Saturday, 27 October 2018

They’d rather be right

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 This was originally written for Muftah Magazine's Syria Collection in 2016, in which a heavily edited version appeared under the title 'Some Leftists Would Rather Be “Right” Than Principled on Syria'.

 If you are in a left-wing group, try this bit of stage magic on your friends. Ask them what they would like to see happen in Syria, and I’ll tell what their answer will be. Half of them will say, “the victory of the revolution”, those are the hacks who think they know something about Syria. The other half will say “peace”, and these liberals have bothered to learn nothing. What you won’t hear any of them say is the answer that most Syrians would give if they could articulate it, “the victory of the rebels over the Assad régime”. And therein lies the gross failure of the left, not even to answer the right question on Syria, but to know what the question is, and that they are failing. Even as they compete with other left-wing groups for who has the best line, each one thinks their organisation has done right by Syrians.

 When the revolution broke out in 2011, I had the good fortune to follow the writing of my friend of 20 years, Robin Yassin-Kassab. From the beginning I see could see the shape of the pro-revolution and the anti-revolution narratives. Free Syrians saw their struggle as a simple one for freedom and dignity, while their enemies presented it as a complicated one we couldn’t hope to understand, based on religious hatred, where the problem was that neighbouring states had turned it into a proxy war by arming the opposition.
I started writing a blog, News of the Revolution in Syria because I could see that much of the left was accepting the anti-revolution narrative by default, or even, like the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition, actively promoting it. All along I could see that even those on the left who thought they were better than that would accept parts of this reactionary message. As a result, Syrians have been appalled at the behaviour of the left, a process that has gone unnoticed by much of the Western left, and those who have noticed, always think they themselves are immune to the criticism because they have done enough. So I would find myself appalled by the behaviour of leftists, and fear for the future of the left when Syria was such a gaping hole in their conduct. Whenever I thought I might be too hard, I would look at what my friend Robin was saying, and it would inevitably be harsher, and given that most Syrians are not as secular or leftist as he is, I could assume that even his contempt was mild compared to the average.


 A few weeks ago the BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet said on the news, “We have been told that peace requires that the US and Russia come together.” Yes we have, by her, and by the rest of the Western media. Which has constructed an image of the conflict where the problem is that each side is arming its own proxies, and the role of the Great Powers has to be to bring them to the conference table to talk peace. As Syrians know, the truth is that Russia and Iran have been behind Assad’s efforts to crush them from the first, while the Americans have been stopping any friendly nation from providing Free Syrians with the weaponry they need to defend themselves. It requires some careful analysis to see where the interests of Russia and America differ, as the one benefits from Assad continuing in power while the other is responding to its previous imperial over-reach by handing Syrians over to their oppressors, but the Left (with a handful of exceptions) has nothing of the ability to comprehend this, stuck as it is in a world where everyone is bombing Syria just the same, and we might as well concentrate on stopping Britain bombing ISIS, even if that is almost entirely irrelevant to the life and death of Syrians.

 There are other aspects that the left misses out on. The wave of disinformation that comes directly out of Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, the way this is given prominence in mainstream Western media as a reliable source, whereas opposition sources are always unverified, and all too often it is the US administration’s spin that is presented as the alternative to Damascus. The way supposedly alternative media just laps up or creates its own additions to the Assad narrative, how it is the West that made ISIS what it is, how the Israelis run it, how the Saudis and Qataris fund it. We can see how the left groups fail because their methodology of looking for anti-Western sources to tell them the real story in this case just leads them to those like Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk who present the partially concealed and almost straightforwardly lunatic versions of the Assadist narrative. But those individuals outside the left groups are often no better, thinking that RT or Global research are wakening them to the real powers in the world when they are peddling the least subtle of lies.


 Almost all of the left groups have their history on Syria bookended by their support for Hands Off Assad demonstrations in the wake of his chemical attacks in 2013, and their support today for Jeremy Corbyn. Just as then they simply wouldn’t listen to the argument that they were disrespecting Syrians by pretending the threat against them was US action against Assad, they simply won’t hear it when it’s pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn is pro-Assad, he called the SAA the credible and acceptable force without whose support we shouldn’t attack ISIS, pro-Iran, six out of his seven PMQs to Cameron on Syria in 2012-13 were asking for an increase in Iran’s participation in the debate over Syria’s future, and pro-Russia, he welcomed the Russian intervention. 99% of Corbynites simply won’t engage with the facts, including those who shouted down a speaker at yesterday’s Stop the War conference who challenged Corbyn over his inaction over Syria by chanting “No more war.”

 There was a Middle East / North Africa solidarity conference this year at which one speaker pointed out how much the left had failed over Syria, prompting Judith Orr of the SWP to say she didn’t know what he was on about, they had written lots of articles for Socialist Worker on the revolution. The SWP does encapsulate the failure of left groups quite well, as its insularity makes it unaware that it might do anything wrong. Simon Assaf of the SWP went to the first Syrian solidarity conference, and then stayed in the hallway selling books and not engaging with anyone. They have attended no anti-Assad demonstrations, their leader Alex Callinicos has consistently promoted Patrick Cockburn’s views on Syria, Anne Alexander wrote a piece for the International Socialism Journal in which she claimed the Free Syrian Army was seeking an alliance with ISIS. Callincos also defended the Stop the War Coalition leadership over its refusal to allow any Syrians on its platforms, calling its critics “supporters of Western airpower.”

 RS21 split from the SWP in 2013, and initially said even less about Syria. In late 2014 they put an article by Andy Cunningham up on their website that said we shouldn’t support the Free Syrian Army because it might let Islamic extremists win power. In 2015 they discovered the refugee crisis, but only as a way of bashing the Tories for not letting those stuck in Calais into Britain. One of their members Miriam Asfar joined the Syrian Solidarity Campaign Organisers group (I’d been asked to join by the existing organisers, despite my reluctance to get more politically active) on Facebook, and immediately denounced all the supporters of a no fly zone as imperialists. I pointed her to a piece called Blanket Thinkers on my blog where there is a discussion with Robin Yassin-Kassab and a couple of other Syrians in which we discover that if leftists start their pitch to Syrians by telling them how terrible Western imperialism, they are going to be written off as pro-Assad. She responded by claiming I’d called her pro-Assad, and flounced off. The following year she apparently told an rs21 meeting it might have been a mistake to write off all no fly zone supporters. A couple of their members have done some Syrian solidarity work, but the other members seem to think that they can justify doing less than nothing themselves by taking credit for that.

 Socialist Resistance think they are much better, and in having links to Gilbert Achcar, they do have contact with some of the better leftist thinking on Syria. Still they think of it as one issue among many, so when related issues come up, like the abuse meted out to Michael Weiss by supposed pro-Palestinian activist Richard Silverstein, their members are on the wrong side. Or Tony Greenstein, who accuses the rebels of being Israel supported and users of chemical weapons, they defend without ever mentioning his views on Syria. And their support for Corbyn infects everything else they do, so they were on the side of those claiming that the 70,000 moderate rebels were just an invention of David Cameron’s.

 Similarly Workers Power formally have the best position of the small left groups on Syria, demanding the arming of the Free Syrian Army with anti-aircraft weapons. But when I read Marcus Halaby’s pamphlet on Syria, it took the situation and turns it into an apologia for their own narrow splinter of politics. So instead of attacking Stop the War, they attack the same people in their political group guise as Counterfire, because that is who Workers Power compete with for members, while they think Stop the War is a good thing. The pamphlet also attacks unnamed FSA commanders who might want Western intervention, and claims the Syrian National Coalition wasn’t really trying to displace the regime, but would be happy with obtaining some ministerial posts. It has nothing to say about the actual debates going on inside or outside Syria, just promotes Workers Power. And when I talked to other members of Workers Power, the understanding seemed to be very shallow, it wasn’t hard for them to veer off into seeing the US as the main problem in Syria. As a smaller cult, they seem to let one member to write the policy and everyone else to memorise it. This wasn’t so bad on Syria, but when their leader Richard Brenner decided the policy on Ukraine was that the Ukrainians were fascists, it destroyed any credibility they had built up. They used to come to Syrian solidarity demonstrations, but then they got too busy supporting Corbyn, including aggressively attacking anyone in the Labour Party that didn’t support Corbyn’s policy on Syria.


 Across the Atlantic, the International Socialist Organization has been better. They have organised marches and demonstrations*, and co-ordinated with other Syrian solidarity activists, even if occasionally thinking they can decide who is part of the movement or not. Stanley Heller wrote an excellent piece in Socialist Worker ending with what can be done to show solidarity, from protests to challenging the Assadist narrative wherever it appears. They have enthusiastically picked up on Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami’s book Burning Country, and its message of the Syrian revolution and its betrayal.

 But still, they seem stuck in the same mentality as other far left groups. Indeed their members were shocked to find that the British SWP was so bad on Syria, just about the time they had signed a joint statement on Syria, which equated the Russian and US bombing and told Syrians they shouldn’t accept support from Islamists or anyone who asked for Western arms. I read a piece by Ashley Smith in Socialist Worker, and it starts very well with extensive praise for and quoting from Burning Country, but then it goes on to say that Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to arm the rebels, but they are never going to defy the US, so Syrians have to forget about them and look to the international working class, which seems very detached from reality in the way that left groups are. They also have continued to support the PKK/YPG attacks on Turkey which weaken its ability to support the Syrian revolution against Assad, and conversely deny there is anything progressive about Turkey’s policy at all, as they enable the FSA to retake 1000 sq km around Jarablus. Or they will say that Jabhat al-Nusra as was and even Ahrar al-Sham are just as reactionary as the regime, when Syrians have always seen them as better, even if they didn’t want to be ruled by Islamists, and certainly after they broke the siege of Aleppo, Syrians refuse to fall into the trap of seeing them as a legitimate target. When régime propaganda claimed a massacre had taken place when Islamist groups conquered the Alawite village of al-Zaraa, they condemned them even though it proved not to have happened.


 I haven’t bothered to talk about the worst of the left, the Tariq Alis, the George Galloways. But they will be what is thrown at the left when Syria is done with. The world isn’t forgiving when the Left makes mistakes, it doesn’t have the money to buy good PR. When the Left made the mistake of supporting Stalinist tyranny it produced a generation of anti-communism, which even those like the Trotskyists who opposed Stalin were not immune to. When there is no longer the need to keep quiet about Syria to protect the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Middle East, the association of the left with every aspect of Assad’s genocide will begin. It is only if the Left understands they not only have to show proper solidarity, to look at Syria the way Syrians do, to distinguish themselves from not only the grotesquely pro-Assad, but all the clueless leftists who offer nothing but slogans about revolution, then everyone is going to be caught up in the association between leftism, torture, rape and other atrocities. But that isn’t going to happen, because if they were listening to that sort of message, they would have heard it already. I fear for the future, when someone who wants a better world will be perceived as the worst evil. It will make it harder to fight for any sort of freedom and dignity, to defend the rights we have already. Indeed, by failing Syrians, the left has ensured that we are all likely to be treated like Syrians.

*I may have been overpraising the ISO there.

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Thursday, 25 October 2018

Assad will fall

 In the summer of 2015, the Assad régime forces collapsed in the northwest province of Idlib, town after town falling to the rebels, culminating in the humiliating siege of the Tiger forces led by the star military officer Suheil al-Hassan, in the National Hospital in Jisr al-Shugour.

 You wouldn’t have read this in the media at the time. Taking the lead from régime apologists like Patrick Cockburn, the mainstream narrative was that Assad had defied predictions of his demise and was the strong and stable leadership Syria needed as the only alternative to al-Qaeda and ISIS taking over the country with the aid and acquiescence of the West and its allies. An analysis dishonest in a number of aspects, such as Assad fighting ISIS rather than cooperating with them, but significantly, he had only survived because of the massive foreign intervention in his favour and an equally significant indifference by those powers rhetorically opposed to him. Russia provided a billion dollars of weaponry a month and UN Security Council vetoes against censure for his crimes, Iran provided tens of thousands of troops from its proxy Shia jihadist militias, firstly Hezbollah from Lebanon, but moving on to recruit from as far away as Tajikistan. The US blocked any anti-aircraft weapons that could have stopped Assad’s barrel bombing, and refused to take action to bring him to account even when he blatantly crossed President Obama’s red line by using a whole bunch of chemical weapons in 2013.

 There had been indications already that the Assadist state had shifted the balance in ruling between force and consent dramatically in favour of force. In late 2012, looking at the reporting of an Assadist counter-offensive in Aleppo, I noticed that when the régime advanced, there was no return of the population to their homes. Clearly there was a large section of the population, predominantly Sunni Muslims but including anyone who might be suspected of opposition to Assad, that he intended to kill or induce to flee. As the head of Military Intelligence, Jamil al-Hassan, said this year, “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.”

 In addition to the deliberate bombing of civilians, attacking schools and hospitals as well as homes, there was the mass torture of detainees, often to death, with the accompaniment of forcing them to declare there is no God but Bashar. The mass use of rape, both in the prisons and in Sunni villages across the country, where parents were raped in front of their children, children in front of the parents, often people forced to rape each other. All this was designed to force the entire population to practice absolute obedience or destroy it.

 But there was more. I discovered the core of it in an article in late 2015 by Ansar Jasim called “The Malice of Power: Arrests in Syria as Part of a Politico-Economic Rationale”:

 ‘ “By now, it is estimated that 90 % of those arrested by the regime or régime militias had nothing to do with the revolution,” says Amer, a former officer in the Syrian military. Free rein when it comes to arrests is one of the ways in which the régime renders it possible for various parts of its security apparatus to enrich themselves. That way, the régime secures support for its actions in times of economic demise. The ones who are left to suffer are the thousands of disappeared Syrians and their families.’

 Assad’s state is more than a sectarian military dictatorship. It is a torture-rape kleptocracy that profits from the destruction of the society it rests upon. As such it is the most unstable state in the world, a black hole that constantly destabilises the world around it as it fights to maintain its existence. There have been other states that resemble it in some ways. Only one government had ever bombed its own cities before - though it is time to stop calling a ruling party a government when it eschews government in favour of murder so blatantly – General Somoza’s in Nicaragua. The only state I can think of that so systematically murdered the professional classes of the population was Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. Neither lasted for more than a few years after they began to destroy the foundations of their society.

 The torture-rape state did not come out of nowhere. Its lineage is traced in Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s chapter on the Neo-Sultanic State in The Impossible Revolution. A personality cult was set up around the person and position of the President from the time in power of Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad, and permission for all activity is given by connections to the security state that he heads. A culture of mass murder against threats to the state from the time of the Hama uprising in 1982, when tens of thousands were killed both in the city and in the prisons afterwards, with both an official silence about events, and a message to its enemies that the state would permit no dissent. Those with power, particularly the security branches, were able to derive income from the extortion and robbery of large sections of the population. A system of informing to the security branches kept the nation in fear of their neighbours. And from the accession of Bashar, large parts of the economy were handed over to a few cronies, most notably the President’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

 Stephen Starr in Revolt in Syria records the result. A sclerotic economy, in which many jobs are only available to those with the money and connections to buy their way into them, with then little incentive to perform them properly. In modern capitalist societies there are two contradictory tendencies, towards authoritarianism so that property can be protected from threats from below and abroad, and towards liberalisation so that the economy can maintain efficiency and creativity. Usually when dictators have lost all consent, like Marcos or Duvalier, their exit is arranged. But the Assadist state was peculiarly set up to resist reform, and the international situation was aligned in such a way that it has prolonged its life.

 I think evidence for the extreme nature of the Assadist state can be seen in its relations with two other forces in Syria, ISIS and the PYD offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish separatist organisation the PKK. In the first case I’d highlight that they collaborated with ISIS in many ways, beyond buying oil, gas and wheat from them to deliberately abandoning Palmyra to them with the consequent massacre of many ostensible régime supporters, so that they could be seen to be fighting ISIS with Russian help. There is simply no depravity the régime won’t sink to, or limit to the violence it will unleash, as it has no concern for the people it rules. Something that could be borne in mind when looking at the supposed attacks on civilians by the opposition, whether in Damascus this year (attacks which couldn’t even be located to one area of the Eastern Ghouta), or against empty classrooms in West Aleppo in 2016, right back to the attacks on civilians by unknown gunmen Samar Yazbek records as false flag operations by the régime in 2011 in her diary Woman in the Crossfire, when the reason for thinking that this couldn’t have been done by Assad, nobody would do this to their own supporters, no longer applies. In the second case, I’d highlight that the PYD/YPG has consistently been prepared to offer Damascus a deal where it would retain autonomous rule over Kurdish areas in return for integrating those areas into the Assadist state. Assad’s ministers have consistently rejected it, because Assad’s rule depends on an image of an unchallengeable leader.

 The Assad cult was already a thin one. Lisa Wedeen wrote in Ambiguities of Domination in 1999:

 “The regime produces compliance through enforced participation in rituals of obeisance that are transparently phony both to those who orchestrate them and to those who consume them ... Assad’s cult operates as a disciplinary device, generating a politics of public dissimulation in which citizens act as if they revere their leader.”

 It must now be much thinner. 20 years ago the Syrian population could be largely denied access to any other picture of their reality. The existence of a large part of liberated Syria for years has meant that must have broken down to the point where it is only a facade to fool foreigners and indicate compliance. I remember the BBC broadcast a film of a woman after the fall of East Aleppo in 2016 declaring, “We will lay down our lives for you Bashar.” Nobody can believe that someone who had been besieged and bombed by Assad for four years would declare such a thing unless it was the only alternative to torture and starvation. As it has taken surrendered areas with much of the population in place rather than simply pushed out, the lack of any real support for the régime can only be hidden partially by keeping many people in prison camps (“processing centres) until they buy their way out, and inviting régime officers and Iranian militiamen to operate as an internal occupying force in the “reconciled” areas.

 The régime is left with very immediate threats of violence as its governing strategy, and cannot step back to a more consensual method. Because those who carry it out the arrests, rape torture and extortion, those who profit from it, are the core of the state. Individual militias can sometimes be disbanded by the Russians, but the nature of the state relying on extreme violence for profit cannot be changed while the state remains. For another good reason: the threats of war crimes prosecution. Despite the help of an unprecedented level of genocide denial in the world’s media, particularly leftist and alternative media, the evidence against members of the Assadist state for war crimes and crimes against humanity is at a level never seen before in history.

 To prevent themselves being carted off the Hague, the state from Assad at the top to the torturers and looters at the bottom don’t just need to protect themselves against actual threats. They need an excuse to avoid facing up to justice. They need the war to continue so that they can claim to be stopping chaos. Even if all military activity against them ended, the claim that they were still fighting terrorism would never end. The arrest and torture to suppress all opposition and provide opportunities for profit would never end. Once all opposition eyes were removed from the country, it would likely increase. Because that’s what violently sadistic people do when their violent sadism seems to have produced results.

 And even with the massive aid they have received from Russia and Iran, the $21 billion the Iranians have sunk into Assad being a major cause of the bankruptcy and mass protests in Iran, Assad’s forces have shown themselves incapable of retaking any area without chemical weapons and international agreement to keep other fronts quiet while they concentrate on each opposition area.

 The Western indulgence for the Assad régime does not stem from their direct economic interests, as the support for Assad from Russia and Iran does (or at least the hope of recouping their investment by further impoverishing Syria). Rather it stems from their avoidance of a confrontation with an anti-interventionist public opinion (a point made by Alistair Burt to an All Party Parliamentary Group on Syria in the UK in 2016 when explaining why the government felt it couldn’t help those besieged in east Aleppo) fuelled by the left whether it openly supported Assad or not, and a belief that Assad represented some sort of stability, so the can of what to do could be kicked down the road as Assad returned normalcy once he defeated the rebels. In addition President Obama’s administration saw giving Iran a free hand in Syria to aid Assad’s repression a carrot to get it into a nuclear deal, and other powers lukewarm towards Assad found themselves unwilling to take decisive action without American leadership.

 It didn’t work out that way. Assad’s bombing caused millions to flee, threatening to destabilise the neighbouring countries and Europe too. His enabling of ISIS caused the retraumatisation of an Iraqi nation only just recovering from the US invasion in 2003, and fears of terrorism across the west. The false reporting of his war against Syria as a western plot echoed and reinforced Russian propaganda to justify its actions from the invasion of Ukraine to the chemical attack in Salisbury. Gradually the chickens of seeing Assad as the easy option were coming home to roost.

 A more immediate change of detriment to Assad has been in Turkish policy. Always anti-Assad, but hopeful that the trigger would be pulled by the United States, or at least a shield would be put in place to protect Northern Syria from the régime until late 2015, they decided then that their security required the abandonment of the policy of not fighting the war on the Syrian side of the border. First they cleared ISIS and the PKK/YPG from the northwest – the capture of Afrin making it far harder for the YPG to assist Assad in an Idlib offensive as they had helped him capture Aleppo – and then stopped the Idlib offensive in its tracks by moving the own troops in and threatening to aid the redeployment of tens of thousands of Free Syrian Army troops from North Aleppo.

 Until recently there seemed like one way for Assad to continue the horror while overcoming his inability to revert to a position of ruling with any consent from the people: get new people. The Iranians, along with their Shia sectarian militias from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond, have settled areas of Syria previously occupied by Sunni Muslims who have fled. They’ve taken over areas of Damascus, of towns in the west captured by Hezbollah like Qusayr, Madaya and Zabadani, and more recently in Deir Ezzor.

 But in their confidence of victory, the Iranians have over-reached. From keeping Hezbollah from any real conflict with Israel, with retaliation against attacks on Hezbollah weapons convoys purely against Syrians, they believed they had become strong enough to make their threats against Israel tangible. And Israel has responded by destroying hundreds of millions of dollars of Iranian equipment at bases in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Without the ability to project force on a national Syrian scale, their settlers are just another group with limited wasta (connections), and unable to determine the future state of Syria. This has been reinforced by the change of administration in Washington, with the US now seeing Iran as more of a hindrance than a help across the region.

 So, we are left with a situation in which 75% of the Syrian economy has been destroyed, and rather than rebuilding, the forces of the state are weighing in the copper piping. As Rafia Salameh writes in al-Jumhuriya of an economy that devours itself:

 “Returning entire neighbourhoods to a state before construction and infrastructure, and destroying what few walls remain standing to extract and pillage what inside them, is a systematic process of impoverishment of the country. It is a process replacing production with property recycling, undercutting its value, swapping its owners, like a rotting carcass devouring what little sign of life remains until it simply vanishes.”

 The statue of Bashar’s father recently erected in Deir Ezzor is a symbol of the Assadist state’s attitude to reconstruction, nothing is important other than its own glorification and consumption. There is no economic multiplier where wages go on goods that pay for further wages that lead to an increase in the circulation of wealth through the economy. Instead as much as can be taken, and the exploitation is hardly limited to the walls of the lord’s stomach as they were in medieval times so much is never enough, is diverted into the consumption by Assad and the small circle of his relatives. Just as the UN aid for Syria has ended up as supplies for his soldiers or sold in régime areas for the same cronies’ profit, the same would happen to any reconstruction aid, which is why Russia demands the West provide it, and the West is very unlikely to make that mistake. Assad isn’t going to rebuild Syria, he won’t even stop the unbuilding of it.

 If my hypothesis that the Assadist state can be defined by its extreme criminality is correct, it won’t even be able to stop fighting a war. It has imported ISIS into Suwayda in order to drag the province into the militarisation process it had largely avoided (the narrative that the régime has almost won the war and is now safe is belied by its desperate manpower shortage, and a guide that the decentralisation of the violent chaos with a single arbiter of violence to many is likely to continue). It is still shelling Lattakia and Hama, has tried to infiltrate the Turkish backed FSA held area on the Tadef Front this week, organises agents and very probably aids ISIS to commit assassinations in Idlib. As I take a break in writing, the régime bombarded Kafr Hamra in Aleppo and has mobilised a thousand members of the Palestinian Quds force.

 At some point, destabilisation will not be enough. The régime will have to attack either Idlib or Eastern Syria. The latter might seem more attractive because it would hope to get the oil fields back, but the last time it tried it with the help of Russian mercenaries (giving the Kremlin deniability), it lost dozens if not hundreds of fighters to little effect. The régime’s preference is always the cowardly one of attacking the weakest, attacking civilians in the hope that the fighters can be made to surrender. But soon, given its impatience, the need to protect its image as the valiant destroyer of all opposition, the need to give its armed forces something to do and to keep the country unstable so war crimes prosecutions cannot begin, it will have to attack with force, and the indications are that the Turks and others will protect the opposition enough so that Assad exhausts his forces. And although it looks right now as if the conflict is far from his palace in Damascus, if Assad loses his remaining useful troops in a failed offensive, his time left will be short. The Russians will be tempted to back him to the hilt, as it finds such genocidal leaders are the easiest to guarantee will stay within its sphere of influence, but their policy has been to use bluff and the threat of general war to inhibit states from forcing Assad out. If it is faced with the determination to prevent Assad’s violations, they aren’t going to risk their all on a war with states when it can’t even maintain stability in Syria only fighting locals, and will likely scramble to avoid a scenario like the Americans fleeing their embassy in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

 Assad’s régime is a house of cards, glued together with such a system of repression that it cannot be pried apart, only blown over. As long as it stands, it will continue to look for internal and external enemies to butcher, mutilate and violate. If it is not overthrown, it will increasingly see fights between the various armed forces within it over control of resources, as there are no avenues for peaceful resolution of disputes.

 So the first message for the opposition and humanity is one of hope. Assad will fall. You cannot keep a sphere atop a spike indefinitely before it bursts. Patience, and remembering who the enemy is, would seem to be the key. Don't put your faith in foreign aid, but don't think they are all the same either. It is hard to know what better strategy the opposition could have come up with in the face of the international indulgence of Assad up to now, though hanging on to as much liberated territory as possible and refusing any transition that does not mean the downfall of the régime seem to have been the right moves, the first, despite the bombing and other violence they have endured, maintaining the option of the second without a wholly external assault on the régime. I would say also that the rebels need to keep their eyes on the prize and never again be distracted into fighting each other. It may be important to root out the frogs that have tricked other liberated areas into surrender, or to protest against violations of civil liberty by armed groups, but that really shouldn't extend to fighting against other anti-Assad Syrians because they are either too Islamist or too secularist. When rebel groups have fought each other, it has given Assad a new lease of life. When they have united, such as in Idlib in 2015, only the whole world standing against them could stop them advancing against the feeble power of a monster that knows only how to rape and loot.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Syrian High Negotiations Committee under fire

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 'Syrians in the country's opposition-controlled north are demanding the dissolution of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC), claiming the negotiators are making too many concessions to the regime and even Russia and Iran.

 Activists accuse the HNC, headed by opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri, of giving up too much and failing to implement items stipulated in the Geneva I conference, which include forming a transitional government in Syria and releasing detainees from regime prisons.

 The HNC was established in November 2017 in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, during the opposition’s second Riyadh conference. It has 50 members representing the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, the Moscow and Cairo platforms, Free Syrian Army factions and a number of independent opposition figures.

 On Oct. 5, Syrians took to the streets of opposition-held Idlib and the countrysides of Aleppo and Hama. They are calling their movement “The HNC Does Not Represent Us." (Another name considered was "Normalization with Assad is Treason.")

 Figures representing the HNC, including Hariri, criticized the movement's demands and even its name. Hariri told al-Arabiya news that the regime, on the other hand, likes the new group's name, and will no doubt be pleased that a movement is rising to challenge the HNC.

 Demonstrators called for dissolving the HNC and holding it responsible for what's happening in Idlib and other opposition-held areas. The protesters raised banners attacking the HNC, stressing that it has failed to provide any benefits to the Syrian revolution and the liberated areas. Their signs conveyed the messages: “The revolution shall continue until our victory is achieved” and “The political solution begins with overthrowing the regime and prosecuting its figures."

 Activists explained that the protest movement’s name is a strong message from the revolutionary street to energize all opposition-affiliated institutions and forces. This will force politicians to seriously reconsider the situation and discuss reform.

 “Hariri’s statements and his criticism of anti-HNC protesters in the north have angered many," said Yahia Nanaa, head of the Association of Free Syrian Engineers in Aleppo and a member of the Political Body of Syrian Revolutionary Forces. "Syrian activists in opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo’s countryside vowed to carry on with their movement, demanding the dismissal of the HNC.”

 He said, “The HNC wasn't at the level we expected it to be. It worked to achieve international interests rather than revolutionary ones. We, as the Syrian opposition, are in dire need of restructuring the HNC and creating change that guarantees the interests of the national revolution. We need to eliminate mercenaries, those who benefit from them and who don't work for the revolution.”

 Mohammed Shakib al-Khaled, also a member of the Political Body of Syrian Revolutionary Forces in Idlib, said the group considers HNC an illegal representative of the opposition.

 “Every military, political or other opposition institution must serve the objectives of the Syrian revolution, and if it fails to do so, then it does not represent the opposition in any way. The HNC is supposed to be an opposition-affiliated institution representing the Syrian revolution and defending it in international forums. However, we were surprised to see that some members of the HNC still consider Bashar al-Assad to be a legitimate president, treating the oppressor as the victim. In addition, certain independent figures that no one knew about have for some reason joined the HNC.”

 Khaled noted that the Cairo and Moscow platforms are two Syrian gatherings that were announced in Egypt and Russia in 2014, claiming to represent a spectrum of Syrian opposition. However, the opposition in northern Syria believes that these platforms are close to Russia and the regime, and have different orientations and objectives than those of the Syrian revolution. He explained the opposition is convinced Russia has worked to deliberately involve the Cairo and Moscow platforms in the HNC.

 Abu al-Ala al-Halabi, an activist in northern Aleppo province, said, “There's a real problem within the HNC. It doesn't serve the Syrian revolution, nor does it care for the people’s demands. This is why [the HNC] needs to be changed. Reform should be established in all other political institutions affiliated with the opposition as well. They must be restructured so as to serve our people in the best possible way and always put Syria’s interests above all else.”

 On Oct. 15, controversial HNC Vice Chairman Khaled Mahameed submitted his resignation, one day before the Syrian opposition candidates to the Constitutional Committee met in Riyadh. He said he resigned because he was under a lot of pressure.

 HNC members would not answer questions about Mahameed and refused to comment on the demonstrations.

 Opposition to Hariri and HNC has been building for some time. When Hariri visited al-Bab in July, dozens of opposition activists demonstrated in front of the city’s local council demanding his dismissal. Protesters held banners rejecting the HNC and accusing its members of visiting their area to promote reconciliation with the regime.'

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