Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The French election: Macron or Le Pen

Like most elections these days, the French presidential election have been unpredictable. First, it looked like Sarkozy would make a comeback, then Fillon beat him to it only to be taken out by a corruption scandal. Meanwhile Hollande bowed out of the race, leaving Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon to fight over the left-wing vote. And then, there were two: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.
Naturally, people were shocked that the far-right candidate got through. Just as they were shocked that Trump made it past the primaries, got nominated and took the White House. Some people have not been connecting the dots. Of course, this is partly down to distance. No one in France was surprised to see the National Front get past the first round. The truth is that the only certainty of this election was that Le Pen would make it to the second round. Everything else was up for grabs, or so it seemed for a while.
Now we’re told that the French establishment will mobilise a republican front united behind Macron in order to stop Marine Le Pen. This was how the French political class stopped Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002. The Socialist Party and the Republicans put aside their differences to ensure the conservative Jacques Chirac won a handsome victory of 82%. It didn’t amount to much because Chirac was fantastically shit, and the National Front continued to grow towards its current stature.
Today the polls suggest Le Pen will get around 40% of the vote and Macron will come out with 60%. Fifteen years ago, the FN got less than 20% and the Republicans secured over 80%. Although it looks unlikely right now, it may not be too far in the future before we see France elect a fascist head of state. No doubt this will come after another re-run of 2002, where the left and the right gather behind one mediocre centrist in hope of stopping the brownshirts. But for now, the name of that mediocre centrist is Macron.
The politics of a void
Much like Obama in 2008, Macron has been successful by posing as a blank slate for voters to project their hopes and dreams onto. Yet the rise of Macron is a part of the decline of the Socialist Party. It is no insignificant fact that the leading presidential candidate was a member of the PS and a part of the Hollande government until fairly recently. Indeed, Macron was the Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs under Manuel Valls.
What we will probably end up calling ‘Macronism’ is set to be another variation on Third Way politics. We know what to expect from Macron because we’ve seen it all before with Clinton, Blair and Schroeder. There are some differences of tone, of course. In his most noteworthy rally, Macron just screams at his audience like his nuts are caught on something metallic. By contrast, Blair felt the hand of history on his genitalia and spoke like a fervent preacher.
This time the Third Way comes with an astroturfed ‘movement’ and a candidate styled as an ‘outsider’ despite having all the credentials of an insider. The conditions did not favour a mainstream candidate, so it was necessary for the centre ground to reassert itself outside the mainstream. En Marche! (‘On the Move!’) was launched as a neither-left-nor-right platform with anti-establishment rhetoric. The purpose was always to deepen the neoliberal project of past governments. Except Macron says he will deliver where they all failed.
‘Macronomics’, as we will probably talk about it in the future, consists of tax cuts for the rich and a smaller state bound by an even smaller corset. Austerity is the name of the game, except not for capital. Macron promises to slash the budget by €60 billion and cut 120,000 jobs in the civil service. He wants greater integration within the EU and wants to sign up to CETA – the Euro-Canadian free trade deal. It is a fantasy for Nineties liberals.
Unfortunately for Macron, the Nineties ended a while ago and the situation today is very different. Not only is French society as volatile as ever, the world has seen a populist tide sweep away mainstream governments. There is a crisis of European social democracy, where only the far-right stand to gain until the radical left can rebuild itself and find the strategy it needs. But this also means that the Macron government can be challenged. The game is not over just yet.
The extreme centre is back
At last, the liberal commentariat has found its man: a millionaire stockbroker with an astroturfed mass of support. Mainstream European opinion long ago coalesced around Macron, he is supposedly the guy who can save the centre ground and restore the Franco-German alliance. The hope is that the populist zeitgeist can be vanquished, and the clocks turned back, in just one vote. The illusion is that President Macron will change much for the better.
Without a united front the French left was divided between Hamon and Melenchon, leaving a space open for Macron to reach the second round. Of course, I do think everyone should hold their nose and vote against Le Pen. However, the problem is that a negative vote is not enough in politics. Macron stands for a style of social and economic liberalism that is rapidly going out of date all over the world. And, in the end, the Macron programme will likely leave Le Pen and the FN in a much stronger position.
The good news is that La France Insoumise (France Defiant), the movement formed around Melenchon, might well be the basis for a new left-wing party and an offensive against the centre ground and the far-right. All the French left can do is try to build the alternative their country desperately needs. But, for the time being, you can expect more racism, more violence and an even more precarious existence for the working class. And that’s with the liberals in power.
This article was originally published by Souciant Magazine.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The French election: Melenchon's Moment

The rise of Jean-Luc Melenchon has caught the international media off guard. After ignoring the man for months, the English-speaking press is suddenly obliged to analyse the chances of the most viable left-wing candidate. Even the Anglophone left has been caught out here.
As always the English left is divided over its own concerns and strategy. Some see Melenchon as the only option in a race where the mainstream candidates are faltering. Others are suspicious of Melenchon’s platform and, in classical sectarian style, demand more purity of socialist convictions.
In short, the English left doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind about Melenchon, but this doesn’t matter if Melenchon makes it to the second round. The French people will decide.
Nevertheless, it’s worth exploring the reasons behind this division. It appears that the English left is looking at France in terms of the crises it faces at home. Brexit has polarised the left and the questions of nationhood rests at the core of this. For better or worse, Melenchon remains stubbornly committed to the idea of the nation-state. And this draws suspicion from some quarters of the left.
Unsubmissive France
A part of this is cultural, the English left is wary of all nationalisms. This is understandable given the history of flag-waving in the British Isles. It’s not like red patriotism has ever taken hold in England. A left-wing civic nationalism has emerged in Scotland and Wales, yet English nationalism remains trapped by potent forms of ethnic and cultural chauvinism.
It is possible to appeal to patriotism in the French context given that the nation-state itself was the creation of the 1789 revolution. The dark side of French history – the empire, slavery, the civilising missions in Africa, and the capitulation to fascism – are conveniently dropped; but this mythmaking is necessary to every form of patriotism. Whether or not it is a good thing is separate from its effectuality.
What cannot be disputed is that Melenchon’s charismatic appeals to French history and culture have gripped the imagination of many people. He has successfully married a left social democratic project to la patrie. The French left may be divided over strategy and candidates, but it’s clear who stands the best chance of subsuming all left forces under one umbrella in time for the second round: Benoit Hamon and Philippe Poutou were never going to play this role.
Not only does Melenchon have the edge because of his red patriotism, he has the Front de Gauche (The Left Front) – a coalition of the Left Party (his own creation), the French Communist Party and rogue elements of the New Anticapitalist Party and the Socialist Party. This bloc has allowed Melenchon supporters to move freely outside the French ruling class and the European establishment.
It’s why Melenchon has been able to build France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) as a Podemos-style left populist insurgency. This has granted Melenchon a great deal of credibility. The fusion of grassroots and social media activism created the basis for his candidacy to finally breakthrough into the mainstream. It sets an example for the wider European left about how to advance against all the odds.
Questions of nationhood
At the same time, there is a lot of disinformation going around. We’re told Melenchon is pro-Assad and pro-Putin because he opposes NATO in Ukraine and Western involvement in Syria. We’re told Melenchon is “soft” on racism and “hard” on immigrants. I can’t disperse all the claims here, but I will look at the debate around immigration – which is a vital one in the election.
As I understand it, Melenchon has argued for a ‘regularisation’ of illegal migrants in France so as to document and officialise migration. This seems like a good alternative to what Marine Le Pen wants, namely a racist police state based on the state of emergency. However, it is also true that the officialisation of migrants is a pre-condition for whether or not they are deported or granted residency. This is where the debate begins.
There is an ongoing debate about freedom of movement on the left. A traditional social democratic position would be that the flow of migrant labour has to be controlled under capitalist conditions because it serves as a reserve army of labour. In effect, the migrants provide cheap labour and in turn threaten the wages of workers in the host country. This is until the migrant workers can be unionised and brought into the labour movement.
The opposing view is that the free movement of labour is a progressive step forwards for the working class because it prevents the illegal status of migrant labour. After all, the existence of illegal workers is conducive to greater exploitation, not a barrier to low wages and falling standards of living. So if you want to stop wages from being undermined, you ought to throw out the possibility for illegal migration. Thus, free movement has a great deal of support on the radical left.
This is how the opening up of borders can allow for working class unity and an equal playing field. The answer to wage competition on that equal playing field is not to erect barriers, but to extend solidarity through trade unions. Yet there remains a contingent of left support for restricting immigration, and this has to be accounted for and understood. The Melenchon platform is not free from the more old-fashioned centre-left arguments about the necessity of migration controls. But it’s not inherently anti-migrant.
You can disagree with the line that border controls and workers’ rights are compatible, however, it is hardly in the same platform as the Le Pen position. After all the Front National wants to abolish dual nationality and force French Africans and Arabs to choose (at least until they can be deported back to their ancestral lands) whether they are really French or not. Make no mistake about it: the FN is still fighting for an ethnically pure France, whether Le Pen admits it or not.
Down with the centre!
It still looks like the battle will be between Melenchon, Le Pen and Macron. Faced with this three-way split, the French electorate has a real choice for perhaps the first time in decades. The hope of Melenchon supporters is that Macron can be knocked out in the first round. If Melenchon and Le Pen both make it to the second round, the French may just get to make the kind of decision which was denied to the American people in 2016.
It could be the battle of outsiders that should have taken place between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Yet liberal centrists placed their bets on Emmanuel Macron and the alleged ‘safeness’ of his candidacy. Many American liberals believed the same about Hillary Clinton. They thought it was impossible for a self-described socialist to win against a populist outsider. They were so arrogant as to believe Trump could not win, and the flaws of Clinton were dwarfed by his vulgarity.
The French election is even more volatile. At first, it looked like Francois Fillon would be the main challenger to Marine Le Pen, but he has since been blown out of the water by a corruption scandal. The Socialist Party never stood a chance thanks to the unspeakable mediocrity of the Hollande government. Then the party base surprised everyone by picking Hamon. And then Macron emerged as a serious contender.
Suddenly, the liberal commentariat had found its man: a millionaire stockbroker with an astroturfed mass of support. Mainstream European liberal opinion began to coalesce around Macron, as the guy who can save the centre ground and restore the Franco-German compact. The populist zeitgeist could be defeated once and for all. But the possibility that it might be too late escapes their minds.
Almost everywhere you look the centre ground is in crisis. The time for moderation and compromise is not today; there is no gradualist strategy for fending off Le Pen indefinitely. Instead, the only sensible choice is to take the consensus with both hands and throw it to the ground shattering it into a million pieces. It’s only with Melenchon that France and Europe have a chance.
This article was originally published by Souciant Magazine.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

An Interview with a Syrian radical

Joseph Daher is a Swiss-Syrian academic and activist. Originally from Aleppo, Daher is a staunch opponent of the Syrian Ba’ath regime. He maintains the website Syria Freedom Forever, which is dedicated to building a secular and socialist Syria. In his latest book Hezbollah: The Political Economy of the Party of God, Daher takes apart the misconceptions around Hezbollah and its role in Lebanese society.
In the years since the Arab Spring began the international left has become increasingly divided over Syria, particularly as the revolution turned into a civil war with plenty of interference from outside. As a result, the left has diverged into at least three main camps: those who see Western imperialism as the main foe, and others who claim Western intervention is vital for the Syrian rebels to triumph. But these two postures are not the only positions available.
There is another strain on the left, those who see no hope and no justice in either American or Russian involvement. Rather the case for Syrian emancipation requires a critical account of the different international forces at work in the civil war. Not just Russia and the United States, but also the roles played by the Gulf powers, Turkey and Iran. This is the premise of every serious analysis. And this is a vital part of Daher’s standpoint.
The following Souciant interview with Joseph Daher examines the poison gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in the context of the civil war, as well as the interventions of foreign powers, the class character of the Assad regime and the politics of the Syrian opposition.
The gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun stirs memories of the Ghouta attack in 2013 for a lot of observers. Why do you think the Assad regime resorts to such measures?
First of all, I would like to say that since the chemical attacks Eastern Ghouta in 2013 until the gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, many attacks with chemicals occurred and on a regular basis since 2013. This despite the fact Assad declared in June 2014 that chemical weapons had been removed from Syria to be destroyed. These kinds of attacks have become so frequent in Syria that most have not made it to the international news headlines.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has actually documented 167 attacks using a toxic substance since the first U.N. resolution in September 2013. Forty-five of those attacks were carried out after August 2015, when the U.N. passed a resolution establishing the Joint Investigative Mechanism to identify perpetrators using chemical weapons in Syria. In 2017, SNHR documented 9 attacks using toxic substances by regime forces.
The chemical attack was another step in the murderous campaign to destroy what is left of the popular opposition to the Assad regime.  After putting under siege and destroying Eastern Aleppo, the most important center of the popular and democratic opposition, and forcing the survivors as well as the survivors from other besieged opposition areas to go to Idlib, the regime is now concentrating its forces on bombing the civilian population in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Syrian regime has actually focused its use of poison gases on opposition-held areas where 97% of its chemical attacks targeted opposition-held areas while 3% of the attacks were carried out in ISIS-held areas.
The objective of chemical weapons is clearly to instil terror in people, while there are few ways for civilians in liberated areas to protect themselves. This also showed the impunity with which the regime conducts its war against the Syrian people.
Many people have called for a military intervention against the Assad regime and we’ve just seen the US bomb a Syrian government airbase. What’s your view of Trump’s missile strike in response to Khan Sheikhoun?
I think we need to understand why for some sections of Syrians, especially within the country, were satisfied or happy at US bombing of a regime’s military base from which the chemical attack was launched.  After more than 6 years of a constant war and in total impunity of the regime against the Syrian people, this was the first time a military base of the regime was targeted for its murderous actions.
This said, no kind of optimism or illusions should be put in US administration in bringing anything positive to the Syrian people to achieve democracy or relieve even their pain. Many Syrians in liberated areas also understand this very well, as we can find many testimonies saying for example that the strikes were not to punish Assad too harshly, but to make him understand that he must not cross the “red lines”, in other words the use of chemical weapons, while it is okay that its military forces continue to use barrel bombs, vacuum rockets, cluster bombs, phosphorus weapons, etc.

Residents of Khan Sheikhoun actually suffered from regime’s bombing few days after the chemical attack on Saturday, 8th of April, which killed one woman and wounded several other people. Regimes and Russian warplanes also bombed last weekend various provinces, resulting in the deaths of new civilians.
The USA have not changed their strategy in Syria: the priority is still “the war on terror”, in other words Daesh, and try to reach stability in Syria in maintaining the regime, with at its head or not Assad. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is expected to visit Moscow on April 12 for talks with Russian officials, actually said on ABC’s This Week program there was “no change” to the U.S. military posture toward Syria.
The way also the US bombing occurred showed that they did not want to hit too “hard”, to say the least. Moscow officials confirmed that they received advanced warning from the U.S. about its strike on Syria, while according to some testimonies, regime soldiers were prepared for the 35-minute strike and, in advance, evacuated personnel and moved equipment out of the area. Within 24 hours of the strike, regime’s warplanes were actually again taking off from the bombed Shayrat air base. So for the moment, a change of strategy of the USA is still to be seen, although we also have to be careful as well as Trump is unpredictable, as he likes to say.
In addition to this, recent American airstrikes in Mosul, Aleppo and Raqqa, which are supposedly aimed at stopping ISIS, have also brought about large civilian death tolls.  They have been some of the deadliest since U.S. airstrikes on Syria started in 2014. On Saturday 8th of April, At least 15 civilians, including four children, were killed in a suspected US-led airstrike on Saturday near the city of Raqqa. This shows that greater U.S. military intervention in Syria will only lead to more death and destruction. According to Airwars, during the month of March alone, as many as a thousand civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in the name of the “War on Terror”.
In general, since coming to office, the Trump administration has given every indication that its goal is to promote authoritarian, racist, sexist Arab leaders and strengthen the repressive environment of the Middle East. These realities not only reveal the Trump administration’s motives but also compel us to condemn all the states that are carrying out wars against innocent civilians in the Middle East:  The Syrian and Iranian regimes, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, all the other authoritarian regimes in the region, IS, Al Qaida, and other religious fundamentalist movements, as well as Russian and Western military interventions. 
These moves are all part of an imperialist logic and the maintenance of authoritarian and unjust systems.  They all oppose the self-determination of the peoples of the region and their struggles for emancipation. Hence, anti-war activists whether in the Middle East or the West need to address all forms of repression and authoritarianism, and condemn all forms of foreign intervention against the interests of the people of the region, instead of limiting their criticisms only to the West and Israel.
Clearly, no peaceful and just solution in Syria can be reached with Bashar al-Assad and his clique in power.  He is the biggest criminal in Syria and must be prosecuted for his crimes instead of being legitimized by international and regional imperialist powers.
Some people on the left have tried to defend the Syrian Ba’ath regime as a ‘lesser evil’ to Islamic State and jihadi rebels. How would you describe the character of the Assad regime and its role in the region?
This perception of these sections of the left is completely wrong and destructive of the “lesser evil”. The solution to struggle against Islamic fundamentalist movements does not lie in the collaboration with authoritarian regimes like the Assad regime, quite on the opposite. When it comes to the IS and similar organizations, it’s necessary to tackle their root causes: authoritarian regimes and international and regional foreign interventions.
IS emerged as the result of crushing the space for popular movements linked to the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The interventions of regional and international states have contributed to ISIS’s development as well. In addition to this, neoliberal policies have impoverished the popular classes, together with the repression of democratic social and trade union forces, have been key in providing ISIS and Islamic fundamentalist forces the space to grow.
The left must understand that only by getting rid of these conditions can we resolve the crisis. That means we have to side with the democratic and progressive groups on the ground fighting to overthrow authoritarian regimes, defeat the counter-revolutionary Islamic fundamentalists, and replace neoliberalism with a more egalitarian social order in Syria and the region. Without addressing the political and socio-economic conditions that allowed and enabled the development of the IS, its capacity of nuisance or that of other similar groups will remain.
The solution is therefore of course to oppose the IS and other reactionary and jihadists forces, which as a reminder the Ba’ath regime has encouraged their developments at the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria by liberating the worst jihadist and Salafist personalities from its prisons, while killing and repressing democratic and progressive forces, but also and especially the barbaric, criminal and authoritarian regime of the Assad family.
The Assad regime is the main responsible of the disaster in Syria and of the exile of millions of Syrians. Both actors are barbaric and they feed themselves and are therefore to be overthrown to hope to build a democratic, secular and social society in Syria and elsewhere. This requires the support of democratic and popular movements that oppose these two counter revolutionary forces (authoritarian regimes and Islamic fundamentalist forces) and different forms of international (United States and Russia) and regional imperialisms (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel and Turkey) that are all fighting against the interests of the people in struggle in the region.
The Assad regime is an authoritarian, capitalist and patrimonial state using various policies such as sectarianism, harsh repression, tribalism, conservatism, and racism to rule, very far from being anti-imperialist and secular as presented by some of its supporters. The patrimonial nature of the state means the centres of power (political, military and economy) within the regime were concentrated in one family and its clique, the Assad, similar to Libya and Gulf monarchies for example, therefore pushing the regime to use all the violence at its dispositions to protect its rule.
In the economic sector, for example, following the accession to power of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian regime engaged in an increased and accelerated process of implementation of neoliberal economic policies. The latter have benefited in particular a small oligarchy, which had proliferated since the era of his father, because of its mastery of the networks of economic patronage and their loyal customers. Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, the richest man in Syria, perfectly embodied this Mafia-like process of privatization conducted by the regime in favour of its owns. Makhlouf controlled huge sectors of the economy directly or indirectly, according to some nearly 60%, thanks to a complex network of financial holdings.
In addition it has played a destructive role regionally, collaborating with various imperialist forces. We shouldn’t forget that Assad’s regime collaborated with the second gulf war in 1991 with US led coalition. Syria participated in 2001 in the war on terror working with US security officials. In 1976, Syria intervened in Lebanon to crush the Palestinian resistance and the Lebanese national movements, a coalition of nationalist and leftist forces. The regime has also historically instrumentalized and cooperated with jihadist groups after the Iraqi invasion by the USA in 2003 or Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon in 2007, while liberating most of the jihadists and Islamic extremists in the various amnesty calls at the beginning of the Syrian revolutionary process.
In what ways does the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad differ from the way his father ran the country?
The structures and core of the Ba’ath regime were built by Hafez al-Assad at its arrival in power in 1970 and they have rivalled by their murderous repressive campaigns. This being said some real changes did take place.
From 2000, Bashar al-Assad strengthened the patrimonial nature of the state in the hands of the Assad family and relatives through a process of accelerated implementation of neoliberal policies and the replacement of sections of the old guard by relatives or close individuals to Bashar al-Assad.
The first years of Bashar al-Assad in power were actually concentrated on establishing himself as the main decision maker and marginalizing the centers of power within the regime challenging this aim. This process was achieved as we have seen in 2005 with the resignation and then departure of Abdel Halim Khaddam in exile in 2005. It is at this period that the social market economy strategy was launched. It constituted in many ways the culmination of at least two decades of regime-bourgeoisie reconciliation.
The social market economy strategy led to a shift in the social base of the regime constituted at its origins of peasants, government employees, some section, with at the heart of the regime coalition were the crony capitalists – the rent-seeking alliance of political brokers (led by Bashar’s mother’s family) and the regime supportive bourgeoisie. It was this bourgeoisie that funded 2007 Assad re-elections and the one that expressed its support for the ruling regime by propaganda and proclamations in the first months of the revolution when demonstrations of support for the Assad regime were still a pressing need for the regime, in addition to funding after militias loyal to the regime.
This shift was paralleled by disempowerment of the traditional corporatist organizations of workers and peasants and the co-optation in their place of business groups, while a new labor law ended what the regime’s section pushing for neoliberal policies called overprotection of workers. The corporative and fierce nature of the state under Bashar al-Assad was even more weakened than at the time of Hafez al-Assad, relying exclusively in coercive policies as the corporative organizations were undermined considerably. In other words, the reconfiguration of authoritarianism under Bashar did not strengthen it but on the opposite limited even more its popular basis.
Large section of the society left out of the liberalization process, particularly from villages to medium sized cities, would be at the forefront of the uprising. The policies of the regime were opposing the interests of the popular classes and serving and benefiting a small minority of crony capitalists linked to the ruling class. This is the principle contradiction the Syrian popular masses had and have to face until today.
In terms of foreign policy, the major change was the deepening of relations with Iran and Hezbollah, not only considered tactical allies, which we can use on some occasions, but strategic ones.
The absence of democracy and the growing impoverishment of large parts of Syrian society, in a climate of corruption and increasing social inequality, prepared the ground for the popular insurrection, which thus needed no more than a spark.
It’s often said that the Syrian political opposition differs from the military front. To what extent have Islamists taken over the frontline in the struggle against the state? Does this pose a problem for the revolution?
We should remember first that the Syrian grassroots civilian opposition was the primary engine of the popular uprising against the Assad regime. They sustained the popular uprising for numerous years by organizing and documenting protests and acts of civil disobedience, and by motivating people to join protests. The earliest manifestations of the “coordinating committees” (or tansiqiyyat) were neighborhood gatherings throughout Syria.
The regime specifically targeted these networks of activists, who had initiated demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, and campaigns in favor of countrywide strikes. Their qualities as organizers and their democratic and secular positions undermined the propaganda of the regime, which proclaimed that “armed Islamic extremists” constituted the entire opposition. Large numbers of dissidents were imprisoned, killed, or forced into exile on the back of this lie.
Despite this Syrians continued to play an important role in the ongoing revolution and led various forms of popular resistance against the regime. By early 2012, there were approximately 400 different tansiqiyyat in Syria, for example, despite intense repression from regime security forces. On top of this, Syrian revolutionaries would later endure the authoritarianism of various religious fundamentalist forces (like IS, Al-QaidaJaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham), which enjoyed wide expansion across the country and attempted to co-opt the revolution or crush its democratic and inclusive message.
Activists also established popular organizations and put together democratic, social, educational, and cultural activities. Local radio stations and newspapers sprang up. Many campaigns opposing both the regime and Islamic fundamentalist forces emerged. All the while, activists and grassroots organizations strove to deliver an inclusive message against sectarianism and racism. These organizers challenged some armed groups’ authoritarian practices and opposed Islamic fundamentalism.
Tragically, each defeat of the democratic resistance strengthened and benefited the Islamic fundamentalist forces on the ground. The rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements and their dominations on the military scene in some regions was negative for the revolution, as they did not shared its objectives (democracy, social justice and equality).
These movements not only acted as a repellent for the far majority of religious and ethnic minorities, and women with their sectarian and reactionary discourses and behaviors, but also to sections of Arab Sunni populations in some liberated areas where we have seen demonstrations against them, more especially to large sections of the middle class in Damascus and Aleppo. They attacked and continue to do so the democratic activists, while they often tried to impose their authority on the institutions developed by locals in areas liberated from the region, bringing often resistance from local populations against their authoritarian behaviors.
As I understand it, the Syrian revolution established democratically elected councils to run public services and provide water, food, education and health-care in the areas under rebel control. How do these councils relate to the armed struggle?
By the end of 2011 and toward the beginning of 2012, regime forces started to withdraw, or were expelled, by opposition armed groups from an increasing number of regions across Syria. In the void they left behind, grassroots organizations began to evolve, essentially forming ad-hoc local governments.
On many occasions, popular and local coordination committee activists were the main nuclei of the local councils. In some regions liberated from the regime, civil administrations were also established to make up for the absence of the state and take charge of its duties in various fields, like schools, hospitals, water systems, electricity, communications, welcoming internally displaced persons, cleaning the streets, taking the garbage away from the city center, agricultural projects, and many other initiatives.
Local councils were either elected or established on consensus. In addition, some local councils encouraged campaigns of activists around democratic, artistic, educational, and health-related issues. It is important to note that many popular youth organizations were established throughout the country, as well free media outlets such as newspapers and radios.
These local councils represent democratic alternatives in Syria, free from the regime and reactionary movements, which is precisely why the areas in which they operate are often the most targeted by the regime and its allies. At the same time, this does not mean that problems and contradictions did not exist in some Local Councils, such a lack of women’s participation or a lack of representatives from minority communities. Still, it was impossible to ignore the way that popular power flourished in even dire conditions.
However, all the cities and neighborhoods in which there was a popular, democratic, and inclusive alternative were targeted, such as Eastern Aleppo or the city of Daraya in the province of Damascus. They are in fact still being targeted along with the civilian infrastructures on which these experiences are based. Between March 2011 and June 2016, 382 medical facilities were attacked, killing more than 700 medical workers. Assad and Putin are responsible for 90 percent of these assaults. They have also bombed other civilian institutions, including humanitarian workers, as well as bakeries, schools, and factories.
It estimated that around more than 250 valid local councils in the opposition-held areas are still operating. In mid January 2017, elections were held for the first time in Idlib to elect a civilian council of 25 representatives to manage their city, nearly two years after it was overrun captured by an armed coalition called Army of the Conquest (Jaysh al-Fateh), led by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Until then, it was a committee appointed by the Army of Conquest that had run the city’s affairs.
These examples of popular and democratic self-organizations are the elements most feared by the regime since 2011.  Since 2011, the regime has most feared these democratic organizations, even with all their imperfections. Assad worries much less about the corrupt and exiled official opposition and the Islamic fundamentalist forces. After all, the regime’s authoritarian and sectarian practices encouraged and fostered ISIS’s, Jabhat al-Nusra’s, and other similar organizations’ development — better to have a Islamic fundamentalist foe than one that could capture widespread international solidarity and popular legitimacy at home.
The relation of local councils with armed opposition groups depended from the equilibrium of forces between these two and if the opposition armed groups had a good relation with local civilians. This said, often problems occurred between these two entities, while at the same time some relations were models to follow such as Darayya before it was recaptured by the regime in 2016 and its population displaced.
In the town of Darayya, the FSA factions were under the direct authority of the Local Council and any military operation had to be coordinated with it. The city also disposed of only one financial treasury, which managed the donations and financial assistance given to the city.  The local council was in charge of distributing the funds, which were allocated to various services such as the support of the FSA factions, relief and humanitarian operations and the distribution of daily aid to the besieged population in the city. The Local Council also ordered them to avoid any kind of human rights violations and any extremist sectarian discourse or behavior.
This article was originally published by Souciant Magazine.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Tell me lies about Syria

We're told that the Syrian civil war is just a proxy conflict between various powers: Bashar al-Assad is the face of an axis of resistance forged by Iran and Russia, while the US and its allies are backing the Islamist rebels as they try to takeover Syria bit by bit. This wrongheaded narrative has become incredibly powerful. The Syrian revolution has been subsumed into a geopolitical analysis of regional players.

The agency of armed groups in Syria has been supplanted for the flows of arms from the Gulf states and the US, the role of Turkey, the militias organised by Iran and the air campaign of Russian fighter jets. The context of the Arab Spring is completely lost, and the left-nationalist character of the uprising is concealed from public view. Instead, the Syrian civil war is just another senseless event, or the proxy struggle between the West and its anti-imperialist foes.

Through this narrow lens the use of poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun is either a false flag operation or just the symptom of the spiralling chaos of war. It looks like the Assad regime and its Russian patrons have resorted to poison gas out of exhaustion. The target is primarily civilian because the basis of the revolution were the elected councils fostered in rebel-held territory. This democratic alternative had to be snuffed out.

At the same time, the Western powers - the US, Britain and France, in particular - have not done much at all to support the Syrian opposition and the cause of a democratic Syria. The political support for the rebels only meant limited supplies of arms and funds, while the US has been happy to collaborate with Russia in bombing Syria. France and Britain have too taken to bombing the country. Yet the West has failed to provide air drops of food aid and take responsibility for the humanitarian fallout.

Although I oppose the West bombing Syria, don't mistake me for a fool who thinks Assad is worth defending. The Syrian regime is responsible for the bulk of deaths and suffering in the country, and it has a long record of collusion with the United States. The Assads sided with the US against Iraq in 1991 and the 'rendition programme' of torturing terror suspects after 2003. There's a reason the Blair government considered bestowing an honorary knighthood on Bashar al-Assad.

Don't tell me the Syrian Ba'ath regime is "anti-imperialist". Hafez al-Assad seized power from Salah Jadid in late 1970 after dragging his heels over the Syrian intervention on the side of the PLO in Jordan. At the time, the PLO was fighting to bring down the Hashemite monarchy and takeover the country. Perhaps fearing a rival Arab nationalist regional power, Assad was not eager to support Yasser Arafat. This is also why Syria would invade and occupy Lebanon in 1976.

The Assad regime sought to clip the wings of the PLO and prevent the Lebanese Left from taking over Lebanon. The Syrian occupation would converge with American and Israeli interests in keeping the Christian Maronites in power and expelling the PLO from Lebanon. Later, Syria would support the US military response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. This would help bring the Lebanese civil war to an end, as the Iraqi regime would withdraw support for its allies in the war.

The Syrian Ba'ath regime was no more "anti-imperialist" than its rival in Iraq. Both Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad were Soviet clients for many years, before defecting to the American camp. Iraq invaded Iran with full US approval, whereas Syria was more than happy to side with the US when Iraq went off the reservation. Meanwhile Syria has not challenged Israel since it lost the Golan Heights in the Six Day War and failed to recapture the territory in the 1973 war.

As for the claim that the Ba'ath regime is a secular socialist government, Hafez al-Assad rewrote the Syrian constitution to ensure that the president would always be a Muslim and constructed an alliance between the Alawite military leadership and the Sunni capitalist class. The state acted as a means of economic organisation and established a patronage network to sustain itself. This may have meant that the Syrian regime was willing to nationalise industry, but it was also willing to privatise these assets later on.

People continue to claim that the mixed nature of the Assad dynasty means that the state is the only non-sectarian alternative to Islamist barbarism. This fails to take into account the extent of violence and discrimination by the state against the Sunni working-class. Not only has the economy depended upon the exclusion of the Sunni urban and rural poor, the state has routinely repressed non-violent protest and tortured activists. The armed uprising was made inevitable by the regime because the Syrian security forces thought they could win easily.

When faced with an armed resistance the Syrian regime opened its prisons and released thousands of Islamists. Saddam Hussein did the same when faced with the US invasion. The Islamists have played a dual role: providing a strong front line for the rebels, but also acting as a counter-revolutionary agent. These militants may have been the toughest fighters, however, their actions have undermined the support for the revolution. This is all true even without taking into account ISIS and its monstrous actions.

It's hard to see how the civil war could end on just terms. As long as the Assad regime stands its ground, the hope of democracy and freedom in Syria is blighted and the reasons why the uprising happened go unchanged. In many ways, the Syrian opposition has more reason to keep on fighting than to settle in negotiations. The immense suffering in the country is down to the Syrian regime and its allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. For this reason, I suspect and fear that the war may continue to rage for years to come.

Why is Trump bombing Syria

Well, there we have it. The liberal chickenhawks should be cheering Trump's airstrikes against the Syrian regime. They've finally got what they wanted. The Donald has just done what Obama wanted to do back in 2013, though the administration dropped the idea of 'punitive strikes' because it lacked a clear strategy and the support of major allies. By contrast, Trump has no such restraint and has gone ahead anyway. This is a senseless display of state violence and no good will come of it.

Not that this signals a major change in US policy, the Trump administration has made clear it does not support regime change in Syria and the US has been bombing Syria for three years now. What changed last night was the target of the bombing. It was the first time the bombing campaign directly targeted the regime as part of official policy. It may reflect a shift in the struggles over policy in the US government, but not a break with history.

In fact, it is a sign of continuity after Steve Bannon was kicked off of the National Security Council. This is the end result of Michael Flynn being booted out of the administration for not disclosing his meetings with the Russian ambassador. The deviation from the traditional leadership of the Pentagon was not meant to last. Intelligence leaks and a media hysteria have allowed the old order to reassert itself. These 'punitive strikes' are not a humanitarian intervention. Rather the strikes represent the consolidation of Pentagon aims.

It's been apparent for some time now that the US has no coherent strategy in Syria. Obama may have pledged political support for the Syrian opposition. This support was translated into limited supplies of arms and funds. However, the US and its allies could have moved against Assad much earlier. If the Israelis had mobilied forces on the Syrian border, the armed forces would have been split and thus left vulnerable to a rebel offensive. But this never happened.

There is evidence that the Russians floated the idea of Assad stepping down in 2012, but the Americans threw cold water on the idea. The US government was waiting for the regime to cave to the rebel opposition, so it could control the outcome of the war. The problem may have been that the US wanted to see Assad go and keep the Ba'ath regime in place. This is quite similar to the US position on Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War.

Eventually the American ruling class decided it was better to invade and dismantle the entire regime and replace it with a new client state. Al Gore was calling for a US invasion of Iraq in 1998, and in 2003 the Bush administration finally toppled Saddam. It's possible to imagine that the Syrian civil war will conclude with the defeat of revolutionary forces and the emergence of a weak, broken state dominated by Assad and Islamist groups.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Western Hypocrisy Over St. Petersburg Attacks

It was a welcome change to hear the Western media acknowledge that the St. Petersburg bombing might have something to do with Russian foreign policy: the interventions in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria. Yet you will never hear such an angle raised when its an atrocity carried out in an American or a Western European city. In such cases any attempt to explain terrorism would be dismissed as making excuses for violence.

This moral blackmail was not deployed over St. Petersburg. What do we know about the attack? The main suspect Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Kyrgyz national, is accused of killing 14 people and injured 50 others in detonating a bomb in the St. Petersburg underground. Six people have now been arrested. They have been accused of recruiting for ISIS. The suspects are all from Central Asian states. This would fit with the analysis that the bombing was staged in reaction to Russian aggression.

Not only was Central Asia dominated by the Soviet Union, the region was on the frontline in the war in Afghanistan. Once the USSR had invaded Afghanistan, the war aims quickly changed to building a new society and occupying the country for the time being. The United States and its regional allies - particularly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - established a network of jihadists to fuel the Afghan resistance to the Red Army.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan would come to a close by 1989. Gorbachev oversaw the withdrawal and warned the West that the forces they had mobilised in Afghanistan would come back to haunt them. Of course, the network behind Osama bin Laden and the attacks on the World Trade Centre had their origins in the Afghan struggle. The war itself would create a space for Eastern European dissidents to challenge regimes backed by the USSR. This combined with economic factors would bring down the Eastern bloc.

Events in Chechnya would be even more crucial for the terror factor in Russia. As the USSR was dismantled in 1991, Chechen Ichkeria declared independence under the nationalist leadership of Dzhokhar Dudayev. Growing instability and tension in the region would lead to the eruption of armed conflict in North Ossetia, the Chechens feared the presence of the Russian armed forces would be the first stage of mission creep. Dudayev imposed a state of emergency after Russia deployed troops to the border.

At the same time, Dudayev was facing a groundswell of opposition in the fledgling state. This opposition would turn to armed force in 1994. Boris Yeltsin pledged Russian support for the attempt to overthrow the Dudayev government. Yeltsin was desperate to bolster his domestic support in the midst of his disastrous economic reforms. The instability in the Chechen region offered an opportunity. The Russians backed the opposition in order to overthrow Dudayev and crush the example of independence.

However, Dudayev held his own from October to November against the forces Yeltsin had mobilised. Russian armed forces would play a clandestine role, but the Battle of Grozny left the Russian government humiliated after the Chechen independence forces captured a large number of military vehicles and personnel. It was meant to be a swift operation to topple the government. Faced with this, Yeltsin sanctioned the invasion of Ichkeria ostensibly to restore the territorial integrity of Russia.

The Russian army began bombing the Chechen air capabilities and within ten days the invasion was underway. Just as Brezhnev had mistakenly thought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would be successful within weeks the Russians now thought the Grozny government could be toppled. The war would rage for two years before a ceasefire was signed on Russian terms. Dudayev was assassinated in an 1996 airstrike.

With American help, Yeltsin would survive the Presidential elections of 1996. Estimates of the people killed in the first Chechen war range up to 100,000, along with 500,000 people displaced, in just two years of fighting. A new war would start in 1999 following the apartment bombings in Moscow and the rise of Vladimir Putin. The second war was waged by Russia and its Chechen allies to kill off independent Ichkeria and snuff out the emergent Islamist movement in the Northern Caucasus.

The first aim was secured, but an insurgency continues to this day. Russia has been struck by numerous bombings by Chechen Islamist fighters, and a key reason for the Russian intervention in Syria has been partly to extent the war against those same Chechens - now fighting in Syria alongside the mainstream rebels and an array of jihadist groups. Of course, the main reason has been to back the Assad regime - the only Russian ally in the region.

An honest look at the situation finds that the Russian government relies upon the Islamist threat to  justify its aggression in Syria. Even though Russia has been motivated partly by counter-insurgency in Chechnya, the main targets of Russian bombing have been the Syrian opposition and the civilians living in their territory, not Islamic State or al-Nusra. This in turn is a key factor in the continued threat of terrorism in Russia.