The Gulf and Islamism in Syria: myths and misconceptions
By Michael Karadjis
June 3, 2014 -- Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Over the last year, the sectarian (mainly Sunni versus Alawite) element of the Syrian conflict has markedly grown, within an uprising that began as a multi-sectarian popular democratic uprising against Syria’s tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The hold of Sunni sectarianism is by no means universal among the insurgent Syrian masses and their myriad of civil and armed resistance organisations; on the contrary, despite persistent myths, the revolution still contains a powerful secular wing (both within the civil uprising and the Free Syrian Army), and even the largest parts of the clearly political-Islamist wings are not specifically sectarian; and many are markedly moderate Islamists. However, there is no denying that a dangerous level of Sunni sectarianism has grown, especially among the more extreme ‘jihadist’ fringe affiliated to al-Qaida, and that this is an entirely negative and reactionary development.
As I explained in a recent article (), the Assad regime bears the main responsibility for the exacerbation of sectarianism in the Syrian conflict, on both sides. Though the regime is purportedly “secular,” it is heavily dominated by members of the Alawite religious minority to which Assad and his ruling family belong, especially the military-security apparatus, and this fact combined with the level of slaughter conducted against the mostly Sunni insurgent peasantry and urban poor has facilitated a sectarian mirror among parts of the opposition seeking the overthrow of Assad’s rule.
“Main responsibility” does not mean the Islamic extremists are not also responsible for their own actions; it simply means that overwhelming responsibility rests with the regime which uses its massive superiority in advanced weaponry to extraordinarily barbaric effect against the people who are justifiably in revolt against the tyranny, and it is this context of a Syria dominated by such a regime, by such an awesomely armed capitalist state apparatus, that leads to similar kinds of barbarism, whether in thought or in practice, among parts of the opposition.
In the past I put the blame on other regional states, mostly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni-based Gulf monarchies, for deliberately fuelling the Sunni-sectarian Islamist parts of the opposition, in order to help Assad divide the Syrian masses on religious lines, thereby undermining the initial democratic character of the uprising.
For example, in my article "The Geopolitics of the Syrian Uprising" (http://links.org.au/node/2991) in 2012 I wrote:
“…the Saudis and Qataris are pushing their own very ambitious regional realignment, using parts of the Muslim Brotherhood as a proxy, for their own reasons, while the AKP regime in Turkey is doing much the same for similar reasons as well as other specific reasons related to Kurdistan … the Saudi-Qatari need to derail the Syrian revolution coalesced with the regional rivalry with Iran to form a policy of promoting the Sunni fundamentalist forces active within the Syrian opposition in a bid to not only try to take control of the uprising – as elsewhere – but also to foment Sunni-Alawite sectarian conflict, to turn popular revolution into sectarian bloodletting, killing two birds with the one stone. Given the fact that there is a large Shia minority in Saudi Arabia in the eastern oilfields region, where rebellion is centred, and that the Shia majority led the uprising in Bahrain against the minority Sunni sectarian monarchy, this fomenting of sectarianism regionally also allows these monarchies to demonise the uprisings in their countries as nothing but Iranian subversion. There seems little doubt that the Saudi-Qatari aim is the destruction of Assad’s regime and the conquest of power by a Brotherhood-led regime, effecting a victory in the regional rivalry with Iran and a sectarian victory over their own Shia minorities/majorities.”
In early 2013, in "Is there a US war on Syria? The Syrian Uprising, the US and Israel" (http://links.org.au/node/3344), I referred to this “Gulf intervention” as a second “counterrevolution” alongside the Assad regime’s bloody counterrevolution:
“… these two relatively powerful states are engaged in an aggressive regional “sub-imperialist” project, with the dual aims of rivaling Iranian influence in the region, and turning the democratic impulse of the Arab Spring, including its Syrian chapter, into a Sunni-Shia sectarian war. The democratic impulse was and is a mortal danger to their absolute monarchies just as much as to regime’s like that of Assad, as Saudi Arabia’s suppression of the uprising in Bahrain shows. Their intervention is thus a counterrevolution trying to hijack a revolution.”
In both articles, I stressed that Israel held the complete opposite point of view to the Gulf states, that in fact it saw Assad as the lesser evil to any of the forces, democratic-secular, Islamist or jihadist, trying to overthrow it; and that the Saudi-Qatari position should not be confused with the US position (pushing for a cosmetic ‘Yemeni solution’ rearrangement within the regime to defuse the revolution), as these states are acting on their own interests and are not US puppets. While in this article I will show why my earlier view on the Saudi-Qatari role was wrong, to the extent there was any truth in the claim they support Islamists in Syria, then the clear distinction I made to US and Israeli views and interests remains.
The view I will demonstrate to be true here does not deny the dangerous level of sectarianism among parts of the opposition, nor that this is a deadly danger to the revolution that must be fought tooth and nail; indeed it has the same effect in reverse of solidifying the sectarianism, or even merely the fear, of some of the regime’s base of support among minorities. This fits in with my discussion about ceasefire, of there being no military solution and so on, points I have continuously made, and the view expressed in my original article that therefore “all the non-sectarian parts of the resistance need to wage a relentless struggle against the influence of this destructive, reactionary sectarianism within its ranks.”
Indeed, it is still correct to refer to the more extreme sectarian and reactionary elements as a second, mirror-image, counterrevolution. However, this side of the counterrevolution is led unambiguously by the formerly al-Qaida affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), an organisation which is at war with all other parts of the resistance (secular, Islamist and even the more moderate al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra); which is widely suspected of being in cahoots with the regime; and which certainly has no connection with the Saudi and Gulf monarchies who rightly view al-Qaida as their mortal enemy.
The issue therefore is the relative role of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in the promotion of sectarianism on the anti-Assad side. While they may have played some role, as I noted in my previous article, “a hard look at the reality forces me to say that this factor has been greatly exaggerated and misunderstood” (including by myself).
I have no special desire to want to admit that I was (partially) wrong in these cases. I have no political/emotional attachment to not attacking reactionary and tyrannical regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and therefore blaming them, along with the regime, for the sectarian carnage. In fact, this discourse is very neat and comforting to me, and to other leftists, including many who probably found my earlier articles commendable for exactly this reason. And the rationale appears to be excellent.
However, there is one problem with this entire scenario: it only bears a very minimal connection to facts, if any. Even if you look back at the articles where I wrote these things, it would not be difficult to notice the lack of concrete evidence I presented. My “hard look at reality” can be summed up quite simply: I read more.
The Gulf and Syrian Islamism: States or private networks?
In their excellent article “Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria” (), Bassma Kodmani and Felix Legrand note that the widely discussed funding of the rebellion from “the Gulf” by no means refers to funding by Gulf regimes: /
“In the Middle East, funding is overwhelmingly from Islamic sources and brings with it a conservative agenda. Money circulates through complex channels, some of which are controlled by governments but many of which are managed through private business and religious networks. These networks were first established in the late 1970s and early 1980s to support the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation, and have been re-activated during conflicts in the Balkans, Algeria, Yemen and Iraq over the last three decades. While some of the funds are channeled with the blessing of the governments of Gulf countries, thus making them directly responsible for the Islamization of the resistance, these networks are often richly endowed with private resources and are in some cases too powerful for governments to confront, even if they chose to.”
In fact, in the case of Syria in particular, we find that general, sweeping statements such as this are often of little use. But even this general statement makes it clear that only “some” of this “Islamic” funding is state-connected; overwhelmingly this funding and arming of “Islamist” groups comes from non-government “Islamist” networks – of which, more below.
Moreover, we need to connect this discussion back to the main problem: the alleged weakness of the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) vis-a-vis Islamist militias. This is usually explained as being caused by better armed and funded Islamist groups attracting more fighters, compared to the lack of arms in the hands of secular groups. As has been very well-documented, in most cases these fighters have no interest in the Islamist or jihadist ideologies of the groups they join – more important is being able to fight effectively and/or to help provide for their impoverished families while they fight. This is normally explained by the fact that the “secular” Western imperialist powers provide zero arms to the secular FSA, while “the Gulf” heavily supplies the Islamist groups. The first part of this equation is absolutely true; the second part is true in as much as we mean non-state Islamist networks in the Gulf, rather than the regimes.
Above all, what the study by Kodmani and Legrand makes abundantly clear right throughout is that it is the jihadist groups, particularly the two al-Qaida franchises (Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS), that are better armed than both the secular FSA and the moderate Islamists, and that above all it is these groups recruiting on the basis of better arms and funding; many moderate Islamist groups are little better armed and funded than the FSA. Yet while the report notes that the Gulf regimes have funded some moderate Islamist militias – more on that below – no-one who is remotely informed about the Syrian situation suggests the Gulf regimes have armed or funded these anti-Gulf regime jihadist groups.
Initial Gulf reaction to uprising: Support Assad
My response will consist of five parts. First, the initial reaction
of the Gulf to the Syrian uprising, which was support for the regime,
and what this means in terms of the theory. Second, who Qatar and Saudi
Arabia began backing when they finally turned against the regime. Third,
my opinion on why this occurred. Fourth, the sharp Saudi turn from
mid-2012 towards the bourgeois-secularist leaderships and the reasons
for this. Five, a look at some other problems with the theory.
First, whether or not we judge that the Gulf later decided to use sectarianism against the revolution, that was not their first response. Indeed, the first response of the three regional powers who later emerge as the key backers of the Syrian resistance – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – was to use Assad against the revolution.
For example, on 3 April 2011, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani sent a letter to Assad declaring Qatar’s support for Syria amid “attempts at destabilization” (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/nownews/qatari_emir_voices_qatars_support_for_syria). In late March, United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan likewise called Assad to reaffirm that the UAE stands by Damascus (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/latestnews/uae_reaffirms_support_for_syria). Qatar’s close ally, Erdogan’s AKP regime in Turkey, likewise offered Damascus support, only with the mild proviso that Assad carry out some of the “reform” that he had promised. The Saudi Arabian monarchy initially made similar robust declarations of support to the regime; indeed, even as late as July, just as Qatar was finally suspending relations with Damascus, Saudi Arabia stepped in with a long-term 375 million riyal (US100 million) loan to Damascus (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MH11Ak02.html); this rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, we will see, played as much a role as the later antipathy either felt towards Damascus.
Even when the Gulf Cooperation Council did finally urge an end to “bloodshed” in Syria and called for major reforms on August 6, expressing their “sorrow” about the situation, they still stressed their support for “preserving the security, stability, and unity of Syria” (http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/08/06/161072.html).
Notably, this was no different to US policy; responding to questions in Congress regarding the different US reaction to events in Libya, where NATO was then intervening, and Syria, Hillary Clinton responded: “There is a different leader in Syria now [meaning Bashar, as opposed to his father]. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer” (http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/FTN_032711.pdf). Even after months of NATO bombing Libya, and Assad slaughtering protesters in Syria, the US was still urging “dialogue” between regime and opposition in Syria (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/30/syria-plan-reform-bashar-al-assad).
Of course this initial strong support to Damascus can be explained simply as “class trumps sectarianism” when revolution threatens all, before new tactics had to be considered. However, a look at the situation on the eve of the revolts also shows clearly that the allegedly strong “sectarian” motivations for backing Sunni “Islamists” in Syria by these powers was absent; if it thus came as an afterthought later, as a new strategy for deflecting the revolution as many have suggested, then there was nothing necessary about this particular course of counterrevolution being chosen.
Strong Gulf connections to regime
In fact, Qatar and Turkey had been the closest allies of the Assad regime in the region; the Assad, al-Thani and Erdogan families even had Black Sea holidays together. This is connected to the fact that, despite common misperceptions nowadays, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which Qatar was sponsoring, and which is related to the ruling AKP in Turkey, was not particularly sectarian towards Shia; in fact Turkey also had excellent relations with Iran at the time, and in the Lebanon disputes, where Saudi Arabia had backed the Sunni Future Movement against Hezbollah and other groups connected to Syria, Qatar in fact had been pro-Hezbollah – probably, if for no other reason, to spite its Saudi rival. The close relationship between Hamas (the Palestinian wing of the MB) and Hezbollah was another example.
More generally, as has been widely analysed, this alliance was not just about leaders liking each other, or about lack of sectarianism: it was also about the fact that Assad Junior’s neo-liberal reforms had brought loads of foreign capital into Syria, much of it from the Gulf, and the star in that show was none other than Qatari capital.
Despite Qatar and Turkey, however, it may be argued that Saudi Arabia and Iran already saw themselves as geopolitical rivals, and thus promoting sectarianism, or at least using existing sectarian alignments in the region to bolster one’s geopolitical position against the other, was logical. This logic had manifested itself around the middle of the last decade over Lebanon, when rival March 8 and March 14 coalitions of Lebanese sectarian parties lined up with Saudi Arabia on one side and Syria and Iran on the other. However, this blimp in Saudi-Syrian relations masks the fact that a Saudi-Syrian alliance had been the guarantor of rule by a coalition of sectarian parties, representing the rival wings of the Lebanese oligarchy, from the Taiff agreement in 1990 right up until 2005.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the 2005 shakedown was basically a rearrangement to prepare a new deal for Lebanese capitalist stability. In late 2010, Assad and Saudi King Abdullah met in Damascus and exchanged “senior Orders of Merit,” in preparation for their trip to Beirut, where they were photographed holding hands, to hammer out an agreement between Future Movement head Hariri and Hezbollah head Nasrallah, known as the Syrian-Saudi Initiative, to revive the 1990-2005 order in a new package. In fact, claiming the road to stability in Beirut ran through Damascus, Abdullah even instructed Hariri “to grant Hezbollah all the key government posts it was seeking for itself and allies in the March 8 alliance, and to issue a cabinet policy statement that pledged to “protect and embrace” the arms of Hezbollah” – indicating just how completely removed Saudi policy was from some kind of fundamentalist “anti-Shiite” sectarianism at the time of the outbreak of the Syrian uprising (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MH11Ak02.html).
Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood
Qatar finally suspended relations with Damascus months later, on July 17, after pro-regime protesters in Syria, angry at (Qatar-funded) Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Syrian uprising, pelted the Qatari embassy in Damascus with eggs, rocks and vegetables. Saudi Arabia eventually followed suit and broke relations in August. The fundamental reason was that the Assad regime’s spectacularly, and surprisingly (even for such a regime) brutal repression had vastly expanded the uprising, and by July-August, while still overwhelmingly a civil uprising facing machine guns to the chest, some parts of the revolution had begun to fight back with arms. Recognising there was no chance of Assad crushing the revolt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the US slowly moved to a new strategy: the Yemeni solution, aiming to maintain the core of the capitalist regime, especially its military-security apparatus, in power, but for Assad and his immediate henchmen to step down, and bring some leading bourgeois oppositionists into the regime, to defuse the revolution.
There is no great body of evidence that the Gulf states and Turkey immediately chose to direct all support to Sunni Islamists (let alone hard-line Salafis) and none to the secular FSA; however, to the extent that there is some evidence of connections to Islamist militias in this early period, ironically it is religiously moderate, and less-sectarian, Qatar that seemed to play this role rather than the Saudi regime with its extremist internal religious regime and well-developed anti-Shia discourse.
Turkey hosted the Syrian National Council, the first exile-based opposition body, which was led by veteran Communist George Sabra, but was largely dominated by exile-based Muslim Brotherhood cadres. Qatar had already adopted the MB as its horse throughout the region (in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and now Syria), and as a soft-Islamist party, the AKP was closely connected. However, as an exile-based group, it initially had little connection with the Free Syrian Army as it emerged on the ground in Syria, largely led by defecting Syrian officers, with a strong secular and Syrian nationalist background.
In March 2012, a new coordinating body was set up between the SNC and the FSA, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey agreeing to direct funds via the FSA external command, also based in Turkey. However, to what extent this aid got to the FSA on the ground, and the politics of which FSA groups got it and which didn’t, and even the relations between the exile based FSA leadership and the FSA on the ground, are all issues around which there is little clarity even today.
It wasn’t until early to mid-2012 that specifically Islamist armed militias began to form in Syria. By all accounts, the growth of a moderate Islamist section of the revolution, alongside its more secular component, was a home-grown, “organic” development, based among the more socially conservative Sunni peasantry, and the urban poor in the new sub-urban shantytowns, who had been ravaged by Assad junior’s neo-liberal reforms, and who had traditionally been much less impacted by the official “secularism” of the regime and its bourgeois and urban upper middle class base. In addition, compared to the south of Syria, the north has tended to be more conservative as a whole (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentaryanalysis/the-southern-front).
Working via its Turkish ally to the north, some Qatari and MB funding thus began to go to a number moderate Islamist formations in the north, some with tenuous MB connections. These included the Suquor al-Sham brigade in Idlib, formed in early 2012, the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade in Aleppo, formed in mid-2012, and the nation-wide network Ahfad al-Rasoul, which also originated in Idlib. However, these groups all considered themselves to be part of the FSA, and the MB itself mainly works through non-Islamist-specific channels such as the Syrian National Council and on the ground with the FSA, so the extent to which Qatari state funding went specifically to Islamist as opposed to secular FSA bodies is much less certain than often assumed.
Like the MB itself, these soft Islamist militias claimed to support democracy and to want to work for a more “Islamist” order gradually via democratic means. The report by Kodmani and Legrand (see above) notes that these “moderate or mainstream Islamists, who should be clearly distinguished from the extremist and Jihadi groups, reflect the moderate Islam, which Syrians like to call social Islam traditionally prevalent among the Sunni community in Syria and therefore are part of the social fabric of the country.” It further notes that “the political leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to a democratic and pluralistic agenda for post-Assad Syria. This is clearly stated in the political platform of the Muslim Brotherhood published in 2004 and re-confirmed in a document published in 2012.”
Far from promoting sectarianism, the strikingly moderate Liwa
al-Tawhid is well-known for protecting local Christians in Aleppo
against jihadist threats (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Sep-21/232025-christian-hostel-in-aleppo-has-own-view-of-jihadist-rebels.ashx#axzz2gfb4z1J2);
while Suquor al-Sham leader, Ahmed Issa, though seen as marginally more
hard-line as an Islamist, does not push sectarianism, declaring he
“welcomes an alliance with any movement or sect, including the Alawite
sect, in order to achieve our goal which is to overthrow this regime” (https://www.academia.edu/5825228/Syrian_Jihadism).
It could thus be claimed that to the extent that Qatar and the MB did eventually promote a number of moderate Sunni Islamist forces, which was part of the opposition becoming more “Sunni” in a general sense, none had any relation to “jihadism,” and none were even remotely connected to conceptions of “sectarian war” against the Alawi or Shia. Moreover, as members of the various and changing coalitions of military forces under the general title of “FSA,” these forces were officially fighting for a government program that only talked about democratic republic and so on; despite the MB’s role in the SNC, it had no “Islamist” program whatsoever.
Saudi Arabia’s early Islamist influence
The role of Saudi Arabia was much less prominent at this early stage, but it was only at this stage that we can talk about a Saudi relationship with Islamist forces at all. Due to its hostility to the MB, and rivalry with Qatar, Saudi Arabia initially avoided specifically Islamist groups, and to the extent that it may have tried to push a more “Islamist” framework, it chose to do this through influence within the mainstream FSA, led by military defector Riad Mousa al-Asaad; its strategy was always more aligned with attempting to co-opt “power secularists,” particularly with military connections (more on this below).
The Saudis’ main connection to Sunni Islamism at this early stage seems to have been via an influential “televangelist” Saudi-based Syrian preacher, Adnan al-Ar’ur. He had been known for years using his radio show to debate Shia preachers and was clearly sectarian in his outlook. His fervent support for the uprising gained him much support in Syria, but there is much less evidence that his sectarian ideas were influential as such. Staying within the framework of the FSA, the regime was able to use his sermons to slander the FSA, and even dub him the “voice of the FSA” in order to taint it with the brush of sectarianism, an assertion the FSA vigorously denied.
His most infamous quote was one where he said that those Alawites supporting the regime and who “violated sanctities” (presumed to mean who raped women) would be chopped up and fed to dogs after the victory. While this statement was obviously barbaric and grist in the regime’s propaganda mill, in the same speech he also said that “no harm would be done to those (Alawites) who remained neutral” and “as for those supporting the revolution, they will be with us” (Thomas Pierret, 2013, Religion and State in Syria, Cambridge Middle East Studies), while also endorsing an open letter by the Muslim Brotherhood and the League of Syrian Ulama to the Syrian religious community stressing that “none would be condemned on the basis of his communal identity” after the revolution. Reassuring? Perhaps not. But the issues here are, firstly, that apparent Saudi support for someone like Ar’ur was somewhat anomalous (as we will see below); secondly, that his role was temporary, before the Saudis brought him to order and then his role and influence disappeared; and finally, the question of chicken and egg in this connection.
Chicken and egg: the Gulf and Syrian Islamism
The question here regarding this Qatari support for moderate Islamist militias, and this Saudi connection to Ar’ur, is that of cause and effect.
It is my view now that both the growing “Islamism” and the growing Sunni sectarianism – two factors that, while related, should not be confused – were essentially home-grown (the first related to the class divide the characterised the revolution, the second related more specifically to the terror unleashed by the Alawi regime), and it was this dynamic, together with the breathtaking level that the terror and repression against the Sunni peasantry reached, that tended to draw in the Gulf states, pressured them to live up to their claims to be protectors of Sunni Islam in a situation where the regime is creating a new Palestinian-style diaspora, rather than the other way around; though of course in any situation this complex, the chicken and egg will get confused throughout the course of events.
Syria expert Thomas Pierret explains it this way:
“A more accurate characterization is that the Syrian conflict’s internal dynamics have reshuffled regional alignments alongside unprecedentedly clear-cut sectarian dividing lines and that this has often occurred against the preferences of regional state actors − including Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is not to deny that regional actors sometimes contributed to deepening the sectarian character of the Syrian conflict. When they did so, however, it was generally as a by-product of expedient policies that followed sectarian patterns for lack of alternatives, but were not part of a deliberately sectarian agenda. In fact, outside of Syria, wholehearted exploitation of sectarian sentiments in relation to the conflict has often been the preserve of private actors that are not constrained by raison d’etre, in particular transnational Sunni (Salafi) and Shia networks” (http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/PB162.pdf).
Thus the role of the Gulf regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, has been greatly exaggerated and misunderstood; when they did come in to aid Sunni forces, it was more reactive, following the situation, rather than causal.
The case of the Saudi-based preacher for example. As shown above, the Saudi regime waited till mid-August 2011 to condemn the Assad regime, and as late as July gave Assad a massive loan; yet Ar’ur had been making fiery sermons supporting the uprising from the earliest repression of the Deraa protests in March. Such preaching had erupted all over the Gulf and throughout the region before either Saudi or Qatari moves against the regime; the existing sectarian dynamic in Syria led to widespread identification among the Sunni masses of the region with the new “Syrian Sunni Palestinians”; the Islamist and jihadist leaning sections of the bourgeoisie of the region sought to monopolise the sentiment; and the preachers gave them the ideology to “lead” it with.
A good case example of this process is the following description of the situation in Kuwait by Elizabeth Dickinson:
“For the last two years, (former) MPs like (Hamad al-) Matar (apparently close to the Brotherhood – MK), as well as Kuwaiti charities, tribes, and citizens have raised money – possibly hundreds of millions of dollars – for armed groups fighting the Syrian regime. In many ways, the financing is highly organized. Smartly aligned to a given theme, battle, or season, campaigns are broadcast on social media and advertised with signage and elegant prose.
“But Matar’s account offers a glimpse of just how uncontrollable — even random — this support has become. In Kuwait, private financing came into political vogue in Sunni circles, bringing aboard legions of public figures seeking to associate themselves with support for the Syrian rebels. That broad base of popular support among Sunnis has rendered the phenomenon nearly unstoppable for the Kuwaiti government.
“Suddenly, everyone in Kuwait knew which diwaniyas and charities had funded a brigade. And that visibility attracted a new cohort of donors. Kuwait’s large Sunni tribes held massive fundraisers, in one case reportedly raising $14 million in just five days. They became competitions: Could the Ajman tribe outbid the Shammar? Social pressure increased the take — and made participation a necessity for many of Kuwait’s most prominent politicians” (http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/12/04/shaping_the_syrian_conflict_from_kuwait).
The Gulf rulers, who initially wanted to support Assad, were carried by this wave, and had to appear to lead it in order to coopt it, prevent their enemies (the jihadists) from doing so, and thus protect their thrones (while Saudi Arabia and Qatar also tried to ensure leadership vis a vis each other).
Private Gulf funding associated with opposition to Gulf regimes.
Chris Slee, in a comment on my recent article where he defends the view I used to support, notes that, “to complicate the picture, it should be noted that not all Sunni-sectarian groups are backed by the US and the Gulf states. Some groups, such as ISIS, are backed by sectors of the bourgeoisie and clergy in the Gulf states that are opposed to the existing Gulf regimes. These sectors of the ruling classes oppose the Gulf regimes’ subservience to the US, but do so from a reactionary ideological position.” Chris particularly suggests that ISIS “could be a problem for the US in the future” as it “could be an obstacle” to the kind of Yemeni solution outcome the US aims to achieve.
This is all a monumental understatement. First of all, it is not only ISIS that is already (not “could in the future”) a massive problem for the US and Gulf ruling classes; this is true of all the hard-line Salafist groups and even the bulk of mainstream Islamist groups, all of which are relentlessly anti-imperialist, all of which reject any kind of solution that includes elements of the regime, and none of which the US has ever had anything to do with.
Second, it is not only “groups such as ISIS” which are backed by the Gulf opposition bourgeoisie rather than the regimes. When the early literature about Gulf support to Sunni Islamist rebels is looked back at more carefully, virtually all of it – at least that which offers any concrete evidence – is precisely about these private networks in the Gulf, the religious charities, the Salafist preachers, the oppositionist wings of the bourgeoisie backing the Syrian Islamists – not the regimes. The fact that they are based among wings of the opposition bourgeoisie is very crucial to this analysis. And it was this element of the preachers, funders and armers that dominated the wave of “Sunni solidarity” from the very outset in the latter part of 2011.
The source above describing the situation in Kuwait notes about the forces involved in this upsurge:
“Since 2009, a coalition of Islamist, tribal, and youth groups have
banded together to demand government and social reforms, among them an
end to perceived government favoritism toward the mostly-Shiite merchant
class. Now, Syria’s struggle seemed to fit into a narrative of Shiite
repression of the Sunni common man.
“Many of the constituencies most active in fundraising have also been the most vocal opposition to the government. Dozens of Islamist and Salafist MPs boycotted the last two elections, but their ability to draw people to the streets is still a looming reality in Kuwaiti politics.
“”The government cannot do anything because if they move against such activities, the Islamist parties will start shouting loudly against the government,” Bashar AlSayegh, the editor of Kuwait’s Al Jareeda newspaper, explained” (http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/12/04/shaping_the_syrian_conflict_from_kuwait).
The rise of Syrian al-Qaida
This giddy activity of the Gulf oppositionist bourgeoisie, preachers and Islamic charities fed into various wings of Islamist fighters in Syria, including, not surprisingly, al-Qaida, which appeared in Syria in early 2012.
At this time, around the end of 2011 and early 2012, the particular conjuncture had produced a mixture of factors that, when jumbled together with little analysis, could easily create the conspiracy theory that has dominated red-brown pro-Assad propaganda ever since. The escalating repression had by then generalised the armed component of the opposition (whether secular or Islamist), a natural political-social process; Saudi Arabia and Qatar were now firmly pro-opposition and to one extent or another had some vague links with some Islamist forces; preachers from the Gulf were launching anti-Assad propaganda that was also increasingly sectarian; Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaida, announced its formation in January 2012; and a number of terrorist bombings hit civilian targets in Damascus. Jumbled together, the UFOish theory of “US-Gulf-Jihadist wicked conspiracy to destroy Syria” had been hatched.
In reality, however, the entrance of al-Qaida into the conflict demonstrated just how far out of the hands of the Gulf monarchies (let alone the US) the Syrian uprising had gone. The ravings the conspiracists have continually made for several years now about “Saudi Arabia arming the jihadists” or even of “the US and al-Qaida” being on the same side are so breathtakingly absurd that it is difficult to know where to start.
A good place might be to remind people that it was al-Qaida that bombed the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon with hijacked American passenger planes, that most of the 21 terrorists were originally from Saudi Arabia, and that al-Qaida represented a wing of the Saudi bourgeoisie that was fed up with the narrow rule of the Saudi and Gulf monarchies, which both excluded the majority of their class from political power, and which kept their nation in subservience to US imperialism.
Anyone who thinks the Saudi nationality of most 9/11 attackers and the Saudi origin of al-Qaida means that the Saudi monarchy attacked the US in 2001 is welcome to their deluded world-view; such people also probably think that the Saudi monarchy is arming al-Qaida in Syria.
And the importance of this from the point of view of the launching of “sectarian war” in Syria is that it is overwhelmingly the al-Qaida franchises, Jabhat al-Nusra, and especially ISIS, that have forcefully inserted a violent sectarian discourse, and a run of actual sectarian crimes, into the Syrian rebellion, not the overwhelming majority of mainstream Islamist groups. And it was Jabhat al-Nusra in particular that took responsibility for some of those terrorist attacks in Damascus at the turn of 2011-2012, though not for all (and there is also evidence that the regime stage-managed at least some of them, see for example defector general Ahmed Tlass’s account: http://www.noria-research.com/2014/04/28/syria-testimony-of-general-ahmed-tlass-on-the-regime-and-the-repression/).
Furthermore, when getting back to trying to understand the issue here – why many Islamist forces are better armed than secular FSA forces – the biggest contrast is not in fact secular fighters versus Islamists, but the majority (secular and mainstream Islamists) versus the jihadist/al-Qaida forces. And the reason the latter are better armed than most has absolutely nothing to do with the fantasy of arms from their arch-enemies in the Gulf monarchies. Rather, their key strength is that the flow of arms and money to these jihadists from the anti-monarchial Gulf bourgeois opposition is facilitated by al-Qaida in Syria being an extension of al-Qaida in Iraq, which exists just across the open Syria-Iraq border in Iraq’s Sunni Anbar province. Thus with arms, organisation, infrastructure, cadres etc directly flowing between Iraq and Syria, we can say that the most clearly and violently sectarian part of the Islamist opposition is also the section which arose the least organically within Syria, but is also the section the least associated with the Gulf monarchies.
Saudi reaction to MB and jihadists: Turn secular!
The Saudi monarchy was now thus at a curious juncture. Opposed to the democratic revolution, it originally supported Assad, unconcerned with sectarian issues or even its rivalry with Iran. As the Sunni solidarity wave swept the region, the monarchy was drawn in to “support” it in order to not lose it; which coincided with the need to undermine the democratic thrust of the uprising by giving it a Sunni coloration, even if the regime didn’t initiate it; and as Iran was also drawn in, on the other side, this thus reignited regional rivalry with Iran and made it more of a zero-sum game for the Saudis geopolitically.
However, the radicalisation of that Sunni wave had now given rise to a third and fourth Saudi enemy (after democratic revolution and Shiite/Iranian sectarian/geopolitical opponent): the MB-linked militias backed by Qatar, and now the rise of these anti-Saudi jihadist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra – the whole of Syria looked like a mass mobilisation, on all sides, of mortal enemies of the House of Saud.
Hemmed in by the wrong kinds of Sunni Islamists, it may be surmised that the Saudis would find some “national”, non-al-Qaida-linked, Salafists to support as a wedge between the moderate Brotherhood and the radical jihadists, without the “international revolutionary” pretensions of either. An obvious choice could be the “national-jihadist” Ahrar al-Sham (AaS), set up in early 2012. Yet evidence for any Saudi support for AaS is remarkably thin. The fact is that AaS is one of the militias whose major funders are well-known, as Pierret explains, “it has been funded from the onset by the politicized wing of the Kuwaiti Salafi movement” whose leading ideologue Hakim al-Mutayri “holds views that are particularly abhorrent to Saudi rulers, namely a curious mixture of political liberalism, Jihadi-like anti-Westernism, and hostility to Gulf regimes” (http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/external_support_and_the_syrian_insurgency), and so unlikely to be of much use to the Saudis. Even less so given that, despite AaS’s vocal criticism of JaN for its links to al-Qaida, this has never stopped it from engaging in very active collaboration with JaN, and for a time even ISIS, on the ground.
What all this meant is that, from around July 2012, Saudi Arabia, while cracking down on Salafist networks in the kingdom that were finding the Syrian opposition, and pulling back on whatever support it may have been providing some small Islamist groups, swung right over to directing all support through the official opposition secular military and political bodies. From December 2012 this meant all military support was to go through the Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the FSA and all political support directed to the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), when they were both set up with strong Saudi support; and this support came in via Jordan in the south as opposed to Qatar’s northern base in Turkey.
While it may sound surprising that the Saudis were backing the secular leadership, it is fully in tune with the massive Saudi support for the al-Sisi’s Egyptian “secular” coup against Morsi’s MB regime in mid-2013. As Pierret explains: “Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy. Saudi policies are not driven by religious doctrines, as is too often assumed, but by concerns for the stability of the kingdom, which translate into support for political forces that are inherently conservative or hostile to Islamist movements” (http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/external_support_and_the_syrian_insurgency). The reason Saudi Arabia cannot support al-Sisi’s equivalent in Syria, ie Assad, is only due to sectarian reasons, so it therefore it aims to achieve the same via co-opting defected former Baathist, secular Sunni, military officers that head the SMC.
Regarding the jihadists, Pierret rightly notes that “the idea that Gulf monarchs may support the franchise of an organization – i.e. al Qaeda – that brands them as apostates and waged an armed insurgency on Saudi soil a decade ago does not make sense,” and similarly, a decade earlier, the early 1990s, saw the Sawha (Awakening) insurgency against the Saudi rulers led by allies of the MB (not to be confused with the unrelated US- and Saudi-backed Sunni movement in Iraq using this same name that confronted al-Qaida late last decade).
This is all the more important when one takes the time to look at a map, and note the closeness of the Saudi, Jordanian and Syrian borders. Like Saudi Arabia, Jordan is a monarchy, but one so far little affected by the Arab uprisings; as a fellow monarchy next door, Saudi Arabia wants to keep it that way. And the Jordanian monarchy’s main opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood, and so would be threatened by a new Syrian regime involving the Brotherhood or related Islamists, let alone by jihadist victories, a contagion whose next stop would likely be Saudi Arabia.
Talk of past Saudi promotion of Sunni sectarianism and “Wahhabism” at other times and in other places, for example support for the Taliban in distant, non-Arab Afghanistan, or perhaps in Chechnya, is thus irrelevant to the issue at hand.
So who exactly has Saudi Arabia been supporting in Syria since about mid-2012? A curious mixture, all of which have one thing in common: none are political Islamists. This includes:
1. Small brigades of “apolitical” or “quietist” Salafis aligned with the Saudi religious establishment, such as the Ahl al-Athar Battalions (which Pierret says is funded from Kuwait by the quietist Heritage Association) and the Nur al-Din Zanki Battalions (which apparently passed through other Islamist groups such as Tawhid until the Saudis were able to split them away). This means Salafis who have no political pretensions whatsoever, and who only push their ideology in the social field; they believe the world of politics is for non-religious bodies, in other words their ideology replicates precisely the Saudi model. This means that they work within the FSA, and their Saudi-backed coalition, the Front for Authenticity and Development (FAD), whose political platform is “strikingly unambitious and presents no distinctly Islamist feature” (http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/external_support_and_the_syrian_insurgency), and also incorporated some early defector officers and tribal groups aligned with the Saudis. All in all however, the FAD likely has several thousand troops, one of the smaller bodies among the Syrian rebels.
2. An idiosyncratic coalition the Saudis supported within the exile-based Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) against the Qatar- and MB-backed forces, including the liberal-secular Christian and long-term dissident Michael Kilo; Ahmed Jarba, also a secular figure from the Shummar tribal group (which stretches into Saudi Arabia), and member of the Revolutionary Council of Syrian Tribes; and liberal Islamist Ahmad Tomeh. Saudi Arabia backed such people taking a more prominent role in the opposition political leadership after the SOC was launched in December 2012, to expand political leadership beyond the SNC, which was seen as dominated by the Qatari-backed MB. The Saudis appear to have no ideological connection with such people, and only see them as a bulwark against their rivals. While Qatar got its Brotherhood-aligned Ghassan Hitto up as prime minister of the SNC, the Saudis eventually managed to depose him and replace him with Jarba and Tomeh. The alliance with Jarba may have a tribal connection, his tribe stretching from Syria across parts of Jordan into Saudi Arabia.
3. The Saudis began moving their main support among the military opposition to various defected ex-Baathist military officers, ie, what we might call “power secularists,” both the secular leaders of the exile-based SMC and various other officer-defectors, as Pierret notes, “among the least religious component of the rebel leadership.” Pierret notes the early Saudi courting of defector officers such as Abd al-Razzaq Tlass, and explains that “Riyadh has been the driving force behind several initiatives aimed at organizing the insurgency under the aegis of defector officers rather than of the civilian volunteers that run most Islamist groups: General Mustafa al-Sheikh’s Revolutionary Military Council, General Hussein al-Hajj Ali’s Syrian National Army, the Joint Command of the Military Councils, and General Salim Idriss’s Headquarters of the Free Syrian Army” (ie, the SMC) (http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/external_support_and_the_syrian_insurgency).
It is also interesting to note what happened to Adnan al-Ar’ur with this Saudi turn. Apparently, from preacher he did begin to run his own “mini-insurgency,” and many rebels complained about “the havoc these militants were causing.” Now however, he “was prevailed upon to give up his own war and publicly back an initiative to incorporate the main FSA blocs under a single, joint command” (ie the SMC) (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentaryanalysis/the-southern-front). Yet since that time, little has been heard of him.
Implications of Saudi support to secular opposition
There are a number of interesting implications of the Saudi support to the secular Syrian opposition.
First, since most Western leftists rightly want to emphasise support to the “democratic, secular” wing of the opposition as opposed to “Islamist” forces, the idea that a tyrannical monarchy with an ultra-puritanical internal Islamist social policy could be on the same side may feel uncomfortable; that’s why it is more comforting to believe the Saudis back elements that they do not.
However, the problem here is not viewing these issues in class terms. Certainly it is correct, in general, to express support for those forces advocating a democratic, secular outcome (as long as this is not done in secular-chauvinist style that views all Syrian Islamists as the same thing, a view that snubs the peasant and poor working class base of the Islamist groups). But while moderate Islamism can rightly be seen as a bourgeois or petty bourgeois ideology, let’s be clear: so is the secular Arab nationalist ideology of the defector officers and main political opposition. The class division between regime and resistance is abundantly clear; but there is no working class or socialist leadership in Syria. The Saudis thus aim to do something not terribly original: “support” the secular wing of the resistance via the bourgeois leaderships of it, in the hope of co-opting the leadership, just as progressives can support the same movement from the complete opposite point of view.
In fact, not only does this correspond to Saudi support to the secular Mubarak and secular Sisi against the MB, but to Saudi policy more generally. Especially relevant in Syria’s case is the fact that the Saudis’ key allies in Lebanon next door are the secular Sunni-based ‘Future’ movement of the Hariris, which is allied with the right-wing Christian-based Lebanese Forces – not the kind of allies that would look happily at too much Sunni jihadism next door in Syria. In fact, when the jihadist Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam appeared in Lebanon back in 2007, the “Sunni” Hariri regime waged a vicious war to crush it, to the point of acting the same way as Assad is currently acting towards Palestinian camps in Syria: Hariri pummelled the Tripoli Palestinian camp where FaI had embedded itself (as an aside: Hezbollah at the time, quite rightly, condemned this state terror, a sharp contrast to its current attitude to Syria).
Of course, one might say that Mubarak, Sisi and Hariri are well-established reactionary secular leaders, whereas here we are talking about a popular uprising. In that case, more relevantly, Saudi policy in Syria corresponds to Saudi support for the right-wing secular al-Fatah leadership of the PLO against the MB-linked Hamas within the Palestinian liberation movement. In my view, this does not make the whole organisation of historic nationalist Fatah a Saudi pawn – far from it – but the Saudis have co-opted the right-wing PA leaders who are now dominant over some of the more leftist and nationalist forces within Fatah.
The second issue is that, if Saudi Arabia is not promoting sectarian war in Syria, then where does this leave the role of Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Syria? Doesn’t Saudi Arabia still want to win a geopolitical victory against Iran in Syria (given the rivalry also manifests itself in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon), and wouldn’t this necessitate some kind of “Sunni” victory? The simple answer is that some kind of “Sunni” victory or at least strengthening of position can be achieved without “sectarian war” and support for Sunni extremists. After all, in Lebanon, the Saudi card is the secular Sunni ‘Future’ Movement of the Hariris, not some group of radical Salafis. Given Sunnis are the Syrian majority and that any rearrangement of the regime, even the US-preferred conservative rearrangement, would necessitate greater Sunni input, and Saudi Arabia could present this as a victory.
Indeed, the Saudi mouthpiece al-Arabiya explained earlier this year that a Sunni prime minister with real power – even with Assad remaining in some capacity – would suit Saudi interests, a strikingly non-radical proposal. The article claimed the US and the Saudis “see that Syrian President al-Assad is not going to capitulate anytime soon” so “the Saudis see Assad ultimately becoming the Queen of England while the prime minister, whoever that will be—most likely a Sunni—will hold real power; a scenario the Saudi’s were originally seeking in the first place.” Notably, it also stressed that the first project of this new “type of confessional state” would be “to eradicate al-Qaeda completely” (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/2014/02/23/Saudi-Arabia-offers-U-S-solutions-over-Syria.html).
The final implication of Saudi policy of support for secularists is related to the original issue, the claim that the secular FSA is losing out to Islamists because the alter get plenty of arms from the Gulf states, while the FSA doesn’t. If in fact Saudi Arabia has been arming the secular defector officers, then why doesn’t this allow the secular forces to be stronger vis-à-vis the Islamists?
This can be answered in three ways. First, the fact that actual Saudi and Qatari support to any wing of the insurgency has been much less than is often assumed; second, the secular US has blocked as much as possible the arming of the secular opposition by the Saudis; and finally, the secular wing of the FSA is by no means as dead as the imperialist media and the pro-Assad conspiracists have been telling us for years.
First, the abundance of reports from the ground, where fighters report getting none of the weapons that various states have allegedly sent, or only getting them in dribs and drabs, applies to both moderate Islamist militias as well as secular ones. The fact that the Saudis mostly fund secular forces doesn’t mean they get very much. In general, it is mostly the jihadists that reportedly have better weapons. What’s more, as has been widely reported elsewhere, the Saudi-Qatari rivalry has tended to make the organisation of getting arms to various rebel groups ineffective and chaotic. Further, the way analysts talk about Gulf states, or others, getting weapons to either secular or Islamist militias inside the country, often sounds as if Saudi or Qatari officials can simply cross the Syrian border and find the address of the militia they like. The reality is that funds and arms have to be directed to outside bodies, such as the SMC, based in Jordan or Turkey, and then arms get in via a number of arms dealers. While a funding state may direct the dealer to a particular group, a great deal happens in between, including corruption, theft, the preferences of these dealers, being killed or captured etc. Small wonder the rebels on the ground report getting little.
For example, in an article reporting that some 3500 tons of military equipment had allegedly been brought to Turkish and Jordanian bases by Qatari and Saudi planes, we read from the ground:
“Still, rebel commanders have criticized the shipments as insufficient, saying the quantities of weapons they receive are too small and the types too light to fight Mr. Assad’s military effectively. They also accused those distributing the weapons of being parsimonious or corrupt. “The outside countries give us weapons and bullets little by little,” said Abdel Rahman Ayachi, a commander in Soquor al-Sham, an Islamist fighting group in northern Syria. He made a gesture as if switching on and off a tap. “They open and they close the way to the bullets like water,” he said.” Two other commanders, Hassan Aboud of Soquor al-Sham and Abu Ayman of Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group, said that whoever was vetting which groups receive the weapons was doing an inadequate job. “There are fake Free Syrian Army brigades claiming to be revolutionaries, and when they get the weapons they sell them in trade,” Mr. Aboud said” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/world/middleeast/arms-airlift-to-syrian-rebels-expands-with-cia-aid.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1399633250-rNCneHJq7CNq0W7aulE6SA).
Second, one reason this Saudi shift did little to help the fortunes of the secular fighters was the fact, ironic as it may sound, that the “secular” US applied massive pressure on the “fundamentalist’ Saudis to restrict any support to any section of the resistance, even the most secular. Last July, the reporter Joanna Paraszczuk explained that a US-Saudi conflict has been going on for some time:
“While Saudi Arabia has built up large stockpiles of arms and ammunition (in Jordan) for the Free Syrian Army, the US blocked shipments until last Thursday. The US and the Saudis are involved in a multilateral effort to support the insurgency from Jordanian bases. But, according to the sources, Washington had not only failed to supply “a single rifle or bullet to the FSA in Daraa” but had actively prevented deliveries, apparently because of concerns over which factions would receive the weapons. The situation also appears to be complicated by Jordan’s fears that arms might find their way back into the Kingdom and contribute to instability there. The sources said the Saudi-backed weapons and ammunition are in warehouses in Jordan, and insurgents in Daraa and Damascus could be supplied “within hours” with anti-tank rockets and ammunition. The Saudis also have more weapons ready for airlift into Jordan, but US representatives are preventing this” (http://eaworldview.com/2013/06/23/syria-special-the-us-saudi-conflict-over-arms-to-insurgents).
What is behind this US pressure we will look at in the second part of this series, when dealing specifically with the US role.
Third, while the thesis that secular militias have been weakened by relative lack of arms compared to jihadist militias, and that the Islamist wing of the resistance as a whole has eclipsed the size of the purely secular FSA, is true, this should not be confused with the imperialist and left-conspiracist lie that the secular FSA is dead or tiny. There are many tens of thousands of basically secular FSA forces, as I have documented, based on a variety of sources, elsewhere (e.g., http://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/report-on-relative-strength-of-armed-rebels-in-syria/).
The two parts of the country where the secular FSA is at its strongest are the south – the region from the Jordanian border, through Daraa, where the revolution began, to the working class “suburbs” of outer Damascus – and the northwest, the Idlib-Hama region. And it is in these two regions that the Saudis are well-known to be supporting the FSA. Of course, as shown above, this support is restricted; and it is certainly not only the Saudi factor that has allowed the FSA to maintain strength in those regions. However, to the extent that the Saudis have been able to defy the US, the weapons they have got across the border have certainly helped. For example, in early 2013 the Saudis got some Croatian weapons though to the SMC-allied forces in the south; while out-of-date and limited in number, it did help improve the fortunes of the secular forces on the southern front, which on the whole have remained consistently better than in the north and east; indeed here they still strongly outnumber the Islamist forces as a whole.
In Idlib in the northwest, it has been widely reported that the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade (SMB), one of the largest secular FSA militias in the country, is Saudi-funded; and in Idlib, the balance between the SMB and the mainstream Islamist Suquor al-Sham (with possible Qatari-MB connections) has been maintained throughout the war. In fact, the SMB was one of the major components of the new Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a kind of north-western sub-FSA coalition set up late last year, with probably over 20,000 troops, which played a leading role in the joint rebel attack on ISIS beginning in January 2014.
Gulf crackdown on Islamist fighters headed for Syria
A final point exploding the myth of Gulf state support for radical Islamists in Syria is the continuous crack-down on these fighters in these states.
Saudi Arabia has led the way. In March, a Saudi court sentenced 13 men to up to 14 years in prison “for security offences including material support to wanted Islamist militants, aiding terrorism and helping young men go to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to fight,” the article noting that Saudi Arabia “has sentenced thousands of its citizens to prison terms for similar offences over the past decade” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/20/saudi-militants-idUSL6N0MH1K720140320?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=*Mideast%20Brief&utm_campaign=Mideast%20Brief%203-20-14). Since then, the kingdom officially added the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaida and Hezbollah as “terrorist” organisations banned in the country; “moral or material support for such groups would incur prison terms of five to 30 years, while travelling overseas to fight would be punishable by sentences of three to 20 years.” The Saudi regime even threatened Qatar with a land, sea and air blockade for its support for the MB, and alongside Bahrain and the UAE, suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar.
The Saudi crack-down on the MB has also pressured other Gulf states to do the same, especially Kuwait with its generally more liberal internal atmosphere (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/03/muslim-brotherhood-kuwait-saudi-terror.html?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=*Mideast%20Brief&utm_campaign=Mideast%20Brief%203-12-14#). Already in 2013, Kuwait had issued new laws criminalising “terrorist financing,” whereby “banks will be required to note down the personal details of all their clients as well as anyone making an international transfer of more than 3,000 KD ($10,500). To help track and investigate misdeeds, the Central Bank will build a new Financial Intelligence Unit with the help of experts at the IMF” (http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/12/04/shaping_the_syrian_conflict_from_kuwait).
Despite these new laws, in April, “in a remarkably undiplomatic statement that officials said had been cleared at senior levels, (US) Treasury Undersecretary David S. Cohen called Kuwait “the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria”,” underscoring how relatively unregulated the situation is in Kuwait compared to the tighter control of financial flows in other Gulf monarchies – and the level of US hostility to any Gulf support to Syrian Islamists (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/kuwait-top-ally-on-syria-is-also-the-leading-funder-of-extremist-rebels/2014/04/25/10142b9a-ca48-11e3-a75e-463587891b57_story.html).
Also in April, the Jordanian parliament passed a bill granting authorities “greater powers to detain without trial people suspected of affiliation with terrorist groups” while also criminalising “the intent or act of joining, recruiting, funding or arming terrorist organizations inside or outside Jordan.” The bill was clearly aimed at Jordanian Islamists who slip across the border to fight in Syria, “whom officials deem a major national security threat.” Since December, 120 suspected fighters have been arrested as foreign enemy combatants in the military-run state security court, and more than 40 have been convicted. “Right now, any Jordanian who goes to fight in Syria is arrested upon his return to the country and sent to the court,” said government spokesman Mohammed Momani (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/worried-about-terror-attacks-at-home-jordan-steps-up-arrests-of-suspected-syria-jihadists/2014/04/25/6c18fa00-c96d-11e3-95f7-7ecdde72d2ea_story.html?wprss=rss_middle-east).
The US position: They should all kill each other
A second part of this article will give an update on the US role in all this. While this would be a useful enough issue in itself, the connection here is the possible contention that not only the Gulf monarchies, but the US itself, may also secretly support the Islamists over the secular opposition in order to detract the revolution from its democratic impulse and divide the masses. However, as I have shown that, however logical it may sound, this has not been the role of the Gulf monarchies overall, then there can be no question of the US supporting the Gulf on this. However, even to the extent that the Gulf monarchies have partially funded moderate Islamist movements at different times, are at least partially amenable to trying to co-opt and control them, the US has always remained relentlessly opposed – indeed the big public spat between the US and Saudi Arabia in the second half of 2013 had much to do with the refusal of the US to arm anyone – secular or Islamist. However, to the extent that the US has offered to perhaps send a few arms to some highly vetted “moderate” rebels it has always been precisely on the basis that they use such arms to launch an all-out war on the jihadists – the US strategy being to let all wings of the anti-Assad resistance kill each other.
I'm part of a group (not an organized tendency, rather what in the trotskyist tradition usually are called a current) in the Swedish Section of the Fourth International that is critical of the political line on Syria followed by the Swedish section and the Fourth International (as it manifests itself in the resolution adopted in February this year).
During the last year and a half we have written several critical contributions to the debate on Syria. We have translated some of these texts into English to make our position and criticism accessible to an international audience, since we sincerely believe this to be an important issue.
You are free to distribute them to whomever you think might be interested, even externally, because the texts are not internal. The Swedish original texts have been published on internet (among them the Internationalen official web site – i.e. the weekly of the Swedish section – so if you want to publish them (or parts of them) externally there is no problem with that.
Syria today and the Socialist Party
This text, which was completed in the previous month [November 2013], is a substantially revised and updated version of a document originally written at the request of the Executive Committee of SP and was completed in early February 2013. The intention was to provide a "progress report" on Syria and formulate guidelines for the policies that we thought SP should pursue. The text did not purport to cover all current issues, in particularly those on which we thought that there existed no major disagreements, for instance, regarding the character and brutality of the Assad regime. The text did not treat Syria's economic, political, social and religious history, where of course the causes of the insurrection are to be found. The present text is based on the February text, but updated.
Primarily we discuss things on which we assume or know that there have existed or remain disagreements. We also try to concretize a policy in several areas, by giving examples of what we consider SP (and FI) should address. We further look at the current situation in Syria, which we perceive as very critical for large parts of the population of a country that has been in civil war for three years.
December 3, 2013
Stig Eriksson, Martin Fahlgren, Anders Hagström, Peter Widén, Tomas Widén
[ long-standing members of the Socialist Party, Swedish section of the FI ]
We do not believe that there is any disagreement within our party regarding the beginning of the anti-government protests in Syria. They must be seen as part of the "Arab Spring", where major economic problems, high unemployment, etc., combined with corrupt and autocratic bourgeois regimes exploded into mass popular protests.
But these protests do not occur in a vacuum. In every country there is a concrete history, specific circumstances, which are unique. Syria is a country fragmented into religious and ethnic factions. In this country the regime has recruited its cadres mostly from the Alawite minority and has used violent repression against the Sunni majority, fresh in the memory of everyone. We think especially of the uprising of February 1982, in the city of Hama, which was brutally crushed by the current Assad's father, with up to 20,000 deaths. An interesting comparison can be done with Iraq, where the Sunnis were in minority and Saddam Hussein based his regime mainly on them and kept the Shiite majority down (and also performed massacres on Shiites and Kurds).
It is obvious that the ethnic and religious divisions have a significant impact on the development of the conflict in Syria (and it also has international connections). Unfortunately, the sectarian divisions have increased in the course of the uprising.
That the current conflict began as part of a regional democratic aspiration does not mean it is still so today.
The growing Sunni fundamentalist influence on the opposition [especially the armed part], leads many Christians to see the Assad regime as the lesser evil. They can also take notice of how the downfall of the Saddam regime in Iraq led to a disaster for Christians there (under Saddam the Christians were guaranteed religious and other rights, to the extent that they remained within the limits that the regime was willing to accept).
Many Alawites in Syria feel that they are fighting with their back against the wall against fundamentalist Sunnis that are trying to wipe them out.
And the Kurds have used the opportunity to seize power in their territories.
As for the parts of the army that turned their backs on the regime and joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), you could say that they burned their bridges. Along with the bourgeois elements on the opposition side, they hope to conquer full power without making any compromises with the Assad regime. But to solve their equation they require external support - from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and imperialism. And as of now, the chances of obtaining such support are slim.
In this cycle of violence the Syrian people is being crushed. The nature of the confrontation (full-scale war) now raging does not favour the unification of all the oppressed and exploited Syrians. On the contrary, it favours further sectarian division, warlord ambitions and foreign players.
There are of course secular left forces in Syria. These are worthy of all our support, even if they are weak. But they have no chance if the current war continues. A truce is obviously no guarantee for progressive (anti-sectarian, secular, democratic, socialist) forces to be able to take the lead, or even play an important role in the political process. But without an end of the current war the Left has no chance at all.
SNC (Syrian National Coalition) and FSA currently holds various positions in relation to negotiations in Geneva. (Geneva 2). The political front of the Syrian opposition, Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has declared its readiness to participate. The military wing, FSA, says no. Of course, the jihadist militias also say no. It appears that the largest group within the SNC called Syrian National Council (confusingly like the name of the umbrella organization, even the same initials!) is too boycotting Geneva 2.
Just recently (in November 2013) SNC demanded the disappearance of Assad as a prerequisite for sitting down at the negotiating table. Geneva 2 only had to "implement the Geneva I”, they said. And the Geneva I documents say that Assad must leave. It is just that things have changed. The Assad regime has, among other things, strengthened its positions. Cameron, who held a hard line and demanded that Assad must leave, has seen his spirits wilting. It now seems that SNC is aware of this reality. It does not have the position and strength to compel the implementation of the previously formulated ultimatum.
However the FSA has not changed its position. FSA Colonel Ammar Al-Wawi and an unnamed FSA spokesman responded thus in an interview: 
"We will remain against Geneva 2 so long as the provisions agreed upon in Geneva 1 have not been implemented yet. At the Geneva-1 convention, it has been agreed upon that the shooting must stop, army forces should withdraw from all the cities, Assad must step down, leaving power to an alternative, independent, government, and last but not least, the security systems in Syria must be restructured. I mean, we would want to join the Geneva-2 only to take over power from the criminal regime.
- What is your stance on the Syrian Opposition in general, and the Muslim Brotherhood in specific?
FSA Spokesperson: The Syrian opposition, be them part of the Brotherhood or any other group or party, should understand that our enemy understands no language but that of violence and war. This is why I hope they exert more effort to support and strengthen the Free Syrian Army, on all levels, by arms and by adopting a stronger stance against the regime. They should be our civil voice to the international community. We, ourselves, are with any opponent group which would serve the interests of the people, and would not deviate from the Revolution’s norm until all the demands of the revolution are met.”
Let us reproduce some crucial sentences that provide the FSA position in a concentrated form:
”I mean, we would want to join the Geneva-2 only to take over power from the criminal regime…. The Syrian opposition, be them part of the Brotherhood or any other group or party, should understand that our enemy understands no language but that of violence and war.”
One of the demands of the FSA is, interesting enough, that the "shooting must stop." But since this is combined with the ultimatum that Assad must step down before negotiations can begin, it is unfortunately just a phrase.
It is also interesting that the FSA spokesperson does not demand democratic elections, but "we would want to join the Geneva-2 only to take over power from the criminal regime". FSA as a new ruler without any regard to the extremely complex web of contradictions and without taking into account that important parts of for example Alawite and Christian minorities has backed up Assad, possibly not for the love of the regime but in fear of the alternatives.
What could the FSA do instead? Show up in Geneva, of course, and
there raise its first point: Stop shooting. Followed by demands for
humanitarian assistance to refugees within the country and to all the
other sufferers. Guarantees for people of all creeds and ethnicities.
And, of course, free elections throughout Syria. Such a conduct and such
demands would put Assad on the spot. It could get a huge response among
the tormented people of Syria and those who already voted against the
war with their feet and who now find themselves on the run. Such actions
could also reach those who until now have given the regime their
support in fear of ethnic and religious cleansing. Feasible? Hopefully.
Crucial is the mobilization of the masses for such a democratic
solution. In any case, it would weaken Assad much more than the current
position of the FSA does.
Syria after three years of civil war
On the morning of Friday, January 25  the Swedish radio correspondent Katja Magnusson reported from a refugee camp in Lebanon, where she, among others things, interviewed Christian refugees. She began with the words:
“The war in Syria continues to take a heavy toll on human life. More than 60 000 individuals have died since the uprising began. The UN has repeatedly warned that the conflict becomes increasingly sectarian, the longer it lasts. Different ethnic and religious groups now stand against each other, for and against the Syrian regime.”
She talks about sectarian violence, armed conflicts between the FSA and the Kurds, she describes a film released by Human Rights Watch, that shows vandalism on religious sites in northern Syria, including lootings of Christian churches and the destruction of a Shiite Muslim place of worship.
There are many similar reports, showing that the situation in Syria is becoming more and more "sectarian". The country is splitting up into zones, based on ethnic and religious grounds and minorities are being persecuted and driven from their homes. This has continued the current year.
The amount of human sacrifices of the civil war is growing huge. The numbers speak for themselves (those in parentheses represents the beginning of 2013). Out of a population of about 22 million, over 140,000 (60,000) have died, 2.6 million (600,000) are in exile, and over 6 million (2 million) are internally displaced - other sources indicate over 7 million. Thus, between 1/3 and 1/2 of the population is displaced and the number is growing.
Living conditions have deteriorated drastically. Large parts of the country's infrastructure are shattered. Energy (electricity, gas) and food is in short supply. The economy has basically stopped functioning: Inflation is very high, investments have ceased, unemployment is high and production has stopped in many places. Transports function poorly, aggravating the supply situation – the risk of famine is great (hunger prevails in some areas). A large part of the dwelling-houses and other buildings (such as schools) are destroyed, many has been subjected to looting. And in addition are parts of the militias (on all sides) acting almost like gangsters, robbing and harassing ordinary people.
Syria is breaking up as the misery is spreading.
In the course of the debate, we have been accused of "betraying" the Syrian people. If we were demagogues, we could turn the accusation against our opponents. For instance what can we say about Shora Esmailian when she, during the Socialist Forum [in Stockholm], regretted that the U.S. did not bomb Syria, and when she, at an earlier time, showed contempt for Tariq Ali when he spoke for a truce?
Rather, let us quote Stina Oskarsson in Dagens Arena [Swedish left social democratic paper], December 12, 2013.
“A few weeks ago I had the privilege to attend a conference in Amman. Syrian Women Network supported by the Palme Center, was one of the players that participated. Around 40 Syrian women representing a range of different civil organizations and networks within and outside Syria were gathered in Amman to discuss how women should be included in the peace negotiations.
All agreed that the armed fighting must end and that we must find a political solution to the conflict. Thoughts and opinions were contrasted with each other, but at the closing of the meeting, a number of the positions had been reached and agreed upon. " ................" It is about demands on women's participation in the negotiations, the need to lift the siege of cities and regions to deliver food and medicine to the people, and the release of civilians who have been arrested on arbitrary grounds.
The meeting was part of an important process. Wars have always affected women and men differently. In the coverage of the war in Syria, it becomes clear that women are victims of the conflict. And it is equally clear that women are not automatically seen as actors in search of a solution. In the delegations that represents various parties in the conflict, and which are called to the negotiating table in Geneva, women are underrepresented.
That is why the meeting in Amman was so important. Partly because women obviously should naturally have the right to exercise power in the political process and influence it. Partly because experience shows that women's participation, as a matter of fact, contributes to a more sustainable peace. Moreover, the importance of incorporating a gender perspective in conflicts and increasing women's participation in peace processes is established in UN Security Council Resolution 1325.
The conviction that it is possible to find a negotiated solution to the conflict, as well as the willingness to contribute to it, is the main driving force for peace. It is easy to feel despair when the date of the negotiation is constantly is being pushed forward, while the war continues to reap hundreds of lives every day. But from the meeting in Amman, I have with me a sense of hope.”
We do not need to add anything here. Stina Oskarsson has captured the situation brilliantly.
The Assads regime has consolidated its positions and has had some success over the past six months, not least because of support from the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian support troops.
Among the rebels, conflicts are growing. We have received many reports of disagreements, even fighting between jihadist militias and FSA units, and even between jihadist factions. The antagonism between opposition groups has sharpened considerably, illustrated by the fact that it was not particularly long ago that the FSA leadership protested against the U.S. terrorist listing of al-Nusra Front.
FSA is a heterogeneous group that lacks unified leadership, both politically and militarily. Under its umbrella are disparate groups, including those that may be described as "warlords" and gangsters, exploiting the situation for personal gains. There are reports of widespread corruption among some of these. This is incidentally a pattern that often occurs during civil wars, especially when the leadership is politically weak (in a truly revolutionary army it is very important for the leadership to discipline the armed forces and make them behave in such a way as to win the people's trust).
The jihadist militias (among them al-Nusra and ISIS) have gained
strength and today control large parts of north-western Syria. Their
success depend on many factors, they are for example fearless, highly
religiously motivated, well-armed, and better disciplined than many FSA
units. By virtue of that they are consistent, non-corrupt and
principled, they can also win support among Sunnis (especially among the
more conservative rural population), while other minorities, less
orthodox Sunnis and secular groups do not accept their perspectives of a
society ruled by Sharia law. In September, many of the more hard-line
Islamist groups broke away from the FSA and established the Islamic
Front. This increases the risk of war on two fronts, where Islamists are
fighting against other opposition forces and among themselves.
The Assad dictatorship has its main ally in the Shiite Muslim-controlled Iran and for the past year also increasingly from Iraq and the Lebanese Hezbollah, while the rebels has had backing from the Sunni states in the region, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Qatar and Turkey has a natural alliance partner in the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, the traditionally strongest opposition movement in Syria.
Outside of the region, Assad has support from the big powers Russia and China. The rebel side has support from the Western powers, led by the USA. This support, however, has vacillated a bit during recently, partly because the imperialist powers have become aware of the growing jihadist danger.
It is obvious that the U.S., Israel and the EU want to topple Assad, but not at any price. A very important strategic interest is to control the oil, but, of course, there are also political and military strategic interests at work, for example, they want to isolate Iran and weaken Hezbollah, push back Russia and block Chinese influence. Among the EU states, France in particular has been proactive and active, and that applies not only to Syria but the whole region, which, among other things, is explained by the fact that France traditionally has had large interests in parts of Africa and the Middle East (Syria, for example, was under French colonial rule between 1920-1946 ) .
Even for Russia and China, oil is an important factor. For Russia, military strategic considerations also play a big role (they want to keep the U.S. and EU out of its neighbouring areas in the Middle East). Russia, and previously the Soviet Union, had significant influence in the region during the last 60-70 years. In the 1970s Moscow had close relationships with contemporary "progressive" nationalist Arab regimes (Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria), but this influence has gradually dwindled and Syria is really the only remaining state where Russia still has an "ally".
No matter how you look at the Assad regime, the threat from fundamentalist Islamists is on the horizon, giving most Western powers and Russia headaches. The events in Mali and Algeria, as well as the chaos in Libya, have added to these fears: What could the overthrow of Assad bring about? What are the alternatives? Can Syria be converted into an additional base for terrorism of the al-Qaeda type? Will it lead to increased instability in the whole region?
Even on the part of Saudi Arabia, we discern some hesitation. The Saudi regime would certainly want to get rid of Assad and see a Sunni government in Damascus, but the Saudis do not want a Syria dominated by radical fundamentalist Islamists, because even though they belong to the same branch of Islam (Wahhabism), the rulers in Riyadh know that al-Qaeda and similar groups are hostile to and constitute a threat to their regime.
Of those who supported the uprising, Turkey (the country has a long
border with Syria) is the state which in practice has played the most
important role, including by letting its territory provide sheltered
retreats for rebels, care for the injured, etc. But Turkey also has had
some second thoughts: the ravages of the jihadist militias, as well as
unrest among the Kurds and the large Alawite population in Turkey, has
caused fear 
A political line in relation to the uprising
We cannot remain indifferent to what path the uprising in Syria takes. On the contrary, it is our duty– with our limited resources – try to influence developments in a progressive direction. This means, among other things, that we must strive to look for and support the currents that account for working class politics, and try to establish relations with such political forces inside and outside Syria, and also, if possible, carry out a dialogue with them.
Syrian left forces must specifically renounce and combat Islamic fundamentalism, sectarian violence, etc., and promote tolerance and reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups, including those who, for various reasons, often for fear of what is to come instead, has supported or are still supporting the regime. If this can be accomplished, it is also the most effective to cut the support for the Assad regime. The Sunni fundamentalists are here the main problem – the great majority of the people in Syria are Sunni Muslims, who have long been oppressed by the Baath regime and therefore are especially susceptible to sectarian tendencies detrimental to the insurgency.
It is important to promote the formation of democratic mass organizations, that make it possible for broad sections of the population to influence and control development. There are already such forms, like the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which deserve a closer study. In the absence of strong secular political organizations, these are certainly heterogeneous, and the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have substantial influence in many of them. Recently, the situation of the coordination committees has worsened, partly due to the growing influence of jihadist groups (an example is the once famous city Al Raqqa, which has been taken over by the strict fundamentalist ISIS militia, practicing strict Sharia laws with public executions, etc).
Of course, the secular socialist forces (the strength of which we know very little, other than that they are weak) must try to formulate an alternative policy beside the one the bourgeois forces would pursue after the overthrow of Assad. To accomplish that, we, together with other sections of the Fourth International, could contribute, among other things, by taking up discussions with those Syrian socialists that we come in contact with.
In our political tradition, we have political guidelines, based on theory and practical experience, for how we should relate to mass struggles and rebellious movements. We should try to apply these to the Syrian case (and other uprisings in that part of the world). Our task is primarily political - militarily, economically, etc., we can do very little, but if we make use of our political and ideological heritage, we can make important contributions - if we act properly.
A central task must be to try contributing to the building of a revolutionary movement that is politically independent of the bourgeois forces, and not least independent of the regimes in the neighbouring states and of imperialism.
In an uprising where armed struggle plays a dominant role, the access to weapons is crucial. This benefits those who receive weapons at the expense of those who do not. When the battle is being fought mainly with weapons, then political trends that are oriented towards mass mobilization have big problems to assert themselves. The result is that during war conditions unarmed masses tend to turn into spectators, and this is more or less inevitable – the question of trying to stop the armed combat (a cease-fire) should also be seen in this perspective.
At first, the optimism in the international left regarding the Arab revolution was very large. We saw a revolutionary process dominated by progressive, secular movements, where especially the youth played a major role. So it was at first. But the unfolding events in Tunisia, Libya (where chaos reigns) and Egypt (where the military regained total power) have shown that it was not so simple. The setbacks for the uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain - the latter with direct military intervention from Saudi Arabia - should also not be forgotten.
In Syria, where the diversity of ethnic groups, national minorities and religious communities is great, there are many potential conflicts. There are, for example Sunni and Shia Muslims (the Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs, is often classified being as a Shia tendency) with international allies: the former can count on support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, the latter from Iran, Iraq and from Hezbollah in Lebanon. There is also a fairly large Christian population, and Kurds, Druzes, Ismailites and other minorities, as well as Palestinians and Iraqi refugees. These conditions can lead to severe sectarian, national, and other conflicts, and that has already happened on a large scale. The problems also run the risk of internationalization, i.e. spreading to other countries in the region, especially Lebanon, but also Jordan and Iraq, and this has also already occurred. Assad has for a long time called attention to and also stirred up the sectarian danger. It is quite clear that he has been successful in that, with the help from fundamentalist Islamists, which here has played in the hands of Assad.
Problems related to sectarian violence, national antagonisms, and the like, are matters which the revolutionary left, both inside and outside Syria, must take very seriously. It is extremely important to prevent conflicts between different ethnic groups from deteriorating and leading to armed conflicts. In that context, it is also consistent to counteract fundamentalist Islamic movements that are aggravating such conflicts.
The overall objective of the revolutionary left must be to work for a development in a progressive, secular direction where - besides acute problems of food, shelter and work , etc. - the struggle for democracy and human rights (such as equality between men and women, freedom of religion, organization, expression, and the press, rights of national minorities, including the right to self-determination for Kurds , etc.) is necessarily at the centre in the near future, but there it is also important to keep the idea of class struggle alive (i.e., social, economic, etc., issues, and power issues related to them) – and hence maintaining the perspective of a socialist solution, even if the political and social conditions are not yet such that the uprising in the short term can grow into a socialist revolution ( "permanent revolution"). In short: we should try to approach the problems in a Marxist way, have a class struggle perspective, and try to spread such ideas.
In their arguments against us, some comrades have said that a socialist revolution is not on the agenda, that the question of today concerns a "democratic" revolution, and that the socialist left is more or less non-existent in Syria. This reasoning was also carried forward in the discussion about Libya.
Their basic position seems to be that countries like Libya and Syria are in a historical phase, in which the bourgeois democratic revolution is on the agenda, and nothing else. We think they are wrong.
The current situation in Libya and Egypt shows that without a strong independent working class movement, democratic changes cannot be implemented.
It is the (organizational and political) weakness of the working class that is the problem, that make these eruptions come to a halt. It is entirely wrong, as our critics have done, to conclude that the weakness of the working class means that only a bourgeois democracy is on the agenda.
In Libya, the working class consisted mainly of immigrants. They left or were expelled during the uprising. We should have no illusions about class consciousness and organization within this working class under the Gadaffi dictatorship. But one thing is certain: without a class conscious working class that can form the core of the struggle, the petty-bourgeois masses will end up under (reactionary) bourgeois hegemony. Add to this the Libyan clan system. (Note that we here do not use the term petty in a derogatory sense, but as a description of very important social strata, which in alliance with the proletariat can play a crucial role for social progressive change.)
We see the result today as the Misrata militia in Tripoli carry out the same type of massacres that Gaddafi was supposed to carry out in Benghazi if his panzer troops had been able to take the city. Let us recall that several of our critiques then advocated NATO actions and JAS (Swedish) air strikes.
Our critics see the weakness of the working class and the left in today's Syria and simply conclude that only the "democratic" struggle can be on the agenda, without realizing that the problem is, in fact, the weakness of the labour movement. Our task must be to call attention to this fundamental problem and argue for policies that can change the situation. Today the dominating forces on the opposition side are either bourgeois politicians, who are hoping to occupy the power positions that the Assad clan now possesses, or jihadists, who want to establish an Islamic state based on Sharia. Above, we have seen that the FSA representative simply want power. This form of war is not a home ground of the working class. It is the home ground of the bourgeoisie, the jihadists and the warlords. And above all, the home ground of the Assad regime!!
Today more and more Syrian voices are raised demanding a truce. Our critics have said that it is up to the Syrians to decide it (that we should not try to exert influence on this), and that the blame (for the actual poor situation of the opposition) rests on the European and American left who have desisted from endorsing a U.S. and European intervention.
It is obviously qualified nonsense. Had a truce been concluded a year ago, the democratic anti-Assad forces would probably have stood much, much stronger than they do now. And untold sufferings would have been spared on the part of the Syrian people.
And the lessons from Libya and Egypt are also valid in Syria. Without
an independent labour movement, not even limited democratic changes can
Our solidarity and tasks
Our solidarity with the progressive, secular left forces in Syria must be political and aim at helping to clarify the differences in relation to other political tendencies. It means being critical not only to jihadist groups, but also to the FSA and the bourgeois dominated political leaderships, such as the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the opposition umbrella group, the National Coalition of Revolutionary and Resistance Forces (also abbreviated SNC, formed in November 2012), dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and various pro-imperialist bourgeois politicians (many of whom are exiled politicians that have long been abroad and have no real anchoring inside Syria). We cannot rely on any of these leaderships - their goals are not consistent with ours and we should not ignore that fact. We have no reason to act as their defence lawyers. On the contrary, we should openly criticize them when there is reason for it, and such criticism should not be branded as a support for Assad. It goes without saying that it is important that such criticism is expressed in appropriate forms – we should be ready to engage in dialogue with progressive tendencies, and endeavour not to appear as self-righteous wiseacres handing out lectures. Dialogue, as well as criticism, is also important for helping to adopt a healthy and democratic approach to disagreements - to be able to discuss even if there are major differences of opinion, which is inevitable during an uprising that is as complex and bloody as the one in Syria and when feelings tend to prevail over common sense and logical thinking. If we are to judge by the information that we have received from different sources regarding the approach of our comrades in the Syrian solidarity work in Sweden, they have not worked along these lines (more on that below).
It is also important not to assume a role of censorship and to deny or seek to explain away facts that are problematic. On the contrary, we should strive to bring such things to light – to state or formulate a problem is the first condition for it to be resolved. Moreover, we can and should be able to discuss problems related to propaganda, disinformation, exaggeration, conspiracy theories, etc., which always occur in wartime, and especially under civil wars. We should also be cautious, and refrain from disseminating, in an indiscriminately way, information that is doubtful (in such cases it is better to account for the different versions that exist).
Our organization is small and has limited resources. However, we possess a unique and rich political legacy that we should build on and share with others - that way we can make a difference. It is also important to make use of this rich heritage. We should primarily see our role as political, where the main focus is to promote the left-wing forces along the lines we sketched above, which should also permeate our press and various initiatives. Thus, we should not see ourselves or act primarily as a solidarity front or solidarity committee in support of the uprising. Such work should be handled alongside the SP, but preferably with the participation of SP members - in publications and propaganda belonging to solidarity organizations, we naturally have to take considerations other than those applicable to a political organization like SP. Nor should we act as arms lobbyists – it does not appertain to the areas where we can be useful.
To this we can add that SP (and the paper Internationalen) should put the emphasis on things that are not in the mainstream press and TV/radio: The left inside Syria, critical reviews of SNC and the National Coalition (composition, political objectives, etc.), descriptions of LCC (how they appear and work in practice, the problems they face, etc.), the background to the rebellion (such as the history of the Baath Party from its rise to power to today, economic, political, social, ethnic and religious conditions, etc.), the FSA structure, management and composition. Increasingly important is also the issue of the refugees and its consequences, as well as the situation for women and children.
When it comes to certain aspects of the situation in Syria, our knowledge is small or nearly non-existent. This goes for the labour movement. Therefore, we ought to tackle the issue, acquire information on workers' parties with proletarian roots, union organizations (there has been a state-run trade union - what does it matter today?), etc.
In this context, we should also draw attention to the role of the Fourth International, and particularly its press and presence on the Internet: The reporting and, especially, debate on Syria has been virtually absent. Very little has been published in International Viewpoint. Not even G. Achcar has been particularly productive (he has given some interviews). This suggests that there are disagreements, which makes debate and analysis even more urgent. We should push to get up Syria on the agenda – with opinion pieces, documents, etc. FI should facilitate the spreading of knowledge of most points mentioned above.
A question which we believe the SP so far has failed to act in a good manner concerns relations with the rest of the Swedish Left and especially the Syrians who are in Sweden. It is extremely important to combat all forms of sectarianism, to put the class interests over ethnic, religious, national and other divisive factors.
The fact that many Syrians living in Sweden actually support Assad, should lead to reflection: Is it because they are conscious hard-core reactionaries, or are there mainly other reasons, e.g. that they are afraid of what will happen if Assad should be overthrown - that they fear sectarian violence from Sunni fanatics? Such a fear is justified, which a lot of massacres and other abuses inside Syria can attest. We must take note of such things in order to bring about a dialogue with these groups, with the aim of moderating the contradictions and work for mutual understanding, and not in advance regard them as incorrigible Assad supporters. Obviously this is not easy, especially since there have not been any serious attempts in that direction. At this point, it seems that we have contributed to sharpen the contradictions with these groups - for example, when persons, in different contexts, label them as are fascists, say that they are dictatorship supporters, etc.- this is certainly not wise if we want to start a dialogue. That way, you only sharpen the contradictions and push them over to the Assad side.
In the long run, if we want to avoid terrible carnages, it is of utmost importance to deal with such problems. Our ability to influence the development in Syria through our actions in Sweden is of course very limited, but that should not prevent us from doing things that can lead the development in the right direction, if only marginally.
Certain members of our party, working with the Syria crisis, have adopted a similar attitude toward the specific Swedish left with roots in Maoism or Stalinism, such as the Left Party, the Communist Party and the so-called Myrdalians [well known author Jan Myrdal is the main figure]. To treat members and followers of these organisations – this applies foremost to the last two – as more or less conscious counter-revolutionaries, and to call in question whether they at all should be included in the "left", to stigmatize them as "Contras", and even call them fascists, is blind sectarianism and nothing else.
Of course they belong to the Left; they identify as anti-imperialists, they want to abolish capitalism, etc. But they have a defect theory and perception of reality, causing them to end up on the wrong side in many conflicts. That should be the starting point of our criticism, not demonization. Moreover, to treat them as pariahs means a devastating criticism of our whole tradition:
Are really the Myrdalians or the CP of today worse than, for example, the Maoists of the years 1970-83 (when they saw the Soviet Union as the main enemy, which made them support U.S. imperialism in any conflict against SU, flirt with virtually all the bourgeois dictatorships in the world, support China's attack on Vietnam, etc.) or the classical Stalinists of the 1930s (the policy during the Nazi rise in Germany, the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow trials, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the murders of many anti-Stalinist revolutionaries, including Trotsky, etc.)? Hardly, but how can it be that some of our comrades, in spite of that, treat them like they have never been more reactionary than they are now?
There must be an end to this sectarian attitude!
Principled and objective criticism: Yes! Demonization and sectarianism: No!
 The interview “FSA is against Geneva 2” is found here: http://en.masrawy.com/News/details/2013/11/7/133706/fsy-is-against-genev...
 There are many more Alawites in Turkey than there are in Syria – according to an estimate about 20 million.
Views on the FI resolution on Syria
On 25th of February 2014 the International Committee of the Fourth International voted by an ”overwhelming majority” for a resolution on solidarity with the Syrian people. This document does not, in our view, give the necessary strategic and tactical guidance demanded by documents from our International. We also believe that the conclusions reached are, quite simply, wrong.
The general line of the resolution is to support the armed struggle against the Assad regime.
‘The ongoing uprising against the Assad dictatorship, which started in March 2011, is a movement for democratic, social and economic rights similar to that which erupted in Tunisia and Egypt at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. It is part of the 'Arab Uprisings'‘.
The uprising did indeed start as a movement for democratic, social and economic rights, but today the situation is much more complex, much less black and white.
Regarding the Assad regime, the resolution describes it is as a dictatorship opposed by the people as a whole. The support from the Alawites is toned down and described as following;
‘The regime has enforced a harsh grip over the Alawite community, driving many of its most impoverished youth towards the army. They have tried to eliminate dissenting voices inside the Alawi community and to transform it into a political sect linked to their clan, although they have not succeeded in this.
The Alawi community has not benefited from any specific economic policies favouring them. The Alawi Mountain is the second most impoverished region after the North Eastern, populated mostly by Kurdish people. The region and the Alawi community have suffered just like others in the country from economic liberalization, the end of subsidies and high inflation.
The Syrian regime employs sectarianism in a conscious and deliberate way, especially in handpicking of the praetorian guard of the repressive apparatus around Assad.’
This attempt to reduce the support (which has grown in tandem with the growth of Jihadi influence over the opposition) for the Assad regime from not only the Alawites but also Christians and other minorities to clever manipulation from Assad's side is just not a serious analysis.
Nor is it serious to disregard the significance of the Sunni-Shia conflict in the whole region and the impact of previous events in Iraq in relation to what is at stake for the various Christian sects.
It is simply not the case that the struggle has been waged between all sectors of Syrian civil society and an isolated but militarily strong dictatorship. Had this been the case the Assad regime would not have existed after three years, and would not have made the advances it has done recently.
A somewhat curious passage in the resolution is the following:
‘Since the 1970s the regime has encouraged conservative Islam in order to add to its own legitimacy including by making large contributions Islamic schools and propagating Islam in the media. In 1973, following protests from some Sunni religious personalities, Hafiz Al Assad introduced an amendment to a new constitution, which declared that “the religion of the president is Islam”. This article has been kept in the “new” constitution adopted by the current regime in March 2012; which added a new clause: “Islamic jurisprudence is a source of all legislation”. Bachar Al Assad is continuing these policies and increasing collaboration with religious associations as well as accelerating neoliberal policies. These measures are accompanied by censorship, and the promotion of religious literature and Islamicization of higher education.’
The Assad faction has consistently been portraying itself as secular (not based on religion). In fact, this contrast to ISIS, Al-Nusra, Islamic Front etc has been, especially over the course of the past year, a strong “selling point” for gaining international sympathy. 
The resolution attempts to imply that the secularism was a mask and that the underlying direction was toward an Islamic state. But the Assad regime has never been interested in a religious Islamic state. It made whatever tactical alliances and adaptions it had to consolidate its power. If we look at the constitutional amendment of 1973 stating that “the religion of the president is Islam”, it corresponds, for example, to the statement of the Swedish constitution that the king is a Protestant. Despite that, Sweden is quite secular.
We used to say that Saddam Hussein's regime was a secular one. That did not mean that Islam played no role, but rather that there were Christian ministers and that the regime minimised discrimination of, for instance, Christians. The Assad regime is so thoroughly blood-soaked, has committed so many instances of brutal mass murder that we have no need of obfuscating our analysis in order to motivate our opposition. The resolution ably points to some of the regime´s ”merits”.
‘…. in 1990 [it] participated in the US-led Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, and has allowed its prisons to be used by the US for torture as part of the war against terror.’
However, when the resolution says the following about the reason for the spread of fundamentalism it completely misses the mark:
‘The imperialist occupation of Iraq and the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran have also contributed to the development of religious fundamentalism in the region. So too has the failure of much of the anti-war movement internationally to support the revolution in Syria.’
This implicit equalisation of the imperialist war mongers, the fundamentalist reactionary capitalist regional powers and the international anti-war movement is shocking.
We have seen similar arguments on the ”Democratic Revolution Syrian Style” web-site. There it was claimed that the jihadist takeover of Raqqa was due to Cuba and Venezuela! It was because these states did not support the revolt that the Syrian people turned to the right. The same site compared the anti-war movement in the West to the American Nazis that did not want war with Hitler-Germany. It is hard to interpret the above quote from the resolution as anything other than a tacit affirmation of this view, albeit without the bizarre examples.
What has the anti-war movement done to earn the ire of the resolution? Mobilized against American bombings? Are the authors of the resolution of the opinion that these mobilizations were wrong? ”Democratic Revolution Syrian Style” believes that. They openly propagate for an American intervention. The resolution consciously or unconsciously vacillates on the question.
The resolution demands:
‘Oppose all direct foreign military intervention, whether it is from western imperialist countries, Russia, regional powers or Hezbollah.’
‘Support the right of the people of Syria to determine the future of their country free from all foreign intervention.’
Excellent! But how does this fit with the criticism of the anti-war movement?
The resolution becomes even more contradictory when it raises the issue of imperialism. What does the resolution mean when it says:
‘While now claiming to be appalled at the crimes of Assad, imperialism is actively limiting direct humanitarian aid and military support to the Syrian people’s uprising.’
What kind of military support does imperialism restrict? Logically it can only be support from their own imperialistic camp. What is this if not a criticism against imperialism for holding back its own military intervention? We know that the leadership for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian National Council (SNC) has demanded military support (including bombings).
Do the authors of the resolution regret that it defaulted? Is that one of the reasons why they blame the anti-war movement in the West? An anti-war movement shaped by decades-long experiences of the real nature of imperialistic intervention and its consequences, regardless of how it has been presented, packaged and sugarcoated.
The resolution goes on to say:
‘Despite the hypocritical claims by US imperialism that it supports the opposition, it has prevented the delivery to the Syrian National Council of the weapons that they asked for to defend themselves against Assad’s army.’
As of today, the U.S. has stepped up deliveries, expert assistance and advice along with the Saudis etc (it has now also been reported that the Saudis deliver anti-aircraft missiles). Is this a positive development? Who are accessing these weapons and will it significantly strengthen the "democratic, progressive forces"?
Would it not be better to try to limit or throttle the arms flow to all sides, including of course to Assad?
On peace talks the resolution says:
‘The current peace talks are also an attempt to split the opposition and force the FSA/SNC into power sharing with the Assad regime to fight “terrorism”.’
In any peace talks the imperialists are looking to obtain advantages for themselves, just as they in their material support to belligerent opposition groups seek benefits for themselves and nothing else.
Where do we stand on the issue of a cease fire? We believe that we must be in favour of one.
For the authors of the resolution this option seems not only irrelevant but quite simply non-existent! They seem to see a military victory for the opposition as the only viable alternative. But this does not take into account the actualities on the ground where the heavyweights are the Islamist and jihadist forces. The resolution describes the situation like this:
‘But fundamentalist Islamists are a lot stronger now than at the beginning of the war. They have received money and resources from Gulf States, giving them an increased military advantage and they are therefore able to attract volunteers.’
The truth is that they dominate. The truth is that they are practicing terror in the territories that they control. The truth is that they oppress and murder democratic oppositionists.
The resolution chooses to positively interpret the situation by saying:
‘The Islamist forces, backed by different external forces (primarily Qatar and the Saudi kingdom) are warring amongst themselves – militarily as well as politically. One of the most positive developments over recent months has been the resistance of large parts of the population to these Islamist forces.’
We believe it is more correct to say that the jihadist reactionary forces have grown so strong and exert a repression so massive that the democratic sectors have not only to struggle against Assad but are also forced to defend themselves against the jihadist opposition.
What we are seeing is a struggle for hegemony between ISIS, al-Nusra (now al-Qaeda's representative in Syria) and the Islamic Front (the largest rebel coalition). One could see this as a struggle between al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda extra and al-Qaeda lite.
Ordinary Sunni Muslims are forced to defend themselves against ISIS and al-Nusra. And Alawites, Christians and Kurds have to defend themselves against various jihadist groups, etc. We see no hope in these increasingly bloody actions. We see a disaster unfolding.
Previous calls for a ceasefire as a necessary initiative have been portrayed as a betrayal of the Syrian people. And the international left has been accused of not supporting the struggle. Is the resolution referring to the left when it talks about the anti-war movement? Is there a betrayal?
There exists a section of the left that really supports the Assad regime. But it is not dominant. And it is blatantly and obviously wrong. No members of the Swedish Socialist Party have supported Assad and we certainly do not. So what makes our betrayal? Apparently it is by openly stating what should be increasingly obvious:
The Syrian people are being subjected to gigantic suffering. There is little or no chance of military victory for any of the progressive forces that have fought with almost unfathomable bravery and heroism. They have our complete solidarity. But that does not mean that we have to unconditionally support their tactical decisions unconditionally. It is possible to say:
”We share your aims, but not your tactics. We want you to survive and be able to play a role in the future. If the war continues it will be the forces of reaction that wins.”
It is not a betrayal to negotiate when you see that a military victory is impossible. It is a duty.
It is tragic that the Free Syrian Army has not been able to initiate negotiations. It has been left to individuals to take individual initiatives. Today we have millions of refugees. Instead of orderly retreat we have disintegration. We must be in solidarity with the real Syrian people. With the one of flesh and blood: With the Syrian children, with the Syrian women...
If a ceasefire had been reached two years ago, the situation would have been much more favourable for a continuation of the struggle for democratic and social changes.
We have a question to the authors of the resolution: Do you seriously mean that it would be possible for the weak democratic and progressive forces to take on and defeat ISIS, al-Nusra, the Islamic front, pro-western militias and the Assad regime? Do you see this as a realistic scenario?
The consequences of a total defeat of the left would be catastrophic. Not only would it lead to the consolidation of a very repressive regime, it would also lead to a profound demoralisation which could take decades to overcome before a new generation could once again would be able to resume the struggle for dignity, democracy and socialism.
The resolution gives no strategic guidance other than a proclamatory support to the struggle. Do we not, as socialists, have a duty to point out the problems and suggest solutions?
Solidarity with the Syrian people must not consist of abstract principles. The sufferings of the Syrian people is terribly concrete. We want this suffering to end. We want left forces to survive and be able to form the future of Syria.
March 27, 2014
Nine long-standing members of the Socialist Party, (Swedish section of the FI).
 The resolution is here: http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3313
 See i.e. what Assad himself says in “Syria's Assad says political Islam project has failed”
 “How Cuba and Venezuela Scabbed on the Syrian Revolution”, http://notgeorgesabra.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/how-cuba-and-venezuela-sc...
 See http://news.antiwar.com/2014/02/14/saudis-give-syrian-rebels-anti-aircra... and http://world.time.com/2014/02/15/report-saudis-to-arm-syrian-rebels-with.... Also http://news.antiwar.com/2014/03/28/obama-may-allow-anti-aircraft-missile...