This is the first of a two-part interview. You can read the second part here.
Coverage of the conflict in Syria frequently refers to the opposition being dominated by Islamist groups. What was the initial composition of the opposition against the Assad regime and how has it evolved?
Well, it is important to understand that the Syrian revolution is part and parcel of a broader movement that has fundamentally shaken the Middle East and North Africa regions. It is clearly situated in the context of other uprisings which resulted from the confluence and mutual reinforcement of different sites of dissatisfaction, struggle, and popular mobilization. Most observers have analyzed the Syrian uprising solely in geopolitical terms, ignoring the popular political and socio-economic dynamics. However, Syrians have been fighting for freedom and dignity against authoritarianism and fundamentalism, just like Egyptians, Tunisians and Bahrainis did in 2011.
There are several components of this popular movement in Syria. First, there were activists involved in various struggles against the regime before the 2011 uprising, particularly since the Damascus Spring of 2001, and from secret student and youth associations that had started to erupt in the early 2000s. Some of these activists would go on to form the nucleus of the revolutionary movement that began in March 2011. Their activities were shaped mainly by an interest in democratic rights and social justice. Some of them had, for example, already mobilized against the war in Iraq, and in support of the Palestinian cause. They were in their great majority secular democrats who belonged to various communities and ethnicities, including minorities such as the Kurds, Assyrians, Palestinians, Alawis, Christians, Ismailis, and Druze, to name a few. Many of these activists played an important role within the grassroots committees and in the development of peaceful actions against the regime.
The Syrian grassroots civilian opposition was the primary engine of the popular uprising against the Assad regime (and later on the fundamentalist forces). 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.
Committees would typically begin with about 15 to 20 people and then often expand to include hundreds. The two most famous coordination committee networks were the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), headed notably by Suhair Atassi, and the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which was led by the lawyer and activist Razan Zaitoune. Other groups and coalitions were also formed at the beginning of the uprising, particularly youth networks such as the Ghad Democratic Coalition, the Nabd Coalition for Syrian Civil Youth, Youth of Daraya, the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, Syrian Non-Violent Movement, Kurdish Arab Fraternity Coordination Committee, the Syrian People Know their Way, and Syria Free Students Union (SFSU), etc.
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 fundamentalist forces (like ISIS), which enjoyed wide expansion across the country and attempted to co-opt the revolution or crush its democratic and inclusive message.
The second, and undoubtedly the most important component of the Syrian uprising, is that of economically marginalized rural workers, urban employees, and self-employed workers. They have borne the brunt of the Assad dynasty’s neoliberal policies, particularly since Bashar al-Assad’s coming to power in 2000. This working-class group of Syrians produced many of those who joined the armed groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which emerged to defend against Assad’s attacks on peaceful demonstrations, and later adopted more offensive strategies.
Similarly, certain neighborhoods in Syria witnessed the ascension of clergy into the revolutionary scene. Salafi and Sufi sheikhs alike became quite involved. Finally, elements of the more “traditional” opposition were also involved, although on a limited scale, in the popular movement, among them some Kurdish parties, left-wing groups, nationalists, liberals, and Islamic fundamentalists.
The Assad regime has managed to hold on to power and has benefited from Russian and Iranian involvement along with assistance from Shi’ite militias like Hezbollah. Do you think the Assad regime has any popular support within Syria or can its longevity simply be explained by outside intervention?
The single most important reason behind the Assad regime’s survival into the present is the political, economic, and military assistance it receives from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. As far as the regime is concerned, this has been absolutely indispensable, for its forces could not possibly have subsisted autonomously. The regime’s current military domination in Aleppo, for example, would not be possible without the assistance of Russian airplanes, Iranian-sponsored ground forces, and Hezbollah militias.
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has been weakened considerably since the beginning of the uprising, with various estimations indicating that its numbers fell from 300,000 to as few as between 80,000 and 120,000. This should give an idea of how important Assad’s foreign backers are to the survival of the counterrevolution.
The weakness of the regime’s army has also led to the creation of loyalist militias throughout the country. These paramilitary forces can be broadly divided into two groups: militias strongly connected to the regime’s security apparatus and the Republican Guard––such as the National Defense Forces (NDF)––and those personally linked to the Assad family and private businesses. But perhaps the most important militias have been the foreign ones, such as Hezbollah, and the mostly Iranian-sponsored sectarian Shi’a forces originating from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Additionally, the security and intelligence services of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) have been advising and assisting the Syrian regime since the beginning of the uprising. The IRI has provided essential military supplies to Assad and has also assisted many (if not most) pro-regime militias. On top of its military assistance, the IRI has also provided 3 important loans to the Assad regime, of $1 billion in January 2013, of $3.6 billion in August 2013, and of $1 billion in June 2015, respectively. Trade between the two countries also grew from approximately about $300 million in 2010 to $1 billion in 2014.
For its part, Russia has long supplied Assad’s armed forces with the vast majority of their weaponry. The Russian state has continued to ship substantial volumes of small arms, ammunition, spare parts, and refurbished material to pro-regime forces. In January 2014, Russia stepped up supplies of military gear to the Syrian regime, including armored vehicles, drones, and guided missiles. Near the end of the summer in 2015, Russia greatly expanded its military involvement on the side of the Assad regime, and provided serious training and logistical support to the SAA. And beginning on September 30, 2015, Russian jets conducted their first raids in Syria. Since then, the regime has been able to stop military advances from various oppositional armed forces and recover territories.
This said, the Assad’s regime resilience is also inextricably tied to its harsh repression against the protesters from day one, and also to the state’s ability to have remained the irreplaceable provider of essential public services, even for Syrians living in the many areas that are outside the regime’s control. The regime is the country’s main employer – civil servants were estimated at more than 50 percent of the total working population, and a higher percentage of wage earners. Whatever the case, and despite desires to the contrary, large sections of the country are de facto dependent on the regime for survival.
Assad’s regime is however not popular, quite the opposite, even among a majority who oppose the revolution because of corruption, insecurity, bad economic situation and high inflation, instrumentalization of sectarianism, etc. The problem is that it is seen as the lesser evil by some sectors of the population, especially large sections of minorities and Sunni middle and high class strata in cities, including due to the rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements.
The international political context, which favors the “liquidation” of the uprising and the preservation of the Assad’s regime, the mistakes and corruption of the “official” opposition in exile (Syrian National Coalition), the failure to present a democratic and inclusive alternative, and the harsh economic situation have all played in the hands of the Assad’s regime.
Many on the left believe the US is trying to pursue regime change in Syria. What has been the role of the United States and its NATO and Gulf allies?
The US has never tried to pursue regime change in Syria. The objectives of the US and Western governments have been to try to reach an agreement between the Assad regime (or a section of it) and the opposition linked to Western states, Turkey, and Gulf monarchies.
At the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized Assad as a “reformer” and added that many members of Congress who have gone to Syria in recent months also believed that he’s a reformer.
The absence of any kind of organized and decisive military assistance from the US or Western states to the democratic components of the Free Syrian Army are further proof of this lack of will for any radical change in Syria. In addition, the United States has also opposed the supply of anti-aircraft missiles to various FSA forces.
In 2014, Barack Obama’s $500 million plan (which was approved by Congress) to arm and equip 5,000-10,000 Syrian rebels, was never implemented and not aimed at overthrowing the Assad regime. The text of the resolution makes that clear.
In October 2015, even Senator Lindsey Graham challenged Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Joseph Dunford on the US strategy in Syria. He asked about the possibility of overthrowing Assad, saying, “this is a half-assed strategy at best”. On December 15, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in the Russian capital after meeting President Vladimir Putin: “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change.”
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the states that most want to see the fall of the Assad family, but not of the regime and its institutions. The monarchies of the Gulf have wanted to transform this popular revolution into a sectarian civil war because they fear a democratic Syria and the spread of the revolution’s ideals in the region, which would threaten their power and interests. It is important to remember that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar all enjoyed good relations with the Syrian state before the uprising in 2011. Saudi Arabia, however, saw the Syrian uprising as a way to weaken its main rival in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran, by toppling its most important ally the Assad’s regime.
On its side, Turkey’s latest military intervention in Syria is a prolongation of its previous policies to prevent the influence of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to extend along its borders. This is why it supported various fundamentalist movements while shelling Kurdish civilians as well. This intervention did indeed target ISIS bases, but its priority has always been the Kurdish PYD forces. Notably, this has been occurring lately with the tacit green light of the Assad regime. Moreover, since the failed military coup d’état in Turkey, the AKP government has tightened its relationship with the Russian government, while diminishing its opposition to the Assad regime (e.g. by saying it would accept Assad in a transitional phase). The AKP government was also largely silent about the conquest of eastern Aleppo. Erdogan, had in fact concluded an agreement with the Russian and Iranian leaders that handed Aleppo over to them while keeping other border regions for itself.
It is important to say that although conflicting interests and even opposition exists between international and regional powers intervening in Syria, none of them have intervened in the interests of the uprising. The effects of these interventions has often been to strengthen sectarian and ethnic tensions in the country.
Between all these powers, there is near consensus today around certain points: to liquidate the revolutionary popular movement initiated in March 2011, stabilize the regime in Damascus, keep Assad in power for at least the immediate future, oppose Kurdish autonomy, and try to militarily defeat jihadist groups such as ISIS.
The latest meetings in December between the Foreign and Defense Ministers of Iran, Turkey and Russia to discuss the future of Syria actually confirmed this path. The three powers adopted a joint declaration aimed at ending the conflict in Syria and working towards the establishment of a ceasefire in the entire country. The priority, they concluded, must be to fight terrorism and not regime change in Damascus.