Mass resistance and brutal repression continue in Syria.
Khalil Habash documents the latest wave of protests and looks at political arguments in the opposition movement.
The Syrian popular movement has witnessed an increasing mobilization in recent weeks – the most important since last summer – despite the continuous violent repression. Defections within the army are still happening on a growing scale. Ten months after the beginning of the revolution – and despite the 6,000 martyrs – the popular movement is continuing, though there are profound political divisions among the opposition.
The divisions among the opposition
The two most well known political opposition groups are Syrian National Council (SNC) and National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), in addition to the Local Coordinating Committees and other groups on the ground. Many political groups are not yet represented by the two main opposition groups.
The attempt to unite the opposition failed after the SNC withdrew from the deal. This came a few days after signing an agreement with the NCCDC on a common political programme which refused a western military intervention in Syria. Many in the SNC, especially the Liberals and the Muslim Brotherhoods linked to the western powers, rejected this agreement because it refused any foreign military western intervention.
Both groups have been the target of criticism from Syrians for their constant attacks on each other –and for being more interested in power than helping in practical ways the struggle of the popular movement on the ground.
A number of other problems can be linked to both groups. The SNC is a group of opponents in exile and dominated by political parties linked to western imperialism and their clients in the Gulf, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and Liberals. They have called several times for a foreign military intervention in Syria. They have also answered favourably to Western imperialists’ demands in declaring that a post-Assad Syria would weaken its ties with Iran, while cutting the military alliance with Hamas and Hezbollah.
The future Syria would have a closer relationship with Gulf countries, which are allied to western countries, and would use negotiations only to reclaim the occupied Golan. The SNC has concentrated on assuring these western powers of its readiness to follow their political interests, in complete contradiction of the interests of the Syrian people, rather than re-inforce the popular movement inside the country.
The NCCDC is a group inside the country, gathering nationalists, leftists and Kurds. They refuse any foreign military intervention in an attempt to manipulate the revolution. They don’t want Syria “to become the victims of a war by proxy,” referring to the regional rivalry between Gulf Arab states and Iran.
It nevertheless lost increasing popularity among the Syrian people by not demanding until recently the overthrow of the regime – it instead proposed ‘dialogue’ with the allegedly ‘moderate’ parts of the regime. The NCCDC called for a gradual, scheduled transfer of power.
What effect would a foreign military intervention have in Syria? Observe the Iraqi or Afghan scenarios: both without democracy, social justice and stability after ten years. The ongoing human catastrophe in both countries is indescribable.
The Libyan experience has also shown how destructive a foreign military intervention can be. The death toll in Libya when NATO intervened was perhaps around 1,000-2,000 (according to UN estimates). Eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure. Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months – as NATO leaders vetoed ceasefires and negotiations – range from 10,000 up to 50,000. The National Transitional Council puts the losses at 30,000 dead and 50,000 wounded.
Foreign military intervention would also threaten to put the country under occupation for years. Again we can refer to the Iraqi and Afghanistan examples where US forces are still on the ground, while the new authorities in Libya have asked for NATO forces to stay in the country.
The “Strike of Dignity Campaign” and the Syrian Free Army
The “Strike of Dignity” and civil disobedience campaign, which was launched on the 11 December, has been a success with massive demonstrations throughout the country, while at least four areas of Damascus and two in Aleppo were occupied by large groups of demonstrators for the first time. The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) claimed that 150,000 people were chanting in front of monitors in the capital, with security forces watching on. Strikes happened all over the cities of the country, while universities have also witnessed increasing demonstrations. The LCC documented 461 points of demonstrating on 6 January.
Defections from state employees have also increased during this period, as part of the Dignity Strike campaign. The most important resignation was from Mahmoud Souleiman Hajj Hamad, the head inspector of the country’s defense ministry and also an auditor for the interior ministry, in protest of the regime’s repression. Hamad said the government has spent about $40mn on loyalist militias (shabihas) to crush demonstrations since March.
The presence of more than 100 monitors sent from the Arab League since 23 December has not stopped the violent crackdown, as one report describes it: “Violence is continuing, the monitoring mission has seen bodies in the streets and Syrian troops have not withdrawn from cities.” Also, the Syrian government has only very partially complied with its pledge to release political prisoners.
The Arab League has said it will not withdraw the observers but will instead focus on re-inforcing the mission and try to allow the monitors to work more independently of Syrian authorities. The LCC and other opposition groups have described the mission as a complete failure, while accusing the regime of misleading the observers by taking them to areas loyal to the government, changing street signs to confuse them, and sending supporters into hostile neighborhoods to give false testimony. But more importantly, some Syrians say it is a toothless mission that buys more time for the President Bashar al-Assad to suppress opponents.
In the mean time the regime has used various tools to try to divide the popular movement. The usual one is the sectarian tool by the assassinations of persons of different sects in a clear attempt to trigger retaliations which could fall in some sort of civil war.
But Syrians have mostly repeated their call for the unity of the Syrian people. In Qamishli for example, protesters usually raise the Syrian Independence flags along the side with the Kurds State flags. All over Syria people also chant for unity between Muslims, Druze, Christians and Alawis, while many banners are demanding a democratic and civic state.
The second tool of the regime is the use of bombing and explosions in popular areas and accusing then extremists and salafists groups of the crime, just as the in the 1980s during the uprising against this same regime. The opposition have dismissed the government’s accusations and said that they were the work of the regime, just like before.
The Syrian Free Army (SFA), composed of the soldiers who refused to shoot on the protesters and defected from the regime’s army, are increasing their numbers. Their exact numbers are very hard to tell, between 10,000 to 20,000 according to some sources.
The last important defection was from a senior military officer in the city of Hama with up to 50 of his soldiers. They have joined the ranks of the SFA, whose main mission is to protect protesters during their demonstrations. They did attack a security forces centre few months ago, but now concentrate on protecting the protesters.
Syria’s main opposition groups inside the country have refused to call for a general militarization of the revolution. They have nevertheless welcomed the role of the SFA in defending the peaceful protests against the attacks of regime forces. The SFA is coordinating its actions with the different civil opposition groups on the ground struggling peacefully against the regime.
The role of the SFA and its coordination with the various opposition groups actually helps the Syrian revolution and the popular movement to keep ongoing its peaceful campaign of civil disobedience and strikes, which as a reminder is the main and primordial characteristic of the revolutionary process in Syria.
The right to defend itself against the regime’s repression by the security forces is actually not in contradiction with the peaceful struggle of the popular movement and the overthrow of the regime.
The regime supporters are decreasing everyday and are more and
more reduced to the security services and a section of the bourgeoisie in Damascus and Aleppo, which benefited from this dictatorship.
Local groups and coordination committees are the effective and direct organizational format for the revolution.
The political groups should support them and work on co-ordinating a clear and unified revolutionary strategy. From there we can build a revolutionary coalition gathering a majority.
The popular movement has united the different sections of Syria’s society and especially the downtrodden of all sects who suffered from the authoritarian and neoliberal policies of this clientelist and criminal regime. The Syrian people won’t step down and they will not stop until the regime is overthrown: Victory to the Revolution and mercy to our martyrs.