By ANDREW POLLACK
In early August, the battle for Aleppo still raged between government and opposition forces, with each side taking, losing, and retaking neighborhoods. The heavily outgunned rebels—and the city’s civilian population—faced murderous attacks by regime helicopters, tanks, and artillery.
Aleppo is Syria’s biggest city and its most important economically. As such it is home of the largest segment of the country’s predominantly Sunni bourgeoisie—President Bashar al-Assad’s main social base of support—as well as of the country’s working class.
Many observers on all sides of the conflict predicted that the battle for Aleppo, coming right after unprecedented fighting in the country’s capital, Damascus, could represent a turning point heralding Assad’s downfall. Or it could instead be the opening salvo in a new, much more bloody phase of the fighting, one perhaps that would eventually rival in scale the 1982 massacre in Hama of tens of thousands by Assad’s father.
In either case, antiwar and solidarity activists in the U.S. and other imperialist countries must be keenly aware of the heightened danger of intervention, as Washington and its allies try to take advantage of these events, and we must step up organizing efforts against such moves: U.S./NATO, hands off Syria!
The battle of Aleppo followed hard on the heels of a shorter but tremendously symbolic fight over neighborhoods in the country’s capital, Damascus. Following the assassination of several key regime figures in a bombing attack, opposition forces launched their first major attacks in the capital. When it became clear that Assad would obliterate the people and buildings of any rebel-held neighborhoods, opposition forces beat a tactical retreat. Still, the combination of the bombing and the street battles had an impact roughly akin to the 1968 Tet offensive, in which Vietnamese forces suffered massive casualties but won a huge psychological victory by proving they could strike anywhere against U.S. forces, even in Saigon.
The psychological blow suffered by the Assad regime in Damascus likely explains the apparent willingness of the rebels to stand their ground in Aleppo, a stance made easier by the difficulty the regime has had finding forces to fight there without seriously depleting its troops in the rest of the country.
One area lost to the regime and of particular concern to it is that along the border with Turkey. The regime’s defeat there has imperialists licking their chops at the prospect of setting up a “no-go” zone for regime forces and facilitating transfer of arms and personnel to those parts of the opposition that have been working with imperialist and Gulf states.
The New York Times reported: “The secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking as though the Syrian insurgency’s momentum was now unstoppable, said its territorial gains might be leveraged into safe havens. ‘We have to work closely with the opposition, because more and more territory is being taken and it will, eventually, result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition.”’
The U.S. has expressed reluctance to intervene directly with either air power or ground troops, or even to supply much in the way of arms to the rebels. So it’s possible the rebels will oust Assad before such a “safe haven” becomes a reality. The more likely and dangerous possibility is the anointing by Washington of a post-Assad regime in meetings outside the country with pro-intervention leaders of the Syrian National Council, or perhaps also from its newly-created rival, the Council for the Syrian Revolution.
Those eager to ride to power on the strength of Washington’s blessings (if not from any actual participation in battle) will also have to contend with the possibility of a Yemen-style solution, i.e., the removal of the regime’s top figure but the maintenance in power of the bulk of his regime. As the Battle of Aleppo advanced, U.S. officials made increasingly clear their desire for that type of solution. Claiming to have learned from their “mistakes” in Iraq in ousting the entire Baath from power rather than just Saddam Hussein, they argued that “stability” in a post-Assad Syria will require a strong state, including its military, which can only be provided by current regime figures.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leo Panetta told the media that “I think it’s important when Assad leaves, and he will leave, to try to preserve stability in that country. The best way to preserve that kind of stability is to maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government.”
In a similar vein, Foreign Policy magazine, reporting on months of talks between U.S. officials and SNC figures under the auspices of the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP), noted that the project also “tried to identify regime personnel who might be able to play an effective role in the immediate phase after Assad falls. “There’s a very clear understanding of the Syrians in this project that a transition is not sweeping away of the entire political and judicial framework of Syria,” said USIP’s Steven Heydemann.
Meanwhile, perhaps in an effort to prepare public opinion for the maintenance in power of such thugs, Washington and its media allies have stepped up propaganda about an alleged takeover of the opposition by “Islamists.”
A typical article was that in The New York Times on July 29 (“As Syrian War Drags On, Jihadists Take Bigger Role”). Yet the further one gets into the article the more one finds the authors, Neil MacFarquhar and Hwaida Saad, undermining their own premises.
The reporters start with the claim that “as the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government grinds on with no resolution in sight, Syrians involved in the armed struggle say it is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from Al Qaeda, are taking a more prominent role and demanding a say in running the resistance.” But the authors admit: “Even less-zealous resistance groups are adopting a pronounced Islamic aura because it attracts more financing.”
And the authors report examples of local grassroots rejection of such groups. One such group demanded their battle flag be flown during the weekly Friday demonstration in Saraqib. The town, says The Times, “prides itself in its newly democratic ways, electing a new town council roughly every two months, and residents put it to a vote—the answer was no. The jihadi fighters raised the flag anyway, until a formal compromise allowed for a 20-minute display.”
“A lot of the jihadi discourse has to do with funding,” noted Peter Harling, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “You have secular people and very moderate Islamists who join Salafi groups because they have the weapons and the money.”
The paper also admitted that “there is, as yet, no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria, fighters and others said. The Saraqib commander estimated there were maybe 50 Qaeda adherents in all of Idlib, a sprawling northwestern province that borders Turkey.
“An activist helping to organize the Syrian military councils said there were roughly 50,000 fighters in total, and far fewer than 1,000 were foreigners, who often have trouble gaining local support.” That activist “described one local leader in Binnish, a town near Saraqib, questioning the religion of Ahrar al-Sham members who he thought were kidnapping too many local Shiites. He told them, ‘Damn your religion — who is this God of yours you are bringing? I have been a Muslim for 40 years, and this is a God we don’t know,’ Rami said.”
Class forces in the revolution
The continuing grassroots support for the revolution, and its base in the country’s exploited classes, was illustrated in an account of the waves of refugees fleeing the fighting. Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr wrote on July 28 that “those who were crossing into Lebanon over the past week or so to escape the fighting in Damascus were either supporters of the government or simply those who didn’t take part in the uprising. They arrived in fancy cars—others headed to hotels. They were in shock—very few actually believing that the violence over the past year and a half finally reached their doorsteps.
“A few hundred meters from the Manaa border crossing, Syrians who also fled the fighting were taking refuge in a school. Many of them from Homs—the capital of their revolution—and Deraa—the cradle of their revolution. None of them crossed into Lebanon through the official borders. They used illegal routes because ‘we would have never been able to pass the Syrian army checkpoint because of where we are from.’
“And there is resentment here. Not just against the Syrian authorities but the urban elite. ‘All they care about is making sure nothing happens to their fancy cars and apartments,’ Abu Mohammed’s wife told us, referring to the people of Damascus.
Khodr quoted Stephen Starr, a journalist who stayed in Damascus, explaining that the districts in revolt since the start of uprising “are working-class neighborhoods,” citing economic reasons for the origins of the revolt.
In the August issue of Harpers, Anand Gopal described how these class dynamics played out in the political and social restructuring of the town of Taftanaz once its workers threw out the regime’s forces.
Describing the origins of the town’s popularly elected councils, he reports that once the regime left, “courts stopped working, trash piled high on the streets, and the police stayed home,” so “to fill the vacuum, citizens came together to elect councils—farmers formed their own, as did merchants, laborers, teachers, students, health-care workers, judges, engineers, and the unemployed.”
Council members made sure that the town’s richest citizens bore the brunt of the expense of rebuilding the town in the wake of Assad forces’ destruction. Said one: “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.” Said another: “We have to take from the rich in our village and give to the poor.”
Gopal also described elections by the town council to nationwide bodies representing all the councils. And he included several choice quotes from Tantaraz residents, most of whom have faced Assad’s bullets in battle, criticizing SNC and FSA top leaders as lazy fakers representing no one but themselves.
The precious gains of the revolution in Tantaraz show the potential for a reconstructed Syria if its workers, peasants, women, and youth can gain power. But for that to happen, the country’s exploited will need to deepen the reach and program of their mass organizations, and to forge a revolutionary party to advance that process. One obstacle in the way of doing so are the traitorous “leaders” of the SNC and similar groups welcoming imperialist intervention.
And the main obstacle is intervention itself, making clear once again the responsibility of antiwar activists in the U.S. to demand that Washington keep its hands off Syria.