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Richard Seymour: The Syrian revolt enters a new phase

Anti-Assad protest in Syria organised by the Local Coordinating Committees. Some 300 LCCs have refused to recognise the imperialist-backed Syrian National Council.

[Click HERE for more analysis of the situation in Syria.]

By Richard Seymour

July 24, 2012 -- Lenin's Tomb, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Richard Seymour's permission -- As Syria's leader Bashar al-Assad flees the capital, the armed segments of the revolution appear to be inflicting blows on sections of the security apparatus and taking over major cities: the revolution is turning a corner. Robert Fisk reports that a crucial dynamic now is the fracturing of an alliance between the Sunni middle class and the Alawite regime, signalled by the spread of the revolt to Aleppo. And defections from the state-capitalist power bloc continue. Indeed, Juan Cole has suggested that such divisions must run deep in the Syrian state for the opposition to be capable of planting a bomb that can kill a senior minister.

* * *

The course of this uprising, from the immolation of Hasan Ali Akleh in January 2011, redolent of Mohamed Bouazizi's death in Tunisia, to the suicide attack on the defence minister, has been brutal. In the early stages, the Syrian government had a monopoly on violence. It was police violence and the decades-long rule by the Ba'athist dictatorship, undergirded by repressive "emergency law", which provoked the "days of rage"; it was the police beating of a shopkeeper that provoked a spontaneous protest on February 17, 2011, in the capital, which was duly suppressed; it was the imprisonment of Kurdish and other political prisoners that led to the spread of hunger strikes against the regime by March 2011. And it was the security forces who started to murder protesters in large numbers that same month. It was they also who repeatedly opened fire on large and growing demonstrations in April 2011. In the ensuing months until today, they have used used everything from tear gas to live bullets to tank shells.

And the main organisations of the Syrian opposition pointedly refused the strategy of armed uprising, noting what had happened in Libya, and arguing that the terrain of armed conflict was the ground on which Assad was strongest. Nonetheless, the scale of the repression eventually produced an armed wing of the revolt. The Free Syrian Army became the main vector for armed insurgency, expanded by defections from the army and the security apparatus. Now it is making serious advances.

Revolution hijacked?

In response to the insurgency, the argument among a significant section of the anti-war left has been that this revolution has already been hijacked, that those who initially rose up have been sidelined and marginalised by forces allied with external powers, intelligence forces and so on. Thus, the arms, money and international support for the armed rebellion is said to be coming from Washington, and Riyadh and Tel Aviv. The likely outcome is the decapitation of a regime that is problematic for the US, and its replacement with a regime that is more amenable to the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, they argue, the political forces likely to hegemonise the emerging situation are essentially reactionary and sectarian. The left, democratic and anti-imperialist forces are, they say, too weak to lead the fight against Assad's regime. And so, as Sami Ramadani puts it in the latest Labour Left Briefing, "the sacrifices of the Syrian people have been hijacked by NATO and the Saudi-Qatari dictators".

Tariq Ali was the latest to make this case on Russia Today (prompting an impassioned rebuttal from this left-wing Syrian blog). MediaLens, an organisation whose output I have promoted in the past, also takes this view, and reproaches myself and Owen Jones for being insufficiently attentive to the accumulating mass of evidence that the armed revolt is basically a creature of imperialism, its actions no more than, effectively, state terrorism. Obviously, I think this is mistaken.

* * *

I'll start with imperialism.

One has to expect that in a revolutionary situation, rival imperialist powers will try to influence the course of events. We have seen the US, UK, France and Russia all involved in Syria's battle in different ways. Washington has long provided funding and other types of support to opposition groups, and the CIA is alleged to be training groups outside the Syrian border. It has two specific reasons to be involved: taking out a strategic ally of Iran, and being seen to be on the side of democratic change in the Middle East. The nature of its involvement is dictated by its preference for some sort of coup d'etat rather than a popular revolution; it wants to encourage more senior regime defections so that a faction of the old ruling elite can coordinate its forces, lead an armed assault on the bastions of the Assad regime, and then declare itself the new boss. That is most likely why imperialism is selectively feeding arms to groups it deems reliable, and training various select groups outside the country.

Russia, of course, is nowhere near as powerful an imperialist state as the US. Its role is arguably slightly enhanced by the fact that it is backing up a centralised, well-armed regime (vis-a-vis the insurgent population), whereas the "Western" imperialist powers have been trying to infiltrate and co-opt elements of a very loosely coordinated resistance. The rebels by all accounts are extremely poorly armed; the trickle of weapons from the Gulf states is nothing compared to the helicopters, tanks and other munitions that the Assad regime possesses and deploys with such indiscriminate force. However you assess the relative balance between the various intervening forces, though, the point is that if you want to talk about imperialism in Syria you cannot just ignore the intervention taking place on behalf of the regime.

In fairness, many of those commentators highlighting imperialist intervention have also noted the flow of arms from Russia to the regime -- Charles Glass, for example. Moreover, none of them appear to be denying serious repression by the regime. Rather, Patrick Seale is typical in arguing that the transition to an armed strategy, provoked by the regime, has been immensely destructive, as this is the terrain on which the regime is the strongest.

Nonetheless, there is in some of this a type of "blanket thinking" that one commonly encounters, in which a signposted quality of one organisation, or faction within an organisation, or individual within a faction, is taken to be expressive of the situation as a whole. Thus, for example, Ramadani characterises the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are characterised as "Saudi-Qatari-backed ... logistically backed by Turkey", which is some of the truth, but simply not the whole truth. I will return to this. Likewise, when Seale describes the opposition strategy as being one of provoking "Western military intervention to stop the killing on humanitarian grounds", he ignores the declarations of the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs), which are the organisational, cellular basis of the revolt, and which have consistently opposed imperialist intervention. He also ignores the left-nationalist and Kurdish forces -- there are traditions of anti-imperialism in Syria well beyond the Ba'ath Party.

Or, let's take as an example this article by the comedy writer Charlie Skelton, which is being recited widely. It basically makes two arguments. One is that leading figures within the Syrian National Council have connections to various US-funded bodies. The other is that vocal neo-conservatives are pressing for military intervention and "regime change", and declare themselves pleased by the successes of the armed opposition such as the Free Syrian Army. In and of itself, this could be part of a valid argument: why should these people be the spokespersons for the Syrian revolution in the Anglophone media? Why should the interests of Syrians be hijacked for some imperialist grand strategy? However, inasmuch as this ignores the majority of what is taking place, instead looking solely at narrow networks of influence, this is indeed a form of "blanket thinking", allowing small minorities to stand in for the whole.

Imperialism is certainly involved. However, a few vulgar regime apologists to one side, no one is denying that there is more to it than that; that there are internal social and class antagonisms that have produced this revolt. If you want an analysis of the breakdown of the Syrian social compact in the last decade, amid a new wave of US imperialist violence which sent waves of refugees fleeing from Iraq, and Bashar al-Assad's neoliberal reforms, you should see Jonathan Maunder's article in the last International Socialism. The important point is that the regime can't survive. It is incapable of advancing the society any further, even on bourgeois terms. There is, therefore, only the question of how the regime will be brought down, and by whom.

The question is, is the geopolitical axis dominant? Is it this, rather than domestic antagonisms, which will determine the outcome of this revolt and its meaning?

The Syrian opposition

When you hear from ordinary Syrian activists, and not the exiles in the SNC, you don't hear a lot of support for an invasion or bombing: quite the contrary. The trouble is that there have been groups advocating intervention, and there has been a degree of intervention already. And while the rank and file have never been won over to the strategy of armed imperialist intervention, there isn't much unity over what strategy should be pursued and to what precise end. The question then is which forces can dominate and impose their line.

Before addressing this, one should say something about the organisational basis of this revolution. It isn't the leadership of the Syrian National Council (SNC), whose role as an "umbrella" group beliesits  lack of influence on the ground. At the most basic, cellular level, it is the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs). A section of these, about 120 of them, have recognised the SNC since it was founded, and have some formal representation. In fact, the LCCs are grossly under-represented in the SNC structure compared to the liberal and Islamist opposition groups. And they don't make a very effective representation within the SNC structures, which means that when the SNC speaks it isn't necessarily speaking for the grassroots.

However, a larger chunk, some 300 LCCs, have declined to recognise or affiliate to the SNC. The LCCs have opposed imperialist intervention, despite the bloodiness of Assad's repression; they have even tended to resist the trend toward militarisation of the uprising. Now, the LCCs, being localised resistance units based in the population, are not politically or ideologically unified. There are undoubtedly reactionary elements among them, as well as progressive and just politically indeterminate forces. So, the question of political representation is significant.

And at the level of political representation, there are various ideologically heterogeneous coalitions and groups. The SNC is understood to be the main "umbrella" organisation unifying several strands from Kurdish to liberal groups. The leadership is disproportionately weighted toward exiles, while the actual systems of representation within the SNC are seriously skewed toward the bourgeois liberals and the Muslim Brothers. That's not the end of the world, given that some people have been invoking "Al Qaeda" (really? people on the left buying into this? Apparently so ...) or just sectarian jihadis of one stripe or another.

The fact is that Islamists and liberals are a part of the opposition in most of the old dictatorships of the Middle East, from Tunisia to Algeria to Yemen to Egypt to Bahrain ... But these forces do represent the more conservative and bourgeois wing of the resistance to Assad. Generally speaking, like the LCCs, they have opposed the strategy of armed struggle -- this is one of the reasons for their generally antagonistic relationship with the Free Syrian Army. But they did favour a strategy of armed intervention until forming an agreement in January with the left-nationalist National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which rejected all imperialist intervention from outside the region: in other words, they would accept help from Arab states, but not from the "West". (Caveat: as will become clear, the SNC negotiators did not get this agreement ratified, and it may well be that the issue of imperialist intervention was one of the sticking points.)

Why, then, did the dominant forces in the SNC look for a time to imperialist intervention? I think it is obviously because these are not forces that are comfortable with mass mobilisation, least of all with armed mass mobilisation. A UN-mandated intervention -- bombing, coordination with ground forces, etc. -- would have solved this problem for them, achieving the objective of bringing down a repressive and moribund regime without mobilising the types of social forces that could challenge their hegemony in a post-Assad regime. Then they could have been piloted into office as the nucleus of a new regime, a modernising, neoliberal capitalist democracy. But as the prospects of such an intervention declined, as the grassroots failed to mobilise for some sort of NATO protectorate, and as the emphasis shifted to armed struggle via the Free Syrian Army (FSA) throughout the first half of this year, the SNC has been compelled to respond. It has developed a military bureau to relate to the FSA, albeit this has produced more claims of attempted manipulation.

National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change

Despite its international prominence, however, the SNC is not the only significant political formation organising opposition forces. The main organisation in which the Syrian left is organised is in the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, mentioned above -- also known as the National Coordination Committee (NCC), tout court. This is the second-most widely recognised organisation aside from the SNC, and has a much stronger basis within Syrian society. It is headquartered in Damascus rather than in Turkey, it has a strong basis in the LCCs and includes Kurdish, nationalist and socialist organisations. There have been attempts by both the SNC and NCC to overcome their differences and construct a sort of united front against Assad, but their political and strategic differences have made this impossible. Another factor obstructing unity is the NCC's position within Syria; it is far more exposed to military reprisals by the regime, and thus must pitch its demands very carefully. This is an important reason why it has emphasised a negotiated settlement as the answer to the crisis.

Also of significance is the Kurdish National Council, created by Kurdish forces in anticipation of having to fight their corner in a post-Assad regime: indeed, the reluctance of the majority of Kurds to actually support the SNC has been a significant factor in the composition and division of labour in the opposition. For Kurds oppressed in Assad's Syria, who do not automatically trust a future regime dominated by Sunni Arabs to protect minorities, it is seen as far more sensible to turn to a dense network of regional supporters and interests, described very well here.

The lack of unity between any political leadership and the revolutionary base -- which extends to a lack of coordination between the coalitions and the armed groups, as we'll discuss in a moment -- is a real weakness in the revolution. Aside from anything else, it makes it harder for the opposition to win over wider layers of the population -- because people aren't sure exactly what they'll be supporting, what type of new regime will emerge from the struggle. There is a real fear of sectarian bloodshed, notwithstanding the cynical way in which the regime manipulates this fear. The military and civilian opposition leaders have tried to allay this fear, and FSA units say they are working with Allawi forces. But without a degree of unity and discipline, with the continued disjuncture between the turbulent base and the political leadership, and with Assad's forces heavily outgunning the opposition, this is a powerful disincentive for people to break ranks with the regime. Moreover, if some greater degree of cohesion and coordination is not reached, then the risk of some force outside the popular basis of the revolt (say, a few generals leading a proxy army) interpolating itself in the struggle and seizing the initiative, is increased.

This is not to argue that the SNC and NCC must converge around a common program and then somehow impose themselves on the LCCs. I don't know how the political division of labour in the opposition could be optimised, and unity between the base and the leadership of such a movement would have to be negotiated and constructed on the basis of a recognition of the mutual interests of the social classes and ethnic groups embodied in the movement. Further, whether a merger would help or hinder the revolution probably depends very much what the agenda is and who is materially dominant in the emerging representative institutions. It does, however, explain why there have been and will continue to be attempts at forging some sort of unity, despite the ongoing antagonisms and differences between the various forces, and despite the very real problems with the SNC leadership.

Free Syrian Army

As for the armed contingent, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been summarily vilified and demonised by many polemicists. Consistent with the "blanket thinking" referred to previously, the FSA has been deemed a sectarian gang, terrorists, a Saudi-Qatari front and so on.

The first and most important thing about the FSA is that it is made up of anything between 25,000 and 40,000 assorted rebels -- defectors from the armed forces, both soldiers and officers, and various civilians who volunteered to fight. As such, it is as politically and ideologically variegated a formation as the LCCs. Nominally, the FSA is led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, a defector from the air force whose family members have been executed by the regime. But the reality, as Nir Rosen describes, is more complex:

The FSA is a name endorsed and signed on to by diverse armed opposition actors throughout the country, who each operate in a similar manner and towards a similar goal, but each with local leadership. Local armed groups have only limited communication with those in neighbouring towns or provinces - and, moreover, they were operating long before the summer.

In other words, this is a highly localised, cellular structure with limited cohesion.

Contrary to what has been asserted in some polemics, then, the FSA is not simply a contingent of the SNC. It formed independently, several months into the uprising, following a series of lethal assaults on protests by the regime, specifically in response to the suppression in Daraa. It incorporated armed groups that had been operating locally with autonomous leadership for a while. Its relationship with the SNC, despite attempts by the leaderships to patch over differences, has been strongly antagonistic -- largely because of the SNC leadership's opposition to the strategy of armed insurgency and its fears of being unable to control the outcome. Earlier in the year, a split from the SNC formed briefly over this point, with a group formed within the council to support armed struggle.

Therefore, those who describe the FSA as "the armed wing" of the SNC, as The American Conservative did, are only exposing their ignorance, as well as that blanket thinking. The same applies to those who say that the FSA is a Turkish-Saudi-Qatari client. Undoubtedly, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies have an interest in this struggle. Certainly, the leadership of the FSA is currently situated in Turkey, and enjoys Turkish support. And Turkey is a NATO member. But the extent of any support must be judged to be poor, because by all reports the army remains an extremely loose, and lightly armed force. Purely on military grounds, the regime has always enjoyed the advantage, and continues to do so. Moreover, the FSA is just far too disarticulated and heteroclite to be converted into someone's proxy army -- unless you assume that any degree of external support automatically makes one a proxy, which strikes me as specious reasoning.

Finally, there is the question of the FSA's human rights record. Those who want to oppose the revolt say that the armed insurgents are a bunch of thugs or even -- some will actually use the propaganda term "terrorists". Well, the fact is that the armies have captured and tortured and killed people they believed to be regime supporters or informants. I believe they have blown up regime apparatuses and probably have killed civilians in the process. My answer? You can criticise this or that attack, you can say that the Islamists who bombed Damascus and issued a sectarian statement are not allies of revolution. But you can't keep saying this is a "civil war'"and then express shock when one side, the weaker side, the side that has been attacked and provoked, the side that is ranged against a repressive dictatorship, actually fights a war.

For the regime is fighting a bitter war for its own survival, and it is destroying urban living areas in the process. Do you want to go and look at Jadaliyya, and see the kinds of reports they post every day? Do you want to see the footage of what the Syrian armed forces are doing to residential areas, not to mention to the residents? Unless you're a pacifist, in which case I respect your opinion but disagree with you (in that patronising way that you will have become used to), the only bases for criticising such tactics are either on pro-regime grounds, or on purely tactical grounds.

Among the tactical grounds are the objection that 1) this is the territory on which the regime is strongest (true, but I think the signs are that this can be overcome), and 2) there is a tendency in militarised conflict for democratic, rank-and-file forces to be squeezed out (not necessarily the case, but a real potentiality in such situations which one doesn't overlook). Of course, those tactical observations are valid, and people are entitled to their view. My own sense is that the regime has made it impossible to do anything but launch an armed insurgency and so these problems will just have to be confronted.

Regime losing social base

All this raises the question, then: what accounts for the advances being made by the insurgency given its relative military weakness and strategic divisions? Part of the answer is that there is no surety of continued advance. It's an extremely unstable situation, wherein the initiative could fall back into the regime forces' hands surprisingly quickly. The current gains have been chalked up rather quickly, and not without serious cost. Nonetheless, the dominant factor clearly is the narrowing of the social basis of the regime, and the growing conviction among ruling class elements, as well as the aspiring middle classes, that Assad and the state-capitalist bloc that rules Syria can neither keep control, nor update the country's productive capacity, nor reform its rampantly corrupt and despotic political system.

Much has been made of Assad's supposed popularity, and the fact that he does have a significant social base. Even if the signs are now that the core bases of his regime are starting to split, the durability of the pro-Assad bulwark has to be encountered and understood. Recently, there was a Yougov poll of Syrians, which Jonathan Steele drew attention to in the Guardian: 55% of those Syrians polled said they wanted Assad to stay, and the number one reason they gave for saying this was fear for the future of their country. Now, you can take or leave a poll conducted under such circumstances. After all, the poll was conducted across the whole Arab world, with only 97 of its respondents based in Syria. How reliable can it be? And it would seem pedantic and beside the point to expect anyone targeted by Assad's forces to pay any heed to it. Nonetheless, there's a real issue here in that at least a sizeable plurality of people are more worried by what will happen after Assad falls than by what Assad is doing now.

A significant factor in this, as mentioned, is the problem of sectarianism. There is no inherent reason why a country as ethnically and religiously diverse as Syria should suffer from sectarianism: this is something that has to be worked on, and actively produced. The Ba'ath regime certainly didn't invent sectarianism, but in pivoting its regime on an alliance between the Alawi officer corps and the Sunni bourgeoisie, it did represent itself as the safeguard against a sectarian bloodbath and has constantly played on this fear ever since, even while it has brutally repressed minorities.

Given the breakdown of the class and ethnic alliance making up the regime's base, sectarianism as a disciplinary technology is one of the last hegemonic assets the regime possesses. The importance of opposition forces being explicitly anti-sectarian (as has been seen repeatedly) can thus hardly be overstated. At the same time, fear of imperialist intervention and some sort of Iraq-like devastation being visited on the country, is also real. Syria, as the host of many of Iraq's refugees, experienced up close the effects of that trauma. Nor is there much in Libya's situation today that I can say I would recommend to the people of Syria. So, it has been of some importance that despite serious bloodshed the LCCs and NCC maintained resistance to the SNC approach of trying to forge an alliance with imperialism.

If you observe the tendencies in each case of revolution, you see amid concrete differences important similarities. For example, there were considerable differences between the Mubarak and Assad regimes and in the tempo and pattern of resistance and opposition. This was not just in terms of foreign policy and the relationship to US imperialism, but also in terms of the prominence of the state as a factor in neoliberal restructuring which was far more important in Syria, the impact of the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing flows of refugees and fighters, the role of an organised labour movement in sparking rebellion which has so far played very little role in Syria (strikes have tended to be organised mainly be professional or petty bourgeois groups -- another serious limitation faced by the revolution), and the role of military repression and insurgency in each state.

Even so, there are broad convergences which point to a general pattern. Most important of these are:

1) within these societies, a secular tendency toward a widening of social inequality, coupled with a narrowing at the top of society, resulting from the imposition of neoliberal accumulation patterns;
2) the fraying of the class alliances sustaining the regime as a consequence;
3) the exhaustion of the regime's resources for adaptation, and intelligent reform, such that all concessions come far too late and after such immense repression that it is hard to take them seriously;
4) the declining capacity of the state to maintain consent (or rather, encircle and marginalise dissent) either through material consessions or terror;
5) the re-emergence of long-standing opposition forces in new configurations during the period immediately before and since January 2011, with middle class liberal, Islamist and Arab nationalist forces playing a key role;
6) the emergence of forms of popular organisation -- militias in some cases, revolutionary councils in others -- performing aspects of organisation that would ordinarily be carried out by the state, and assuming a degree of popular legitimacy in contention with the regime;
7) the defection of significant sections of the ruling class and state personnel, who attempt to play a dominant, leading role in the anti-regime struggle and assume control of reformed apparatuses afterward.

My estimation is that in the context of the global crisis, and amid a general weakening of US imperialism -- notwithstanding the relatively swift coup in Libya -- these regimes are going to continue to breakdown, and opposition is going to continue to develop in revolutionary forms, i.e. in forms that challenge the very legitimacy of the state itself. The old state system, based around a cleavage between a chain of pro-US dictatorships and an opposing rump of nominally resistant dictatorships, is what is collapsing here. That is something that the advocates of negotiations as a panacea here might wish to reflect on. Certainly, I have no problem with negotiations as a tactic, particularly in situations of relative weakness. But these are revolutionary crises inasmuch as they severely test the right of the old rulers to continue to rule in the old ways.

These processes, not just in Syria but across the Middle East, are richly overdetermined by the various crises of global capitalism, which are so deep, so protracted and giving rise to much social upheaval, that it is beyond the capacity of even the most powerful states to bring them under control. Into these complex processes, as we have seen, imperialist powers can impose themselves in various, often destructive, ways; but those commentators who spend all their time charting the agenda of US imperialism and its webs of influence in the region would do well to scale back and get a wider perspective. There is no reason at this moment to think that imperialist intervention is, or is going to be, the dominant axis determining the outcome and meaning of this process.

[Richard Seymour manages the Lenin's Tomb website. He is a prominent member of the British Socialist Workers Party. He is the author of the just-released American Insurgents. Read more by Seymour HERE.]

Comments

Writing is on the wall.

What we are seeing in Syria is a preview of the demise of the Iranian regime as well.
That regime sees it too -- though it looks the other way.
Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall.
It was put there with the blood of the Iranians killed while peacefully protesting the Ahmadinejad election. The shedding of their innocent blood started the Arab spring, and it will be the shedding of far more Iranian blood that will end it.
Such is the fate sealed for the country by the brutality of that regime in 2009.

Syria: cracks in the corporate media line

Alex Thomson is in Syria for the British Channel 4. He put up a Q&A at his blog. Some excerpts:
What will happen in Aleppo?
Probably what happened in Damascus – the rebels will lose.
But the rebels look to be doing well on TV?
That’s because they are winning the propaganda war better than the real war.
But why is the Syrian army shelling its own people?
You could just as easily ask why are the rebels using the Syrian people as human shields? It’s a dirty civil war and the rebels sometimes choose to fight in residential areas.
So what do Syrians want?
Hard to tell. But for sure this is not Egypt – there are no Tahrir Squares or vast protests against the regime.
There is no discernible sign in any of the big cities – Homs, Aleppo and Damascus for example,that the people even wish to rise up against the regime. (from Moon of Alabama)

Welcome to Free Syria

Letter from Taftanaz: Welcome to Free Syria

Meeting the rebel government of an embattled country

By Anand Gopal, Harper’s Magazine, August 2012

Abu Malek was pacing back and forth in the hospital parking lot, muttering to himself and firing off phone calls. "Don't say 'How are you' to me," he told one caller, "because I am not fine, I am very, very, very, very bad." The hospital was in the Turkish town of Antakya, and the staff was treating several rebels who had been wounded in the fighting across the border in Syria, about ten miles away. The Syrian army was in the midst of a major offensive, sweeping through one northern town after another with tanks and heavy artillery, trying to kill as many rebel fighters as possible before April 12, when a ceasefire brokered by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan would go into effect. The revolution had been grinding on for more than a year, and as many as 10,000 people had died already.

From Turkey, Malek had followed events closely and stayed in contact with his family in the northern town of Taftanaz. (Malek's name and those of some of the people mentioned in this article have been changed.) Soon after he learned that the army had surrounded Taftanaz, phone lines were cut, so he sent a friend to retrieve his family. The friend returned with the news that Malek's mother was missing, his cousins were missing, and his house had been razed.

The government had lost control of Taftanaz near the start of the revolution, and an intricate system of popularly elected councils called tansiqiyyat had been created over the past year- "like mini parliaments, a government for us," as Malek put it. He had been chosen to represent Taftanaz in Turkey, where he raised funds and cultivated contacts with the international community. He was proud of the rebel councils-they were proof that Syria did not need President Bashar al- Assad-but he worried that the other council members had been captured or killed.

Malek agreed to help me get to Taftanaz, but he demanded information in return: "I want to know if my family survived-and I want to know if my revolution survived."

Traveling with me from the Turkish border to Taftanaz was Wassim Omar, an acquaintance of Malek's whom I would see several times during the week I spent in Syria. He had access to a network of revolutionaries along the way, almost all of them friends he had made during the uprising. Our driver avoided the highway and hopscotched from village to village along back roads; with the mobile-phone system disabled, it was impossible to know about troop movements and the location of army checkpoints.

Omar had been studying Arabic literature at Aleppo University before the revolution began. Now he traveled between Turkey and Syria often, smuggling rebel propaganda and supplies. This was his first trip back over the border since reports of the army's campaign in Taftanaz had reached Antakya.

The roads were empty, and in the tiny mountain towns the shops stood shuttered and padlocked. The rebels once maintained checkpoints openly in daylight, but now they confined their activity to the nighttime. "If you could have seen this place before the fighting," Omar told me. "It was alive."

We had yet to come across any villages touched by violence. But then, as we pulled into the town of Killi, about ten miles south of the border, we saw a multistory granite house with a collapsed roof, yawning holes in its façade, and rubble everywhere. Omar gasped.

According to locals, Syrian aircraft had circled overhead for days, taking reconnaissance photos as almost all civilians and rebels fled the village. Then, on April 6-four days before we arrived-tanks came and fired from close range at this house and more than a dozen others. Soldiers had a list of those who had gone to protests or were involved in the rebel movement, and they went from house to house hunting them. Because most of the townspeople had left, however, there were very few arrests or casualties.

On the outskirts of Killi, I found one of those who had stayed behind. Nizar Abdo lived in a housing complex built around a central courtyard. When the soldiers arrived, Abdo hid in a neighbor's house. He watched through the shutters as a tank wheeled in front of his property, took aim, and fired. Afterward soldiers bulldozed the remains.

Standing where his house had once been, Abdo admitted that he had attended a few protests during the start of the revolution. He said he had never been political; more basic frustrations drove him: "You have to pay money to get a job, otherwise the government won't help. . . . You have to pay bribes."

Now homeless, he was unsure where he would go. But, embittered as he was, he still tried to see an upside. "At least," he said, "we aren't Taftanaz."

The 15,000 residents of Taftanaz are mostly farmers and traders: rows of olive trees stretch outward in every direction, although in recent years drought has browned patches of them. The town is typical of northern Syria; there are dozens like it nearby, an archipelago of villages known for their Babylonian cuneiform tablets and preserved sections of Roman road. Life there is slow, conservative, and pious.

Since Hafez al- Assad took power in 1970, Syria has been ruled by an alliance between Assad's mainly Alawite military and wealthy Sunni businessmen from the cities. The government provides food subsidies, jobs programs, and funds for rural development for the people of places like Taftanaz, but in return demands absolute fealty. Businesses favored by the regime win no-bid and below- market contracts, creating what Syria scholar Bassam Haddad called "a crony capitalist state par excellence."

When Bashar al- Assad became president after his father's death in 2000, he tried to liberalize the country's economy. The government eased price controls on basic goods like fertilizer and animal feed. It reduced subsidies to the oil sector, leading to a 42 percent jump in the price of fuel. Meanwhile, a vicious drought dried up the countryside, prompting thousands to flee to provincial towns like Homs and Idlib, or to smaller communities like Taftanaz, which did not have the capacity to absorb the influx.

"There were no jobs, and if you found one, you had to see the mukhabarat," the secret police, for permission to work, Omar said. "If you wanted to buy a house or travel outside the country, you needed to see them." Office workers moonlighted as cab drivers. Farmers doubled as scrap dealers. In every corner of society, but especially in the countryside, the social contract holding the Assad regime together was failing.

On March 6, 2011, a group of adolescent boys, inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, painted antigovernment graffiti on walls in the desert town of Daraa. After word spread that the boys had been arrested, Daraa's streets filled with protesters. In Binnish, a few miles down the highway from Taftanaz, Omar and his friends watched the news in amazement. Later that week, fifteen of them gathered late at night at a mosque to plan a protest, making signs with anti-regime slogans.

The following day, they stepped into the town's main square for the first protest of their lives. Omar was terrified: he knew the price of his actions would be imprisonment, and that the regime could target his family. But, to his surprise, the people of Binnish joined in. They came from all over town, shouting, "Daraa, we are with you! We in Binnish are with you!"

By April 2011, demonstrations were popping up all across the country. The Syrian army tried to cut them down, firing on and killing scores of civilians, only to inspire further protests. The mukhabarat, meanwhile, targeted the core activists in each town. One afternoon, agents showed up at Omar's door. "They treated me like a toy, throwing me here and there," he recalled. He said he was kept in captivity for two months, frequently strapped to a gurney, electrocuted, and beaten. A general finally released Omar after he promised to stay away from politics. When he left prison, he went straight to a demonstration.

Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian elite remained glued together in the face of the protests. But the conscript army started to buckle, and some soldiers found they could not fire on their countrymen. I had met one of them in Turkey, a twenty-seven-year old named Abdullah Awdeh. He was serving in the elite 11th Armored Division, which put down protests around the country, when one day he was directed to confront demonstrators near Homs. Their commander said that the protesters were armed terrorists, but when Awdeh arrived he saw only men and women with their families: boys perched atop their fathers' shoulders, girls with their faces painted in the colors of the Syrian flag, mothers waving banners. He decided to desert.

By June 2011, there were hundreds like him; nearly every day, another uniformed soldier faced a camera, held up his military identity card, and professed support for the revolution for the entire world to see on YouTube. These deserters joined what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army. (When I met some of them just after I crossed the border, they told me, "Welcome to Free Syria.") Awdeh, with his aviator sunglasses and Dolce & Gabbana jeans, assumed command of a group of nearly a hundred fighters.

Many activists worried about the militarization of the conflict, which pulled peaceful protesters into a confrontation with a powerful army that they could not defeat. But in small towns like Taftanaz, where government soldiers had repeatedly put down demonstrations with gunfire and thrown activists in prison, desperation trumped long-term strategy. Abu Malek likened the actions of the rebels to those of a mother: "She may seem innocent, but try to take away her children and how will she act? Like a criminal animal. That's what we are being reduced to, in order to defend our families and our villages."

In Taftanaz, fighters from the FSA started protecting demonstrations, quietly standing in the back and watching for mukhabarat. For the first time, the balance of power shifted in favor of the revolution, so much so that government forces could no longer operate openly. Party officials and secret agents vanished, leaving the town to govern itself.

This created new problems: courts stopped working, trash piled high on the streets, and the police stayed home. 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. In some cases, the councils merged with pre-existing activist networks called local coordinating committees. They in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council, which in Taftanaz and surrounding towns was the only form of government the citizenry recognized.

Syrian authorities repeatedly sent tanks in to Taftanaz and neighboring villages, targeting the new council members. After every intrusion, the rebels would reassemble. But on April 3, the Syrian forces returned to Taftanaz, this time to end the insurgency there once and for all.

When I reached Taftanaz on April 9, the air in the town stank of manure, hay, and gunpowder. The smell of smoke grew more powerful near houses, and once inside you found your eyes watering and your throat burning. Many of the locals who were left had taken to wearing surgical masks. Every fourth or fifth house was completely destroyed; many of those still standing had black streaks climbing outward from the window frames. Boys were scrubbing graffiti off the walls: assad, or the country burns, signed by the assad death brigade 76.

For three days I explored the gutted town, speaking to everyone I could about the battle. I spent my nights in a neighboring village-government soldiers conducted raids in the evening- but each day I returned to learn more.

On the first day, I sought out Abu Malek's relatives-almost everyone knew him-and found Abdullah Rami, a young man with sunken cheeks and a hard stare. He had been a university student, but "the revolution makes choices for you," he said, and now he was a rebel sniper. He described for me what had happened on April 3.

It began early in the morning, when helicopters appeared above Taftanaz and fired into the town center. Then, around 7:00 a.m., the mortars started. (A farmer named Muhammad Abdul Haseeb was at home at the time. "I got all the children and women together and ran out," he told me later. "One of the shells dropped really close by, but I couldn't see where it hit. Later I learned that it killed my brother.")

Most of the residents escaped. By around 9:00 a.m., tanks had arrived at the outskirts of town, and they shot at anything that moved. A plump forty-six-year-old man named Massous had loaded dozens of relatives into his truck and was about to turn onto the main highway when he saw a tank about a thousand feet away. It fired and hit his truck, killing his father and mother and injuring his ten-year-old daughter. Around the same time, nearly a hundred men gathered inside a house near the town's center to decide whether to retreat, as rebels elsewhere had done, or stay and fight. A few dozen chose the former, but most stayed. "We didn't want to end up like other cities, crawling back after the army leaves," Rami said. "Our neighbors needed something to believe in."

As the army shelled the town, the men spread throughout the warren of low-slung concrete buildings, onto rooftops, into homes, and through alleyways. Rami went to the main road through town and helped bury I.E.D.'s, most of them assembled in Turkey and smuggled Photograph of a young man walking past burned cars, into the country, and rebels hid nearby with the detonators.

Around noon, a tank approached the building where Rami was hiding. A second pulled up alongside it and swung its turret slowly around. Then Rami heard a deafening boom and saw the tank pop up in the air-an I.E.D. explosion, which he had captured on video and later showed off proudly. After a few minutes, the second tank was also struck as it tried to retreat.

Across town, another rebel group was in a firefight, and Rami could hear the reports from their Kalashnikovs. The rebels used civilian houses as cover and, at one point, trapped soldiers in an alleyway and shot them all. By late afternoon, though, the advantage had shifted to the army. Soldiers left their tanks to circumvent the I.E.D.'s and fought their way to the center of town. They surrounded a house full of rebels, a few of whom climbed to the roof to signal surrender. The troops responded with heavy fire, killing almost everyone inside and out.

By sunset, soldiers returned to their tanks or were billeted in homes (both sides, lacking night-vision goggles, avoided fighting after dark). The rebels regrouped in a house on the town's edge. There Rami learned that his brother had been killed.

A short while later, his mother sent word to him that soldiers had found the shelter where Taftanaz's women were hiding. They threatened to take revenge on the women if the fight continued. Dejected and cornered, the men voted to retreat. By sunrise, there were no rebels left.

Saleh Ghazal, a member of Taftanaz's large Ghazal clan, was a stubborn man. After a sniper's bullet struck his grandson Muhammad, a medical volunteer who had tended to wounded fighters, his family decided to flee. But the old man insisted on staying behind. He would mourn in his own way, he said, in the home he had grown old in, in the town his grandson had died for. And besides, he figured, the army would have no interest in an eightytwo- year-old.

On the morning of April 4, soldiers from the 76th Armored Brigade returned to town. They came with officials from the Military Intelligence Directorate and armed Alawite civilians referred to as shabeeha. When soldiers burst through Saleh Ghazal's front door, he hid upstairs in his bedroom. They raced from room to room, shouting out the names of his family members, loudly enough for neighbors to hear. When they found Ghazal, they shot him, then lit his corpse on fire. As it burned, they went downstairs and wrote a message on the wall in silver paint: nobody controls syria except bashar. Then they doused the floors with gasoline and set the place ablaze.

The soldiers visited every house in the neighborhood. As they neared Mustafa Ahmed Ahad's place, he went into the bathroom and locked the door. Soldiers ransacked the house and set it on fire. A few days later, Mustafa's eighty-seven-year-old father, Ahmed, returned to find his house a pile of blackened rubble and his son missing. Eventually he found Mustafa's charred remains buried under slabs of fallen concrete. "He was poor, he was a worker," the elder Ahad said. "He was a grandfather, he didn't go to demonstrations."

A large number of women, the elderly, and aid workers had taken refuge in the basement of Rahim Ghazal's centrally located home. "They broke into the house and found the door to the basement," one of the women told me. "The gunmen ordered everyone upstairs and took the men with them for questioning. They ordered us to go back downstairs, and then we heard gunfire."

Government forces dragged nine men and boys outside, lined them up against a wall, and executed them. The soldiers came back to the basement and selected five additional men, then took them to a nearby shop, where they were lined up and executed. Two volunteers for the Red Crescent were shot in the yard outside Ghazal’s house. By the time Syrian troops left that evening, there was not much left of Taftanaz. In each house, the story was the same: any male who was found was summarily executed, and his house was burned.

At least forty-nine civilians were killed in the massacre, and nearly 500 houses were destroyed. On my second day in town, I saw a crowd of wailing women surrounding a pickup truck. In the back, flies swarmed around a tar black decomposing body. The missing flesh above the mandibles exposed what looked to be a set of gold teeth. A group of men pushed a teenage girl toward the truck; upon seeing the teeth, she crumpled with a shriek of recognition. It was Jamil Setoot, an office worker who had been heading to his job in Aleppo on the morning of April 3. As he waited by the highway for a taxi, soldiers were moving into Taftanaz. They shot him and tossed him into a field, then killed the cows and sheep in the area for good measure. When the property’s owner returned days later he found Setoot’s body lying among the animal carcasses

I went to Abu Malek's home and found that it, too, had been burned to the ground. After relatives cleared the rubble, they found a body too badly disfigured to identify. They added it and about thirty others to a mass grave on the town's edge. Many of the tombstones there mark the remains of Malek's relatives. At some point during the killing, locals watched as a Syrian soldier refused to carry out an order and was executed. They retrieved his body later and interred him in the mass grave, marking his tombstone simply as soldier.

A second mass grave sat on the opposite side of town, where more corpses are buried, rebels alongside civilians. Next to it, a large hole had been dug. A little boy was playing nearby, and when he saw me peering into the hole, he pointed to it and said, "For when they come back."

Ibrahim Matar served in the army unit that put down the early protests in Daraa. He didn't believe the government's assertions that the protests were organized by Al Qaeda, but he felt it was too dangerous to desert. When he finished his service, in November 2011, he came home to a transformed Taftanaz: ordinary people were running the town. "It was like a renaissance," he said, "a new look at life."

During the massacre, he fought alongside the rebels and then abandoned the town at night. When he returned to his scorched home, he headed straight for his prized library. "I saw the burned paper," he told me, "and tears came to my eyes." He had been studying for a master's degree in English translation and had maintained the library for years, collecting books by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett. "Some say Godot is God," he said, "but I say he is hope. Our revolution is now waiting for Godot."

Matar brought me to a mosque that sits next to one of the mass graves. Inside, there were heaps of clothes, boxes of Turkish biscuits, and crates of bottled water. An old bald man with a walrus mustache studied a ledger with intensity while a group of old men around him argued about how much charity they could demand from Taftanaz's rich to rebuild the town. This was the public-affairs committee, one of the village's revolutionary councils. The mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, "This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that." He turned to me and explained, "We've gone to every house in town and determined what they need"-he pointed at the ledger-"and compared it with what donations come in. Everything gets recorded and can be seen by the public."

All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting-twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands-it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers' council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I'll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices-which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, "we have to give to each as he needs."

It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution's egalitarian rhetoric-they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society's bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade.

"We have to take from the rich in our village and give to the poor," Matar told me. He had joined the Taftanaz student committee, the council that plans protests and distributes propaganda, and before April 3 he had helped produce the town's newspaper, Revolutionary Words. Each week, council members laid out the text and photos on old laptops, sneaked the files into Turkey for printing, and smuggled the finished bundles back into Syria. The newspaper featured everything from frontline reporting to disquisitions on revolutionary morality to histories of the French Revolution. ("This is not an intellectual's revolution," Matar said. "This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.")

Most opposition towns elect a delegate to one of the fifty or so district-wide councils across the country. At the next level up is the Syrian Revolution General Command, the closest thing to a nationwide revolutionary institution. It claims to represent 70 percent of the district-wide councils. The SRGC coordinates protests and occasionally gives the movement political direction: activists in Taftanaz told me that they sometimes followed its suggestions concerning their publications.

The SRGC sends representatives to the Syrian National Council, the expatriate body based in Turkey that has been Washington's main interlocutor, but the relationship between the two organizations is complicated, and many in Taftanaz expressed their disdain for the SNC. "Who are they?" Omar asked me. "What have they done? They are busy talking to foreigners but they don't know the situation inside Syria."

I asked Elizabeth O'Bagy, an analyst who studies the Syrian opposition at the Institute for the Study of War, about the U.S. approach to these two different rebel organizations. She said she doubted the usefulness of "supporting a group like the SNC, which on paper pays tribute to all the Western ideals we hold dear but has absolutely no legitimacy on the ground."

Washington officials, however, have said they prefer to deal with known quantities like the SNC rather than the grassroots opposition, which operates deep inside the country and whose leaders usually stay anonymous to stay alive. To complicate matters, some towns have competing councils.

The various bodies have only recently begun to formalize their vision of a post-Assad society, even if their constituent elements are already carrying this vision out in practice.

The village of al-Fua runs right up against Binnish. The two look almost indistinguishable-the same shabby buildings, the same patches of drying olive groves. But whereas Binnish is a town mobilized from top to bottom in support of the revolution, al-Fua is a Shia village, a rarity in the swath of Sunni countryside around Taftanaz, and its residents support Assad's government.

Many Sunnis see the Shia and Shia Alawites as inseparable from the regime; the Shia and Alawites, for their part, fear Sunni reprisals. Revolutionaries in Binnish told me that their town had escaped the army's northern offensive because they promised to massacre al- Fua if they were touched. Even Matar, with his talk of the French Revolution and equality, told me, "I have relations with everyone, with Christians, with Druze, with all kinds of people-but not with Shia."

Liberal activists from Syria's cities are dismayed at this divide, but theirs is a revolt so different from that of the conservative countryside that they seem, at times, like two different uprisings stitched together. The revolutionaries have failed to make significant headway in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's two largest cities, where, despite a few recent bombings, the alliance of the industrialist aristocracy and the Assad security apparatus remains firmly in place, and where the well-heeled see the countryside awash in chaos (a Bloomberg headline from April read: "Syria Elite Dance to Dawn as Risk of Assad Collapse Fades").

Rebels in rural communities have been pulled deep into asymmetric warfare, which has opened the uprising to more radical influences. Omar told me that Salafis, ultraconservative Islamists who have operated underground for years, have openly joined the revolt in Binnish, although "they keep to themselves."

On the way back to the border, our driver celebrated the Sunni fighters and sang songs poking fun at the Shia, Iran, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Omar had arranged for his comrades to take me back to Turkey while he stayed on in Binnish to prepare the next issue of Revolutionary Words. Darkness had fallen, the army offensive had given way to a shaky ceasefire, and rebels thought they had the roads to themselves. But when we approached a checkpoint, it wasn't clear whether it was controlled by rebels, by the army, or by the Alawite shabeeha. The driver swerved abruptly onto the shoulder and sent one of the passengers into a nearby village to fetch another vehicle, which carried me onward via side roads while the first car headed through the checkpoint as a decoy.

We reached the border just after dawn. I ran across a field with a Syrian refugee family at my side, heading toward a barbed-wire fence. We found a gap and crawled through to Turkey.

When I handed Abu Malek my notebook filled with the names of the Taftanaz dead, he fell silent. After a while, he said, "I feel like I am about to burst." He pointed to the names: "He was just a teacher; he had a small piece of land, that's all; I had spoken to him just last week." Nineteen members of Malek's family had been killed.

Later that day, another relative from Taftanaz made it across the border to report that seven more bodies had been found, some of them apparently executed in a lineup. "Before, I just wanted to kill Bashar al-Assad," Malek said. "But now I must kill all of his family."

Had it been wise for the guerrillas to try to defend Taftanaz rather than retreat, as they had in other towns? It was a question that Malek said Riad al- Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, had put to him at their headquarters in a Turkish border camp. "I shouted at him, 'Who are you to ask me anything?' " Malek recalled. " 'You sit here and eat and sleep and talk to the media! We're inside, we aren't cowards like you.' "

Malek called the Free Syrian Army a "fiction" meant to give Western governments an impression of unity. When I asked Ibrahim Matar's commander in Taftanaz about the FSA leadership, he answered, "If I ever see those dogs here I'll shoot them myself." The Turkey-based commanders exert no control over armed rebel groups on the inside; each of the hundreds of insurgent battalions operate autonomously, although they often coordinate their activities.

The ceasefire barely held up for a day, and in June a U.N. official described the conflict as a civil war. In Turkey, Malek continued to raise funds and buy weapons for the Taftanaz rebels. Once, I went with him to a tiny office in a working class section of Antakya, where he haggled with a man over the price of roadside-bomb detonators, the use of which Malek said he had learned from "a friend in another country."

Some of the rebel groups had contacts with the United States, which was helping to coordinate the flow of money from the governments of the Gulf states. Others were developing their own patrons, a sort of privatization of the armed movement similar to what took place in Libya. Malek received a steady stream of visitors, mostly wealthy businessmen, from the Gulf. He knew that such pacts were dangerous, but he believed the exigencies of war demanded them.

Still, in Taftanaz the revolt felt intensely local. On my last afternoon there, as the muezzin's noon call to prayer sounded, I walked through the town's central square. It was Friday, the traditional day of protest in the Muslim world. You could feel everywhere the heavy atmosphere of defeat: the town had been reduced to heaps of rotting trash and broken concrete, and not much else. And yet after the prayers were over, men and boys left the mosques and headed toward the square. Waving the old pre-Assad Syrian flag, they chanted, "God loves the martyr! God is the greatest!"

The Syrian army's helicopters buzzed overhead, watching. Protesters climbed atop the ruined buildings surrounding the square and waved their banners. This was the first demonstration since the massacre. Here and there in the melee men burst into tears as they saw friends and relatives for the first time. The protest was a ritual of survival, part of a revolution that seemingly can't be won yet somehow refuses to be extinguished. On a mound of twisted metal and concrete shards that had once been a house, a group unfurled a banner that read, even from the rubble, we will fight the regime.

[Anand Gopal writes frequently about the Middle East and South Asia. His book about the war in Afghanistan is forthcoming from Henry Holt.]

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