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By lara keller (last updated 31st March 2017)

The Way Ahead: How We Can Ensure the Syrian Revolution Wins (5.2)

The Syrian Revolution began in 2011, and is still fighting the Assad regime six terrible years later. Obviously the Assad regime should have been defeated years ago (as well as the inevitable counter revolution) and the suffering of millions of Syrians greatly reduced.

The relationship between the state and advanced military hardware, is the primary reason why the Syrian Revolution is currently being defeated. George Orwell a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and an observer of the Second World War in the UK, made an acutely prescient statement about this over seventy years ago:

“It is a commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon–so long as there is no answer to it–gives claws to the weak.

The great age of democracy and of national self-determination was the age of the musket and the rifle. After the invention of the flintlock, and before the invention of the percussion cap, the musket was a fairly efficient weapon, and at the same time so simple that it could be produced almost anywhere. Its combination of qualities made possible the success of the American and French revolutions, and made a popular insurrection a more serious business than it could be in our own day. After the musket came the breech-loading rifle. This was a comparatively complex thing, but it could still be produced in scores of countries, and it was cheap, easily smuggled and economical of ammunition. Even the most backward nation could always get hold of rifles from one source or another, so that Boers, Bulgars, Abyssinians, Moroccans–even Tibetans–could put up a fight for their independence, sometimes with success. But thereafter every development in military technique has favoured the State as against the individual, and the industrialised country as against the backward one. There are fewer and fewer foci of power. Already, in 1939, there were only five states capable of waging war on the grand scale, and now there are only three–ultimately, perhaps, only two. This trend has been obvious for years, and was pointed out by a few observers even before 1914. The one thing that might reverse it is the discovery of a weapon–or, to put it more broadly, of a method of fighting–not dependent on huge concentrations of industrial plant.”

[George Orwell, 1945, “The Atomic Bomb and You”]

The Assad regime was created to be coup-proof with a large brutal security forces. Its military has been supported for decades by the Russians (in the eras of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation) to stand up to the lavishly US backed Israeli war machine. The Syrian military consists of a professional well equipped core that is under strict regime control, backed up by large numbers of less well equipped, less trained and less trusted conscripts (now replaced by foreign Shia militias).

The armed opposition have been woefully under equipped in comparison. The US has even been preventing air defence missiles from reaching the rebels, although they have been supplying anti-tank missiles. The policy of the US Obama administration has followed the old pattern of “containment” that was used in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. The US elite have used the Syrian Revolution to weaken revolutionary demands for representative government and weaken Shia Islamist Iran, by enabling the opposition to fight a long war against the Assad regime which they are slowly losing. This could have been ended years ago, before Putin saw it was safe to intervene with direct military support.

Western progressives have helped this “containment” process by giving credibility to the useful illusion that US elites were genuinely interested in the removal of the Assad regime. I resist using the absurd word “ouster” that slips off the lips of anti-war advocates, as it is used as a legal term to describe “the wrongful dispossession of a rightful owner or tenant of property”. Assad is the illegitimate ruler of Syria, a regime that used systematic torture to gain and keep a hold on the country, and which his clique treats as a private estate. The dispossession of the Assad regime cannot be wrong. Progressives should have been calling out the Western elites for their lack lustre support of the Syrian Revolution. They should have called out Western elites over a similar process in Libya, were Gaddafi was removed and then Libya and its revolution was abandoned to the counter-revolution. Progressives have been the unsuspecting accomplices of imperialism, by their actions and their silence.

The Syrian Revolution’s armed opposition needs sufficient weapons to counter, in the words of Orwell, the “tyrannical weapons” of the Assad dictatorship and its Russian backers. A large number of guided anti-tank and surface to air missiles are needed. Clearly these weapons must not be misused by terrorist groups to attack targets outside of Syria. These weapons need guidance systems which cannot work without integrated circuits, which can be made time and GPS-position limited. Attempt to tamper with the electronics and the chips are killed by an internal power source which also triggers if its power level falls below the necessary threshold. These systems have been described for decades, and I expect have been researched. What is lacking is will.

War crimes are being committed by the Assad regime and its Russian allies. These can be deterred by a “No Bomb Strategy” that responds to these crimes by only bombing Assad regime military assets, such as airfields. This can be done by missiles stationed outside of Syrian territory (ie via submarines). In addition the effectiveness of Syrian air defences have been exaggerated as the frequent incursions of Israeli jets into Syria, bombing Hezbollah supply convoys has shown.

Putin’s regime only moved on from suppling the Assad regime to direct military involvement when it was obvious the West was going to allow the Syrian opposition to lose. This calculation can be turned around.

A more effective unified armed Syrian opposition requires that it has Western backers, who trust the central command of the Free Syrian Army to do the job of organising and running it. Like any military organisation the hierarchy supplies arms, training, planning and intelligence to its units, as well as discipline. No effective organised armed Syrian opposition can be formed unless the command structure has access to sufficient resources including arms and training.

An effective civilian administration requires that its Western backers, trust a Syrian National Administration to do the job of organising and running this. It needs to keep as much of the existing Syrian Government structures intact as possible, only removing individuals guilty of serious crimes. The administration needs sufficient resources of food, transport, training, medical supplies and shelter materials. Clearly in the way as a unified armed opposition it needs resources to establish acceptance for its structure.

Establishing security in the widest sense for Syrians both as individuals and groups, is the overriding goal of the revolution.

Removing the Assad regime is only the first step. Ensuring stability is the next problem.

The counter-revolution cannot always be supressed by an effective revolutionary armed force under a central command, because this command can obviously become itself the focus of the counter-revolution. In short the old pattern is that revolutionary army officers amass power and turn from liberators to dictators.

The Syrian Revolution has been establishing local democratic councils, who control local armed units by appointing commanders. These local democratic councils are clearly going to be the initial core of democracy in a post-revolutionary situation. To avoid dictatorship a national army with a central command, needs to share control with local democratic organisations. This can be done in the long term by keeping the local link to armed units, where the responsibility for appointments is shared with the central command. The central command must distribute arms, training and other resources. It must have absolute short term control of the actions of the national army. A parallel national organisation is needed to review the actions of the national army, and intervene if the national army commanders abuse their roles. Its members will come from local democratic councils, who can enforce their decisions through retaking control of the local armed units that form the national army.

Clearly in the same way the civilian administration needs to be composed of local units, with the same means for local democratic councils to control appointments, and review and intervene if there is gross corruption and inefficiency.

Establishing a representative national government now can be achieved, as there is a stable national army and civilian administration capable of providing security in the widest sense for Syrians. There is a network of local democratic organisations, who can ensure the fair election of representatives to the national government.

The resurgence of the economy is needed to provide a focus beyond the current crisis, and to finance the future. Western countries can supply grants and loans, and importantly give a favourable trade access to the genuine exports of the country. Ending political oppression, without lifting economic oppression is a hollow victory.

The history of the Assad regime and the suppression of the Syrian Revolution is a catalogue of incredible anger and fear that has left painfully deep divisions in Syrian society. Culpability for crimes against humanity need to be established, and those responsible put on trial and punished. This will include the Assad regime (who are responsible for the vast majority of crimes) and the opposition. There needs to be a national truth and reconciliation process to expose the more understandable human forces of fear, anger and greed that the Assad regime manipulated and created. There is an urgent need to spread understanding of the motivations and misconceptions of diverse communities and interest groups. Physical mistreatment and economic exploitation needs to be fully catalogued, and compensation paid when a sufficient surplus of assets is available.

Hatred of the Alawite minority is widespread combined with exaggerated ideas of how much this community has benefited from the Assad regime. The pressures for Alawites to conform to community pressure for blinkered regime support is not appreciated. Among minority communities an exaggerated fear of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism has been encouraged by the Assad regime, and needs to be exposed to the truth that this propaganda does not fit reality.

This truth and reconciliation process will create a set of practical security and anti-discrimination measures that provide at least the minimum level of security that meets the fears of Syrian communities.

The next step is a national dialogue to create a set of principles for governance from which a new constitution can be created once sufficient stability has been achieved. The principle of “separation of powers”. In the legal system ensuring police, courts and government are independent of each other, and interaction is both transparent and legitimate. The principle that the “collective and individual rights of the people” are the ruling objective of government. The government’s main job is to ensure “security in the widest sense of personal physical protection, access to sufficient food, adequate health services and comfortable safe shelter” for all Syrians. The principle of “stable transparent and accountable government”. The government must provide information and a free media must be there to report it. Elections must be free from manipulation and intimidation. Candidates need legal protection and access to the media.

The principle of “individual and collective equality”. This must be rigidly maintained from the outset at a sufficient level to avoid destroying the very concept of legitimate government. A government belongs to everyone or no one. The natural goal of a legitimate government is always to increase equality in terms of outcome and opportunity. This can be collective as groups are discriminated against on the false basis of religion, ethnicity or culture. This resentment of this type of discrimination ultimately allowed the Assad clique to establish tyrannical control in Syria. Individuals are discriminated against on the basis of socio-economic class, gender, age, disability and sexuality. The Assad regime has attempted to legitimise itself by claiming it promotes gender and even homosexual equality. The same regime has impoverished the majority outside of the ruling clique, controlled their protests by the threat off systematic torture and murder. As a matter of absolute necessity a legitimate government that replaces the Assad regime will need to surpass the regime in fighting all types of discrimination.

Obviously to any serious observer there are conflicts between the rights expressed in this description of types of securities and equalities. This is the threatening monotonous recurring motif of extreme politics of left and right and up and down. Genuinely mainstream politics is based on ensuring these rights and equalities are given priorities that differ within acceptable limits. Judged by this criteria Western societies are not really moderate.

As an example of this conflict consider societies which prioritise traditional cultural views of men and women, so that being openly homosexual means putting culture in conflict with individual equality. This can be legitimately dealt with by rigorously rejecting violence or exclusion against individuals who break cultural rules. Disapproval is painful but cannot be suppressed, and it is up to the long term process of expanding equality by cultural dialogue. There is a conflict between the right to have as many children as a couple wishes, and the individual rights of these children and the longer term collective right of a society to a sustainable population where the security of the whole population is ensured. A legitimate government seeks to find the right balance of incentives, penalties and cultural persuasion to balance these equalities within an acceptable range.

Once a set of principles has been agreed through dialogue then a detailed constitution can be created. To reach an agreement it will probably be necessary to give a role of influence to a religious or ethical body outside of the directly elected assembly. The current Iranian system gives too much power to the supreme leader and the council who elects him, they effectively preselect the choices of the Iranian people, making democracy a farce. Constructive ethical influence has to be more inclusive than this. To return to Orwell, it is not “nationalism” of a dogmatic political or religious type that is needed, but the “patriotism” of pride in the genuine achievements of a revolution to replace a self-serving dictator with the true government whose civilising influence stretches far beyond the region.

Obviously this process is being formulated by the Syrian Opposition by people far more talented than me. What is needed is a plan that can be understood by everyone, and serve a map for those people struggling to make the Syrian Revolution happen on the front lines.

Western governments can help, by supplying the resources and opportunities the Syrian Opposition needs, and can have a positive influence by giving these resources in return for the Syrian Opposition following the progressive plan it has itself created. Clearly this will always be a “work in progress”, an outline that is being completed over time, and does not need to be polished before starting. The Western progressive public has a more important role in forcing Western governments to support the Syrian Revolution in an effective way of the type described above. This means effective campaigns that motivate people and which ditch dogma. The core of what these means is the subject of the next section.

[Next Part 5.3] See:


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