing attacks, civil disobedience, ignoring military curfew rules, etc. Through these types of extraordinary experiences the majority of the population undergoes a personal transformation during the course of revolution.
The ultimate sign that a situation has entered a revolutionary period is that the masses have directly intervened into social life as an independent, powerful force, through ongoing collective action. The people seek to actualize their power, creating a dynamic that shifts the balance of power away from the elites and their institutions. Governments becomes “destabilized,” elite authority is lost, and enforcement of laws becomes difficult or impossible. Even martial law is easily defeated by a strong revolution of the majority. Governments melt away.
Whether or not the social power can be fully and permanently shifted depends on the success or failure of the revolution; but the path of revolution has been entered when social equilibrium has tilted — the elites cannot rule in the same way. The people have invested in ongoing, mass actions to change society. The targeted regime thus becomes unbalanced and splits, unable to act collectively to suppress the revolution or neutralize it through concessions; every step the regime takes to resolve the situation only pushes the revolutionary movement forward. The surest sign of a revolution is its effect on the targeted regime, which becomes splintered and ineffective, its power made powerless.
Revolution is a display of power by working and poor people, who collectively choose to assert themselves into public life in order to change it. In non-revolutionary times working people do not actualize their power; they aren’t even aware that they have any, as they passively ignore any role in social life as individuals, silently delegating their political power to corporate-bought politicians.
There is no other social power equal to a revolutionary movement in modern society, since revolutions are famous for exposing the weakness of the elite and the elite-run state: armies crumble under revolutionary pressure as soldiers refuse to fire on peaceful protestors; police repression motivates the people to repress the police; secretive “security” agencies are shown powerless, and long-standing elite political parties are smashed. If successful in the long term, a revolutionary movement can fundamentally change society.
Let us now apply these basic criteria of revolution to Syria.
The first essential threshold of revolution was not crossed in Syria: the movement was not able to intervene in a way that was powerful enough to alter the power dynamic of society. The revolutionary movement did not grow large enough to truly challenge the Syrian government, and very soon the “revolutionaries” took the path of a guerrilla war — led not by the Syrian people, but a minority of religious extremists.
The evidence of this is plain to see: the only two social forces currently exercising their power in Syria are completely outside the control of working people — the Syrian government and the Islamist extremist militias. There is no third option for victory here, because the masses have not been powerful enough to assert themselves in an independent way — a basic precondition of revolution.
The two largest cities in Syria — Damascus and Aleppo — never experienced the mass demonstrations that you see in Cairo, Egypt. In fact, there have been several enormous pro-Assad demonstrations in Syria’s two largest cities, a fact always ignored by those who argue that there is a revolution afoot in Syria. A similar dynamic occurred in Libya, which showcased anti-government demonstrations in the eastern city of Benghazi, but never occurred in the Libyan capital in Tripoli. Obama thus declared that Libya as a whole was undergoing a “revolution,” so that the United States could militarily intervene.
The rebellion in Syria also never found soil in the other religious and ethnic minorities, who remain either passive or dedicated to the Syrian government for fear of ethnic-religious cleansing from the Sunni extremist rebels. The one exception is the Kurds, who have used the conflict to set up an autonomous zone that they are vigorously defending against the Islamist extremist “rebels.”
The uprising remains a largely Sunni Islam uprising that is mostly confined to the countryside, dominated by Sunni extremists who are armed and funded from the heartland of religious extremism, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and their paymaster the United States (a true axis of evil in regards to Middle East policy). This is a fact that many on the left refuse to see, or dangerously minimize in order to maintain their pro-rebel support.
Most Syrian analysts, however, admit that the most effective fighting force among the Syrian rebels is Jabhat al-Nursa, religious extremists that use terrorist tactics and are directly affiliated with al-Qaeda. But now this group’s dominance is being threatened by another Islamist extremist terror group, Ahrar al-Sham, which is funded and populated by Qatar and which is thought to have 10,000-20,000 fighters in Syria.
A list of the top ten powerful militias in Syria — with the exception of the Kurds — are fighting predominantly for an Islamic state, i.e., they are religious extremists who want nothing to do with democracy, equality or freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot be characterized as a “moderate” group in Syria.
This is a crucial fact. The Islamist extremists are not mere “players” under an umbrella of rebel groupings. The extremists are the motor force of the rebels, who do the vast majority of the fighting, who dominate the “liberated” areas of Syria where fundamentalist Sharia law has been implemented, and who will rule the rest of the country if the Syrian government falls. In essence, they have become what claims to be the “revolution.”
By defining the extremists as mere “players” in the anti-Assad “coalition,” the true nature of the rebels is distorted: a political movement is defined by who leads it, who exercises power, and by the pursuit of specific political goals. By this more accurate definition the “rebels” must be described as Islamic extremists, who receive support from other minor political players who seek to oust the Syrian government.
In the rebel-controlled regions of Syria one can be executed for “blasphemy” or adultery, lose a limb for minor theft and other misdemeanors, and if you’re a woman you’ll be relegated to a permanent state of house arrest, except for the moments where a close male relative chooses to escort you out of the house, assuming the woman is completely hidden behind clothing.
To focus only on the “moderate” rebels and “revolutionary” minority is to purposely blind oneself to the lead actors in this drama, thus giving invaluable political cover to the most reactionary groups in existence, who make the current Syrian government look like liberals.
These facts are crucially important, and must be considered when comparing the current Syrian government — where women have many freedoms similar to American women — to its alternative, which places women as property of men without any semblance of civil rights. If the rebels of Syria are to be called “revolutionaries,” they are of the reactionary type.
It is true that there are smaller, non-extremist militias amongst the rebels, or those that function to protect neighborhoods, etc., but these militias do not constitute a powerful social force. They are essentially non-entities in this conflict amongst giants, and focusing almost exclusively on these groups ignores the fundamental reality of the conflict and purposely distorts what is actually happening.
The local “democratic” militias cannot be used as a justification for further militarizing a conflict that will inevitably bring western-backed religious zealots to power, to the detriment of all Syrians. To demand that these rebels be armed is to demand that Syria be fragmented and destroyed in an Iraqi-like fashion.
While glorifying the smaller militias, pro-rebel analysts also overstate the number of Syrian soldiers who’ve defected to the rebels. The exact number is impossible to know at this time. There are, of course, defectors in all wars, especially civil wars, but the myth that the Syrian rebels are densely populated by defecting soldiers of the Syrian army is best exposed by the fact — recognized by nearly all observers — that the Syrian army has remained very cohesive. A true “flood” of defectors is blatantly inconsistent with this fact, though always ignored by the pro-rebel groups.
Revolutions are notorious for cracking armies like eggs, especially in a prolonged revolutionary upheaval. The firmness and stability of the Syrian army offers yet more damning evidence against labeling the conflict a “revolution.”
This fact is rationalized away by pro-rebel analysts who argue that the Syrian military’s cohesiveness is due to the army’s dominance by Shia Muslims, specifically President Assad’s Alawite sect — and are therefore unquestionably loyal to the government, making them an especially unique sectarian army.
In reality, the Syrian military is composed overwhelmingly of Sunni Muslims, who constitute the majority of Syrians. It’s true that the Alawites have an over-representation in the military’s upper echelons, but the rank-and-file solider is predominantly Sunni, many from Syria’s countryside. A majority of these stereotypical Syrian soldiers would not mindlessly mow down their countrymen as the western media claims they have done.
The Syrian defectors’ story was mostly a useful propaganda piece for western countries — the U.S. specifically — to push people’s attention away from the Islamist extremists who make up the overwhelming majority of the armed struggle. Although there have been a couple of high-level defectors from the Syrian government, they’ve never expanded beyond token amounts, as the unity of the Syrian government continues to testify. The regime as a whole remains united and stable, which would be impossible if it were confronted by an ongoing nationwide powerful revolution.
More proof that Syria has not entered a revolutionary phase is the non-participation of the Syrian labor movement. All revolutions attract the attention and powerfully affect the nation’s labor movement. But Syria’s labor movement has either been passive or pro-Assad. The pro-rebel groups blame this fact on the labor movement’s blatant subservience to the Syrian government, but this explanation lacks obvious merit.
For example, before Egypt’s revolution the Egyptian labor movement was deeply connected to the Egyptian government, as was the Venezuelan labor movement’s connection to its government in pre-revolutionary Venezuela. But revolutions transform labor movements in the same way they splinter armies. Syria’s labor movement would have bent under the pressure of a real revolutionary movement, as all labor movements do when faced with the force of a real revolution.
It’s also untrue that Syria’s labor movement has been totally subservient to the Syrian government. Syria’s labor movement has directly confronted the government several times over the years, after the Assad government began adopting a privatization agenda and other neoliberal reforms in the country, which has put negative pressure on working class Syrians. Syrian unions are perfectly capable of acting independently and would have done so if they believed a revolution existed in their country that would have benefited working class Syrians.
More proof that Syria is not undergoing a revolution can be found by asking a simple question: how can the “revolutionary” movement in Syria realize its goals?
For example, if we accept the false premise that the revolutionary movement was “forced to take up arms,” and then accept the fact that Islamic extremists completely dominate the rebel battlefield, then we must conclude that the “revolution” has ended, since any prospect for a truly revolutionary conclusion is excluded from the basic math of the conflict.
Initially, the pro-democracy revolutionaries were united with other rebels that operated under the umbrella demand to oust President Assad; but now the “revolutionary” demand of the Islamists — who control the rebels — is the demand for an Islamic state.
The demand for an Islamic state should have instantly shattered any alliance between pro-democracy revolutionaries and the Islamists, but the pro-democracy rebels have largely refused to do this. They haven’t rejected the Islamists because without them they would be completely powerless. Zero evidence of a revolution would exist. If there are revolutionaries fighting under the Islamic black flag in extremist militias, they are doing a disservice to themselves and the future of their country.
The revolution thus finds itself without a way forward, since there is no independent demand that can currently be realized by the Syrian pro-democracy revolutionaries, who are currently unable to assert their power against the Islamic extremists or the Assad government. This “revolution” is a car without an engine or gas, stalled. A precondition of revolution is the ability for the masses to powerfully assert themselves into social life. A revolution without a revolutionary movement is no revolution.
It is thus highly irresponsible to demand that the Syrian rebels be armed, while at the same time insisting that Syria be protected from “western intervention.” In fact, supplying arms to the rebels is a strategic form of U.S. intervention; arming, funding, and training rebels doesn’t happen without strings attached, loyalties and alliances created, promises made, and pro-western geo-political goals pursued.
To insist that the NATO or Gulf monarchies supply arms to the rebels is, in essence, to invite the United States to directly participate in the Syrian conflict on a deeper level (the Obama administration is already neck-deep involved, supplying thousands of tons of arms to the Syrian rebels covertly through the CIA).
The U.S. is already buying and trafficking arms, training and funding rebel fighters, all of which are considered U.S. investments in the future of the conflict, which, at any time, can be paid with interest via a direct U.S. military invasion — starting with a “no fly zone.” In fact, without the massive rebel support from the U.S. and its allies this conflict would have ended long ago and thousands of lives would have been spared. Demanding that this bloodletting continue — especially without ANY prospect for a successful end — is to demand the destruction of Syria.
The last refuge of the pro-rebel analysis argues that, because there are “revolutionary democratic structures” that have been created in rebel-held areas, then we have indisputable evidence of revolution, and thus the rebel cause must be supported. Often cited as proof is the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) in rebel areas, which are credited with food distribution and other forms of local administration.
But in a conflict covered in depth by cell phone videos and other means of communication, evidence of mass-based local coordinating committees — i.e. a revolutionary democratic structures — is scant. The LCCs have a snazzy website that puts forth the occasional pro-rebel statement — and YouTube videos of rebel military assaults — but it’s otherwise difficult to find any convincing evidence of a powerful revolutionary organization, nor is any ever offered by pro-rebel writers who champion the righteous cause of the LCC’s.
This is not to say that LCC’s do not exist, but like the neighborhood militias, their relevance has been greatly exaggerated in an attempt to define the Syrian situation as revolutionary and thus grant it a status of “unconditional support.”
In reality, all semi-objective media observers have noted that local administration and food distribution in rebel-held areas is dominated by the ruling political and military groups of the Islamic extremists. This fact relegates the LCC’s to a minor role at best, if they can even be considered politically relevant at all.
It’s certainly true that civilian democratic structures exist in Syria where there are power vacuums, much like civilian militias to protect neighborhoods. But temporary power vacuums should not be glorified as proof of a real revolutionary movement; it can just as easily prove that a country is being physically destroyed. These vacuums are filled, as they were in the city of al-Raqqa, when the Islamists enter the void.
A real revolution does not need to search for evidence of its existence; it displays its power for all to see in massive mobilizations that shake the power of the targeted regime. But in Syria’s greatest city, Damascus, there does not exist a whimper, let alone a roar of revolution. If it’s true that the people in Damascus are “too scared” to openly rebel — as some pro-rebel groups claim — then they have obviously not yet entered the path of revolution, since overcoming fear is one of the first preconditions of revolution; without it there can be no revolutionary movement or action.
Without accepting some of the above criteria for judging a situation as “revolutionary,” a political analysis can run into deep trouble. The pro-rebel analysis has no real criteria that can decide when this “revolution” ceases to be revolutionary. By their method of analysis it seems possible to conclude that the revolution will go on forever — the situation will always remain “revolutionary” so long as certain revolutionary-appearing democratic structures can be unearthed, regardless of how well attended, effective, or whether or not they have any semblance of actual power. This watered down definition of a revolution would qualify the U.S. Occupy Movement as a revolution, which of course it was not.
A revolutionary movement is inevitably a battle for power. It is the people asserting their power in order to change the power dynamic of society in their favor. For a revolution to exist the people must be in a position to assert their power. At this point President Assad can only be removed by either the Islamic extremists or the U.S. military.
A nation can be inhabited by entirely revolutionary-minded people, but there is no revolution unless people are massively asserting their power in the streets, workplaces, and neighborhoods. This is not the situation in Syria, where no revolution exists at this time.