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An extraordinary meeting on Syria
Last night I attended a meeting on “From Syria to Palestine: The Fight for Justice” in Brooklyn that was extraordinary on a number of levels. To start with, it was attended by at least 80 people, standing room only. It was also marked by a high degree of unity with groups focused on Syria or Palestine endorsing the event alongside those on the left like the ISO and the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins. Finally, there was a talk by Anand Gopal on the people of Saraqib, a town that epitomizes the 7 year resistance to Assad. My impression is that Stanley Heller of the Connecticut-based Promoting Enduring Peace played a major role in pulling this together. For this, we are in his debt.
Since the chairperson, a Palestinian woman who did a great job of keeping things in order and whose name I unfortunately did not record, instructed the audience that recording the talks was strictly forbidden for security reasons, I will try to summarize the proceedings since they should be of great interest to those of us who are in solidarity with the Syrian people.
Before the first speaker, Emerson College professor Yasser Munif, arose to took the mike, I sat next to him and told him that it was a shame that meetings like this were not being held in 2011. Almost as if to be answering me, when he took the mike he pointed out that Syria is going to be a long, epochal struggle and that until the conditions that created the uprising are overcome, it will continue. Although he was as eloquent as usual, he spent no longer than about 5 minutes making his presentation.
He was followed by Ramah Kudaimi, a Syrian-American like Munif, who works for the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. As such, she was the ideal person to speak about the connections between the slaughter taking place on the border between Gaza and Israel and the destruction of Yarmouk, a home to over 100,000 Palestinian refugees when the war started. She insisted that unless you understood how Netanyahu, al-Sisis and Assad were motivated by the same hatred of the Palestinians, you’ll never understand the dynamics of the struggle in the Middle East.
The final speaker was Anand Gopal, who is as gifted as a speaker as he is a writer. I have known Anand as a cyber-friend since 2012 but this was the first opportunity to meet him in person.
With telling photos and video clips, he described the resistance to Assad in Saraqib, a place he has traveled to a number of times since 2012. In addition to his reporting on Syria, Anand is the author of “No Good Men Among the Living” that consists of profiles of a broad cross-section of the Afghan people, including a former Taliban fighter. The book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 and deservedly so.
In contrast to Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, who have never spent time in a place like Saraqib, Anand was determined to find out what made such people begin protesting in 2011 and to endure horrible onslaughts from the regime ever since. This was not something easily done since unlike Fisk and Cockburn, he could not get a visa to travel to Syria. So instead, he used to go to Turkey and get rides to the border with Syria to gain access to the Idlib region where many of the small and medium sized farming cities and towns rose up. Once he arrived at the border, he’d climb beneath a chain-link fence and follow a trail of white stones that led to Saraqib. Those stones had been painted by activists in Saraqib to make sure that he would not step on a landmine.
Saraqib is a town of about 35,000 people. When news of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt reached this farming community in the boondocks, people began protesting every Friday. Like other ordinary citizens becoming active politically for the first time, their demands were rudimentary: democracy and the removal of Bashar al-Assad.
Before 2011, Saraqib did not have a single newspaper but afterwards at least 5 newspapers took off, as well as a radio station. They were used to exchange ideas in a kind of grass roots democracy that not only threatened Assad but every dictator in the region. That is why someone like General al-Sisi is an ally of both Assad and Netanyahu against the Syrian and Palestinian masses.
When the protests came under attack from Assad’s snipers, local activists had an intense debate over whether to arm themselves or not. Many had bad memories of the murderous assault on Hama in 1982 that left at least 20,000 dead over less than a month. But when the sniper attacks escalated, they were left with no other choice except to form six brigades led by six of the key activists in Saraqib, including people who had argued against armed self-defense.
The regime went after Saraqib with a fury, sending in tanks that destroyed many homes. Anand reports that the Baathist troops went from door to door, killing anybody who had not fled to safety. Many were set on fire, including a man whose charred corpse was shown in one of Anand’s photos.
Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the town managed to run its own affairs. Like other such towns and cities, a local council was formed that took care of what might sound like mundane affairs, such as garbage collection and the distribution of bread that was a staple of the Syrian diet and made in a state-controlled bakery. Once the town was liberated, the workers at the bakery continued running it in close coordination with the local council.
This reminded me of a discussion taking place on FB between me and a number of FB friends who likened the formation of food co-ops, etc. in the USA as a form of incipient dual power. This is an idea that has some currency on the left, especially as part of nominally Marxist theories advanced by Richard Wolff, Peter Marcuse, Eric Olin Wright, et al. In my view, dual power arises in a revolutionary situation when an armed working class, farmers and small proprietors have assumed the social and economic leadership of a city or town after the old order has been sent packing. This occurred during the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik revolution, the Spanish Civil War and even in Syria despite the absence of a socialist leadership. In order for such people to live, they need water, food, medical care, and policing against counter-revolution. You cannot suck the institutions of dual power out of your thumb. They are linked to revolutionary struggles and have nothing to do with blueprints for a socialist future.
Into this liberated but chaotic community, the Islamists finally made their entry in early 2013, four of whose leaders Anand interviewed. Their most senior organizer was a man who had devoted himself to teaching prisoners like himself to reject both democracy and socialism. There was not much in the way of socialism in Saraqib but there was plenty of democracy.
The Islamists very quickly became a counter-force to those in Saraqib who had zero interest in a caliphate. The only way they gained a foothold was through their organizational cohesion that had been developing for decades. Unlike the locals, these were men who were organized as the Muslim Brotherhood or even as al-Qaeda. They had the inside track to arms and money from wealthy private citizens in Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey. As such, they were a powerful seductive force even if the people of Saraqib valued their new-found freedoms.
Eventually, al-Nusra (the affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria) became the most powerful Islamist group in the region. When someone made the idiotic comment during the Q&A that the USA funded al-Nusra, Anand explained that they consciously rejected foreign assistance since that would make them dependent on sources that could easily change their mind. Like ISIS, they relied on taxation to finance their operations.
In one of the more dramatic video clips shown by Anand, we see two groups in the middle of a street arrayed against each other, one chanting in favor of a non-sectarian state and the other calling for a caliphate. Eventually, al-Nusra tired of those in the town unwilling to bow down before them and surrounded the house of the FSA commander in order to arrest him. When word went out about what was going on, a march on the house to defend the commander began only to be dispersed by al-Nusra’s machine gun fire. This too is revealed in a video clip shown by Anand that gives the lie to the Assad versus al-Qaeda version of what has been taking place over the past seven years.
In his concluding remarks, Anand stressed the tripartite political division in Syria that is denied by Max Blumenthal, Vanessa Beeley, et al. You have 1) Assad; 2) the Islamists and 3) the people. Our job is to find ways to solidarize with the people that includes reviving an antiwar movement based on the need to concentrate on who is responsible for most of the killing: the regime and the foreign entities intervening against the people. Stopping the violence has always allowed civil society to emerge and thus reconstitute itself as the legitimate voice of a people with the same goals they have had for the past 7 years: to live in freedom and dignity, enjoying the country’s wealth on an egalitarian basis.
During the Q&A, someone asked what we can do concretely to help the Syrian people. Someone in the audience replied that this meant opening the door to Syrian refugees, most of whom were like the people of Saraqib. When Donald Trump cut off support for the Syrian rebels, which was being dispensed with an eyedropper under Obama, and then of the White Helmets, he demonstrated his affinity with all of the tyrants in power in the Middle East.
I am not sure what will happen next with the Syrian Solidarity Movement but this meeting was an auspicious first step.