Joseph Daher (2020): “The struggling popular classes should remain our lodestar”

Transcript of an episode originally broadcast by Where’s My Jetpack podcast, on March 15th 2020. From the Fightback magazine issue Syrian Voices – please subscribe here.

Audio: Syrian revolutionary dabke.1

Ani White: That was a Syrian revolutionary dabke2 from 2011, a time when freedom seemed nearer. The dabke had lyrics calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad who nine years later is still holding power through brutality. I’m personally reminded of rallies outside the Russian embassy in Wellington where young Syrian men took over the mic and performed this dabke along with various chants, including the slogan ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam or the people want the fall of the regime, a chant that crossed all borders during the Arab Spring.

Kia ora, comrades, and welcome to Where’s My Jetpack?, a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. I’m Ani White.

Derek Johnson: And I’m Derek Johnson.

Ani White: This month, on March 15th, the 9th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution we’re talking to Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian socialist activist, academic, and founder of the blog Syria Freedom Forever. Joseph is part of the Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project at the European University Institute, Florence in Italy. He’s the author of Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God which was released in 2016 by Pluto Press, and Syria After the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience released in 2019 by Pluto Press and Haymarket.

Welcome to the show Joseph.

Joseph Daher: Thank you for the invitation.

Ani White: Thank you for coming on.

You’re involved in the recently formed Alliance of Middle East and North African (MENA) Socialists. Can you describe how this came together and the work the group’s done so far?

Joseph Daher: Well, initially we started Frieda Afary and I, and I would like to salute Frieda for her work. She’s been the main architect and motor in the alliance, in her daily work to push forward this group of people. Initially, it was only gathering people from Iran and Syria, and after we enlarged it to various different countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The objective with this group is to establish a formal network of socialist progressives who wanted to give a particular international progressive analysis and outlook on the region, through statements, articles, and other means such as you may have seen, debates on Facebook, conferences on Facebook. I’ve tried to put people in contact. What is really important for us is exchange between socialists and progressives of the region and the diaspora in exile, and with other internationalists.

We give also particular attention to, not only issues of exploitation, against the capitalist state, but also against oppression regarding women’s rights, minorities’ rights, and how we link it to the particular political and economic system we live in. We’ve organised various conferences live-streamed. The latest one being the feminist dialogue between Iranian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Lebanese, Chilean women.

So we’re a small network but trying to do what we can to give a particular internationalist and progressive understanding of the region.

Derek Johnson: Alright, I’ve listened to one of the live-streams. I was watching that. There was a lot of people on that! That was pretty well coordinated.

Joseph Daher: Indeed.

Derek Johnson: What are the main things everyone needs to know about the Syrian Revolution?

Joseph Daher: Well I think one of the most important things people should know about the Syrian Revolutionary process, is to remember that it started in the framework of the other general uprisings in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc, with the same fundamental objective roots. Meaning the absence of democracy, the absence of social justice with blockades of the productive economic forces, and a willingness also for popular sovereignty against their despots but also against all kind of foreign interventions, whether regional or international.

Another very important aspect is the strength and the deepness of the popular movement in Syria, and especially in the two first years of the uprising. Remembering the coordination committees, the local councils, the youth organisations that came out, the various strikes that occurred on different occasions, civil actions, there were definitely attempts of a situation of double-power, meaning that the state had disappeared from large areas and people were self-organising. I think this is really important to remember, especially now when we’ve only been hearing about Syria through war, conflict, extremism, etc.

Derek Johnson: What are the most dangerous myths circulating about the Syrian Revolution?

Joseph Daher: What’s interesting when we look at the different myths circulating about the Syrian Revolution it’s always, whether directly or indirectly, a vision from above. A vision from above meaning that people see not what is happening from below, from the dynamics of the popular uprising, people self-organising but, for example, portraying the Syrian Revolution as a conspiracy. Foreign powers controlling protesters, they’re pushing them to go in the streets and controlling the movement. This has been one of the most dangerous myths in terms of conspiracy.

Also very much linked, most of the time, to the geopolitical view of war, only seeing various regional and international powers as struggling against each other. One of the most famous examples of this vision of saying ‘it’s a geopolitical war only’ is saying that it’s an issue of oil, gas, and petrol that started the war – opposition between these various regional and international actors.

Similarly, I think it’s very dangerous to portray the Syrian Revolution as a sectarian war from its beginning, and only portraying this uprising as opposing Sunni majority against an Alawi minority. Or portraying everything that is occurring in Syria according to a kind of Orientalist lens that understands people of the region through their religion or ethnicity.

And finally, it’s less dangerous than the others, but it’s still a bit limiting of the prospect of understanding Syria, is limiting understanding to a democratic struggle. And this is not particular to Syria but throughout the Middle East, especially among liberals throughout various parts of the world, seeing these popular uprisings as only a way to achieve parliamentary democracy. While I think it was much more than this, much deeper. It was not only democratic issues but it was also socioeconomic issues and a protest against the decades of neoliberal policies being implemented in Syria, and in the region more generally speaking.

Ani White: Could you talk about how the situation became armed, because I know along with the myths that circulate there’s also a lot of accusatory accounts of basically why the rebels became armed, so could you maybe talk about how that situation developed?

Joseph Daher: Indeed, we should not forget the militarisation of the Syrian uprising which became total, I would say, two years after its beginning but started in nearly June 2011. It started first as a way to defend protesters against the violent attacks of the security services and sections of the army. So people started to organise on a neighbourhood level; village, city, to defend the protesters and allow them to continue the protests. The composition of the people that took arms – there were a section of the people who took arms that had defected from the army but actually, the vast majority of people were civilians that took arms. As we always say, it was forced upon the Syrians to defend themselves, to take up arms. So the dynamics were very much from below, at the beginning with coordination with civilian activists, the civilian protest movement trying to have both hands. On one side maintaining a strong civilian protest movement, while being able to defend itself against the violent attack of regime forces. But throughout time these dynamics from below progressively unfortunately disappeared and the civilian protest movement lost its power, its strength, especially when the Syrian uprising turned completely into a military battle, I would say after 2013 / 2014, limiting the resistance against the regime mostly or dominated, at least, by military struggles. This is without forgetting as well the role played by foreign forces and the Assad regime in strengthening, through their different ways, but leading to the same result; to the strengthening of Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist forces.

The regime, for example, liberated from its prison jihadists and Salafists at the beginning of the uprising – while it was continuously imprisoning, repressing and killing democrats, progressives, putting them in prison, and letting them develop. And the regime continuously for most of the uprising concentrated on democratic forces of the Free Syrian Army while letting develop the Islamic fundamentalist forces. At the same time, foreign countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar supported mostly reactionary armed forces, turning them into proxies or, as well, Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist movements that were opposed to the initial objectives of the uprisings, just as the regime. This is why they turned their arms very often against civilian activists of the protest movement, against local councils and also attacked other groups of the Free Syrian Army.

Ani White: Can you tell us about the contemporary situation in Syria, particularly what’s happening in Idlib?

Joseph Daher: So we can see a new forced displacement of nearly a million people in Idlib since the beginning of the military offensive lead by the Syrian armed forces, assisted by Russian bombardments and also various militias controlled by Iran. So as I mentioned, more than 7 million people have been forced to leave their homes with this military offensive. The Syrian regime has reached the symbolic and strategic city of Saraqib. Saraqib was a city that was known for its democratic civilian protest movement that opposed the regime initially and later when Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist forces entered they also opposed them. It was a very active and vivid city of democratic aspirations and it’s also very strategic in terms of locations because it allowed the regime to access several main highways that connected Aleppo to Damascus. So the situation in Idlib is absolutely catastrophic, and this is without forgetting that this region has been suffering for the past few years of bombardments of the regime and Russian airforces targeting civilians, hospitals, medical institutions and other civilian institutions with catastrophic consequences.

I would like to remind people who perhaps didn’t know, but Idlib was between having a population of 2.5 to three million people with half of them already being internally displaced, while Turkish borders are still closed and people cannot leave. So there are refugee camps close to the border and people live in horrific conditions. This is the situation in Idlib and it’s a catastrophic humanitarian situation in all aspects.

Otherwise, when we speak about the country, the country has suffered vast damage and widespread destruction because of the Damascus war machine, backed by its allies Russia and Iran. Of course, we shouldn’t forget other foreign actors contributed to the displacement of the population and destruction in the country, particularly the military interventions of the US, Turkey and to a lesser extent the armed opposition forces such as the Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist forces.

Today, six million Syrians are IDPs – Internally Displaced in the country. More than nearly the same amount of people are refugees outside of the country, so more than half of the population in Syria is forcefully displaced. Around 90% of the population live under the poverty line, while 11 million people are in need of humanitarian aid inside the country. The cost of reconstruction is estimated at around 400 billion US dollars. So, as you can see the situation in Syria is catastrophic. People are very much suffering, the socioeconomic situation is getting worse with the depreciation of the Syrian pound, high inflation, while you have a small minority around Bashar al-Assad and this elite that made huge fortunes out of the war and their contacts with the regime. Nothing to be happy about currently regarding the situation in Syria, unfortunately, the catastrophe is continuing.

Ani White: It has been inspiring to see the revival of uprisings elsewhere in the region like in Lebanon. Do you think this could in any way affect the prospects in Syria?

Joseph Daher: Indeed it is very inspiring to see the massive and deep protest movement in Lebanon as well as in Iraq and Tunis, the protest movement in Sudan and Algeria, remembering people that started in 2010 – 2011. It’s still continuing. It’s a long revolutionary process with ups and downs. At the end of 2018, we thought we were really in a period of deep counter-revolution, which we are still, but these movements gave us hope. Who would have thought that in the beginning of 2019 two dictators that had been in power for more than 30 years would be overthrown, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and Bouteflika in Algeria? So this is very important, while in Lebanon and Iraq, two neighbouring countries to Syria, is also a key aspect in this issue and especially in your question.

It will have and it already has consequences in Syria. What we can say is that the regime has survived and will survive for the short and midterm, especially with the assistance of Moscow and Tehran but its resilience does not mean the end of its contradictions or of any feeling of dissent in the country, especially in areas that were formerly held by opposition forces. Despite engaging in repression the regime still faces challenges. These challenges are very big challenges for the regime and they are the reasons that lead to the uprisings in the first place – absence of democracy even deepened socioeconomic injustice inequalities. But this does not mean that it translates into political opportunities for the opposition and especially the problem is that no viable organised opposition has appeared, especially today. The failure of the opposition in exile and armed opposition groups have left. Many people who had sympathised with the uprising are feeling frustrated and bitter. The absence of a structured independent democratic inclusive social Syrian opposition which would appeal to the popular classes and social activists has made it difficult for various sectors of the population to unite and challenge the regime on a national scale. For example, the latest demonstrations in the region of Suwayda are against the economic situation and difficult living conditions in the country, which is an often repeated criticism in many other areas of the country, even in the so-called loyalist areas. Also, the continued protests and armed clashes in the region of Daraa against regime forces demonstrate this situation in many ways, that you have regional protests without coordination between them.

So what I would say to this question, yes it gives us hope – the struggle in Lebanon and Iraq, especially challenging sectarianism and neoliberalism – but as well without the construction of this political alternative that is appealing, that is social, secular, and opposing both the regime and Islamic fundamentalist forces, it will be hard to transform these political opportunities into something on a national scale opposing the regime, I would say.

Derek Johnson: How would you describe the political economy of the Syrian regime prior to the revolution and the role that this played in fostering it?

Joseph Daher: I would say that the acceleration of neoliberal policies with the arrival of Bashar al-Assad in 2000 had deep consequences on the Syrian social-economic situation. Obviously, you had, with Hafez al-Assad coming to power in 1970, he opposed basically the most radical of the socio-economic policies of the, if you want, the left-wing of the Ba’aths between ’66 and ’70. He actually imprisoned the president of Syria, who’s a left-wing Ba’athist and he started the slow, what we called, ‘infitah’ – opening – which was an opening in economic terms. But this opening was quite slow, in 30 years. It was mostly a state-led capitalist regime on the half of Assad with increasing liberalisation of the economy, first following the fiscal crisis of the ’80s with diminishing social-economic assistance and provision to the poorer classes and popular class. In ’91, first opening with a particular law of an investment but it was really under Bashar al-Assad that you had a rapidly and deepening implementation of neoliberal policies with, sometimes, the assistance of the IMF that welcomed the policies of Bashar al-Assad. So it was privatisation of vast sectors of the economy, pushing forward what we called the non-productive sectors of the economy, especially banking, finance, luxurious real estate, tourism, leisure activities etc. against more productive sectors of the economy which were agriculture and manufacturing that suffered throughout the 2000s. And so their role diminished in the Syrian economy so you had increasing social-economic inequalities in Syria. Prior to the uprising more than 30% of the people in Syria were living under the poverty line, while just 30% of others were living just above or at the limit. So it meant that nearly 60% of people living under or close to the poverty line, while people close to Bashar al-Assad, what I call crony capitalists, meaning that they benefited from their contacts to the centres of power to accumulate capital made huge fortunes in Syria. So we had more and more difference also between the centres of cities such as Damascus and Aleppo with its more popular surrounding neighbourhoods. If you see the geography of the uprising, we can see that the popular neighbourhoods of large cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Homs had a very important role in the uprising, such as also mid-size cities that suffered increasing lack of social services from the state in the past two or three decades.

The economy, just as other states of the region, was characterised by deepening neoliberal policies and with forms of economic opening that benefited the ruling strata, the highest strata of the society while also unemployment was also between 20 and 30%. Graduate unemployment was above this. It was an economy at the benefit of a small minority of people around Bashar al-Assad against the vast majority of the people of Syria.

Ani White: Your book is called The Political Economy of State Resilience, so can you talk about that, how has the state functioned in terms of its political economy when responding to the revolution?

Joseph Daher: One of the first things Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar al-Assad, did when he came to power in 1970 was to start the building of a very strong neopatrimonial state where the centres of power and where most of decision making power was in its hands; a very strong presidential, monarchical state. And through different means and by fostering primordial identity he divided the Syrian people. He built a very close, surrounding him, a group of military men, militias and the army, that were from very close kinship, taking also very much a sectarian colour while aligning himself as well with sectors of the bourgeoisie such as in Damascus. This is what I was explaining, it’s economic opening while also having different links to certain petit-bourgeois and some popular classes through corporatist organisations such as the General Federation of Trade Unions or the Peasant Association. Through the three decades he built this neopatrimonial power which completely transferred into a patrimonial power with the arrival of Bashar al-Assad, who in many ways even more concentrated the power of the state. In the hands of a few people, him and his close associates, being the family or business partners, etc while weakening also the links of the regime with sectors of the society which had historically been linked to the regime and the Ba’athists especially peasants, petit-bourgeois sectors of the society, more popular classes through corporatist organisations, such as I mentioned, the General Federation Trade Union or the Peasant Association, which of course were not instruments of emancipation of the workers and peasants. They were instruments of co-optation, control and repression but were still able, to some extent, until the 2000s, to give some forms of redistribution even though it was diminishing increasingly at the end of the ’90s. You had a concentration through this complete transformation into a patrimonial power, also reinforcing the primordial identities of Syrians through various policies, instrumentalising sectarian ethnic differences as well, according to region. This is how we have to understand the repression of the Assad regime during the uprising, through its nature it should not be separated. It used different ways to repress through different instruments according to the region, sometimes through sectarian differences, ethnic differences, trying to push people against each other notably by committing crimes in mixed sectarian regions to push to a complete civil war, to make the sectarian appeal the most important.

The resilience of the regime came because of its patrimonial nature meaning also that it wasn’t like the situation in Egypt or in Tunis, that you could cut off the head and let the regime continue. The thing is, in Syria it’s much more difficult, such as actually the vast majority is of the countries of the MENA region, Middle East and North Africa, where the centres of power completely concentrated. The political power being in the hand of Bashar al-Assad before the economic power but now it’s a bit more debatable. Rami Makhlouf, who was the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, the military power was in the hands of the brother of Bashar al-Assad, being Maher al-Assad and other collaborators but really the centres of power were completely concentrated and not separated. And in addition to this – and I think this is the most important reason why the regime was able to sustain – was intervention of foreign forces, especially Iran and Russia, which helped the regime sustain politically, economically and militarily. These were the two main reasons why the regime was able to survive until today although, as I mentioned before, with huge contradictions, with huge challenges. This does not mean that it’s the end of this story. But without providing a political alternative that is inclusive, social, secular, it will be hard for these contradictions of the regime to seek to accumulate, within Syria and not only outside, forms of organisation, collaboration, to challenge once more in the future, hopefully, this regime.

Derek Johnson: Can you further discuss the role of these different powers like Russia, Turkey and the US?

Joseph Daher: Well, something must be clear, that all of them played a very negative role in Syria but let’s start with the allies of the regime, Russia and Iran. Both entered on the side of the regime for geopolitical reasons mainly. Iran, very early on it intervened mainly through the Pasdaran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, from nearly the beginning of the uprising, providing first military advice but increasingly sending thousands of Iranian individuals. Plus sending also militias, Afghan militias and Pakistani militias to combat against the different opposition armed forces while training and funding sectarian militias in Syria, whether being foreign or locally based. For Iran the most important thing was to maintain the route open basically between Tehran, Syria and Lebanon. The regime had been playing a very important role in Iran, a strategy in the region of allowing the weapons transfer to Hezbollah in Lebanon. So it was mostly for geopolitical concentration.

Russia also intervened to save one of its main allies it had in the Middle East that the time. This occurred also after Libya that was also a state with which Russia had collaboration and contracts. So Russia also wanted to maintain also an ally in the region, it was a geopolitical ally – Syria – it has been for decades. Syria used to be a big purchaser of weapons in Russia. So these two players played, as I said, a fundamental role in the regime surviving the uprising. Russian massive intervention from 2015 was definitely the game changer. The main considerations were geopolitical, but today they also want to benefit from the spoils of war and we’ve seen increasingly, especially Russia, through various private companies linked to President Putin, taking control of natural resources in Syria, or taking management of key installations such as the port of Tartus for Russia. Iran is a bit less benefiting from the spoils of war until now, especially because it’s facing increasing internal opposition, and because of financial difficulties whether being sanctions or of its own economic policies.

When it comes to the so-called Allies of the Syrian Revolution or the Friends of the Syrian Revolution, as it was presented, as I always say, ‘if you have friends like this leave them now, you can’t have worse’. But Saudi Arabi, Turkey and Qatar played a destructive role among the opposition by supporting the most reactionary opportunist elements of it. But it’s important to remember also that prior to the revolution these actors were close allies or at least had close relations with the regime. Turkey and Syria had very good relations with free trade agreements. Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad spending vacations together, while Gulf monarchies were very important or the most important investors in Syria. Especially Qatar and Syria shared a very good relationship. And in the first six months of the uprising these states tried, actually, to find a solution to maintain this regime. They did not want to see it overthrown so they sought superficial reforms in Syria but Bashar al-Assad refused, while Turkey and Qatar wanted to be included in a so-called United National Government, sectors of the Muslim Brotherhood which are allies of Turkey and Qatar. As the uprising was pursued and continued, these actors saw less and less ability to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and have a friendly regime in Syria, and did not want to overthrow the regime but to change Bashar al-Assad, their objective changed, especially following Russia’s intervention in Syria. For now Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf monarchies, the clear thing is that they don’t want to see the influence of Iran to continue to grow in Syria. Mohammed bin Salman has said, ‘we don’t have any problem with Bashar al-Assad, our problem is that he doesn’t become an Iranian puppet.’

While Turkey’s main issue is the Kurdish issue in Syria and the fact that the PYD, which is the sister branch of the PKK, has been able to establish areas over which it has control. Therefore Turkish effort until today has concentrated on trying to end the influence of the PYD in Syria, leading to the occupation of Afrin with democratic changes, more than 150,000 forcefully displaced by Turkish and proxy forces of Turkey, very often Syrian Islamic fundamentalist militias committing daily crimes. They play the role of furthering the sectarianism of various actors of the opposition, or towards ethnic differences and tensions between Arabs and Kurds. And Gulf monarchies furthering, by their television and media, a sectarian understanding of the regime, like Sunnis opposing minorities, especially the Alawis.

When it comes to the US, there’s been a lot of myths about the US’s role in Syria. First of all, we should remember that in the first weeks of the revolution Hillary Clinton declared – at the time she was US Secretary of State – that Bashar al-Assad was a reformist and wasn’t like his father, so time should be given to him to prove that he could reform, control the situation. This situation changed progressively, Barack Obama asked for the departure of Bashar al-Assad but without joining any kind of practical policy to lead to this objective. On the opposite, the main lesson that the US had from Iraq is that they don’t want to change a regime, they only want to have superficial changes. They actually also prevented the sending and transfer of particular weapons to the Syrian opposition armed forces, especially when it comes to weapons that could have targeted planes and air forces. It could have helped the Syrian armed opposition, so it prevented it. The US wanted a solution in Syria with minimal changes.

And actually with the advent of the so-called Islamic state (ISIS), this changed completely the focus of the US towards ISIS-first policy. Concentrating all its forces to putting an end to the so-called Islamic state and this is where the collaboration with the Syrian democratic forces lead by the PYD started. So the US never wanted at any time to overthrow the Syrian regime, quite the opposite. Today, even though Trump has some difference with Obama, it is maintaining its main position of wanting minimum change in Syria. While the only difference might be the targeting, by Trump, of Iranian influence in Syria and this is why it is supporting very much and pushing because it has the power to intervene in Syria. Israeli strikes in Syria targeting Hezbollah and Iranian forces or supported forces. But all these actors played, in many ways, a counter-revolutionary role in Syria and never supported the aspirations of the Syrian popular classes for democracy, social justice and equality, because a democratic Syria would be a threat to the authoritarian regimes of the region and would be a threat to Israel as well. I remember very well the foreign minister Walid al-Moallem at the beginning of the uprisings in the region saying, ‘the biggest threat after Iran is a democratic region in the Middle East and North Africa’. He understood very well that if there’s more democratic aspiration and more democratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa they would put more pressure on Israel again and support the Palestinian liberation movement, the aspiration of the Palestinian people, while all these regimes in the region have used the Palestinian issue, or have actually repressed it or want to put an end to it.

Derek Johnson: It makes me really smack my head into my hands that so many people still think the US is trying to carry out regime change in Syria.

What do you say to the refrain on sections of the left that ‘the main enemy is at home’ so we should not oppose the Syrian regime?

Joseph Daher: Yeah actually it’s really a shame, and it’s not looking at what happened regarding US imperial policy since 2003. Obviously at the beginning of the 2000s mostly, and in the 90s we had a mostly unipolar moment, with the end of the USSR, not saying that it was a model obviously to follow, on the opposite it was a quite autocratic regime, but meaning the US was its heyday in the 90s. But following the British-American invasion of Iraq it was the beginning of, if you want, a unipolar moment for the US, in many ways. Obviously the US remains the main imperialist, military and economic power in the world, but it’s not alone and it cannot act in the same way as before.

International actors have taken more importance, such as Russia, China, but also regional actors such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and obviously Israel. And the second weakening, if you want, after the defeat of the US in Iraq was the economic financial crash of 2008, and finally the uprisings in the Middle East in North Africa, that first started by overthrowing two dictators that were closely aligned to the US. All these uprisings were shaking to the US but also other regional actors.

This said, I think by using the citation of Karl Liebknecht, a very important German communist, ‘the main enemy is at home’ and turning it to say, we only need to focus only on our ruling class is completely not understanding his famous citation. When he said ‘the main enemy is at home’, which is a statement of condemnation of imperialist aggression against Russia, led by his native state of Austria-Germany, many have decontextualised it, the views of Liebknecht. Liebknecht’s perspective, fighting against the enemy at home did not mean ignoring foreign regimes repressing their own people, or failing to show solidarity with the oppressed, indeed Liebknecht believed we must oppose our own ruling class’s push for war, by cooperating with the proletariat of other countries, who struggle against their own imperialists.

So it does not mean erasing the Syrian people, on the opposite, it’s putting them forward in your own struggle. We as leftists must support revolutionary people’s struggles for struggles for self-emancipation. Again, I would like to – and this the same text, where he said ‘the main enemy is at home from Liebknecht – he said: “Ally yourselves to the international class struggle against the conspiracies of secret diplomacy, against imperialism, against war, for peace within the socialist spirit. When you read this, which actually reflects a lot of the current situation in Syria – “conspiracies of secret diplomacy, against war, against imperialism, for peace within the socialist spirit” – in this perspective, none of these aspects should be excluded from our struggle to build a progressive, leftist if you want, platform for the Syrian Revolution, but also for all the revolutions occurring, all the protest movements and uprisings.

It’s very important that in the face, especially in this last few months, of increasing geopolitical tensions, instrumentalised by imperialist powers such as the US or Russia, or regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others, the struggling popular classes should remain our lodestar for progressives and internationalists around the world. Our main identity as leftists, I believe, is to be in solidarity with people struggling for freedom and emancipation. And therefore not to decontextualise, answering your question, this sentence ‘the main enemy is at home’, and erasing people in struggle.

Derek Johnson: You got the next one, Ani?

Ani White: Yes, thank you. We’re firmly in agreement. What’s the role of sectarianism in the conflict, and how do you respond to those who equate the rebels with ISIS?

Joseph Daher: So, regarding sectarianism in the conflict, sectarianism in the region has been used by the ruling strata of society, ruling classes, as an instrument to divide popular classes, as an instrument for repression, as an instrument of co-optation and control. It’s a way for ruling classes, if you want, to divert class struggle, to prevent people coming out together in solidarity across sectarian differences. And this is why what we are witnessing today in Lebanon and Syria, both countries that have suffered huge sectarian tensions and crimes in the past few decades, coming out together saying ‘We Are One’ is very important in this aspect.

And therefore the regime has not been different, it has used, as I explained before, I mentioned this sectarianism and, since Hafez-al Assad came to power in 1970, to divide the people, to scare sectors of the society, to blame others. But, saying this, it does not mean per se that the regime is Alawi, no the regime has not served the interests of the Alawi popular classes. You find, in the ruling strata in Syria various sectarian differences… that band together because of loyalty, because of nepotism, clientelism and other forms of networks. And, again sectarianism has been used throughout the region by different regimes, to divide the people, repress, and put an end to popular movements.

At the same time, we cannot deny that also sectors of the opposition in Syria, especially Islamic fundamentalists and jihadist forces, but not only, even some liberal sectors have used sectarianism because of the lack to provide an inclusive and social and political [inaudible], so appealing to the sectarian identities of the people. But, it played also a catastrophic role, the sectarianism of these sectors of the opposition, especially Islamic and jihadist forces, that scare not only as we often say, religious minorities in Syria, but also large sectors of the society, Sunnis or people who do not want to live in a reactionary Islamic state.

And their behaviour was also opposed in what we used to call the liberated areas, by the popular classes. And this answers, basically your second question, by saying the revolutionary forces are the same as ISIS, is not knowing the history of the Syrian uprising. Actually, the first people, even before the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the PYD, to oppose ISIS were Syrian-Arab popular classes, with the collaboration also of the Syrian-Kurdish popular classes, not only in Aleppo and various areas of the Northeast in the end of 2013, beginning of 2014, there were vast protest movements against ISIS, because of opposing their authoritarian and reactionary behaviour, but the opposition have been seen [inaudible].

And this is what I was saying, that the most important thing to not forget about the Syrian uprising, it was how it drew together vast sectors of the Syrian society that not necessarily used to meet to talk to each other, in the first two years of the Syrian uprising up to now, but in the civilian protest movement it was very, very strong, you had all the sectors of the society present. Arab, Kurds, Assyrian, Turkmen, Armenian etc, all the various sectarian differences, Sunnis, Alawis, Christian, Druze, Shia etc, and the main struggle is the Syrian people are one united, we are against sectarianism, having also social appeals, you had social solidarity between cities such as Salamiyah, which is majority-inhabited by Ismailis, with Hama, which is majority-inhabited by Sunnis. They broke the siege on Hama at the beginning of the uprising.

The Coordination Committees had democratic aspirations, the Local Councils, obviously they had limitations when it came to democratic issues, women’s rights issues, minority issues, but some of them were still able to provide a democratic alternative to the regime, and to the Islamic fundamentalist forces. And people continued to oppose forces such as ISIS, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam, all the Salafist forces so no, the vast majority of the uprising especially in its first years, was democratic with equality and social objectives as well. And you had many figures and personalities, groups I could cite that played a very important role in the civilian and protest movement, while Islamic fundamentalist forces and ISIS did not play this role in these Coordination Committees and Local Councils. On the opposite they established their own Local Councils to oppose the democratic actors.

And again, it was the Syrian Revolution popular classes, with the Arabs and Kurds that opposed first these reactionary actors that are a second wind of the counter-revolution. No, no, so definitely the accusation is not true, that ISIS and revolutionary forces, democratic forces are the same, quite the opposite.

Ani White: Yeah. I think it’s worth noting, a lot of people nowadays strangely imply that ISIS played a role from the start, when they didn’t get involved until around 2014. And as you said we’ve seen clashes, even through to today, so in Idlib from what I understand you’ve seen clashes where basically, revolutionary protestors would try and keep HTS [Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham] out of their rallies, and you had Radio Fresh which was a revolutionary radio station, which was attacked by Islamist forces for having women hosting, and obviously the founder was assassinated, so those tensions are ongoing, where in the rebel regions you still have these democratic forces that will challenge the Islamists. So absolutely, I agree.

Another question, you mentioned the Community Councils [sic], can you talk about those? We understand Omar Aziz, an anarchist played a role in popularising the Community Councils [sic], can you talk about them?

Joseph Daher: Yeah, Local Councils. So the Local Councils were actually started even prior to Omar Aziz writing his piece, on the necessity to provide a political-social alternative to the state, and state institutions, which was a very famous text, I think it was end of 2011, beginning of 2012. He was an inspiration obviously for the foundation especially of Local Councils in {inaudible], which was a Damascus movement, in Duma, and other areas. But it started in areas where the regime where people disappeared, so people had to self-organise, and this is how Local Councils started to appear, and to be established in areas where the regime forces and authority had disappeared, to manage the society, the local population, provide institutions. And this started to appear end of 2011, beginning of 2012.

Obviously, as I mentioned before, not all of them were democratic. At least 50% or a bit more, throughout the time, were designated by Arab forces, or were established through consensus of local families, local tribes, or personalities of the cities, but you did have democratic experiences. As I said, there were lack of women, there were lack of religious minorities in some cases, some other issues, but they did at one point, provide this alternative, and what I call this attempt of a situation of dual power, meaning that this is one of the main characteristics of a revolutionary socialist situation, where you have an alternative political power present [to] the state. This aspect of Local Councils were a very interesting experience, and one of the things we should remember of the Syrian uprising, or revolutionary process is this energy for self-organising despite difficulties, despite the threats coming from different sides, whether from the regime, or from Islamic fundamentalist forces, jihadist forces, which very often sought to establish their own Local Councils.

So it was really important. And we should also mention it because it also has been interesting institutions in what we call Rojava also, self-administration, although it had also some authoritarian aspects on many occasions, it was mostly controlled by the PYD but it did also have very positive characteristics, such as the secularisation of laws and institutions, women’s participation and inclusion, and religious minorities also’s inclusion, and some social aspects, even though this was not at the forefront.

Ani White: Yep, thanks. And it does seem like the Rojava councils, for some reason there’s been a lot more attention to them than the councils in Syria.

But what role has the Syrian diaspora played since the crackdown?

Joseph Daher: Well obviously, the Syrian diaspora played a role. Obviously we have to say that is not homogeneous, it has political differences. I mean not only that you have people that are pro-regime, some people are neutral, and you have various differences among the opposition. People being supportive of conservative forces, some other being more liberal forces, some have supported various Syrian opposition forces in exile, while others (such as me) tried to support progressive actors, progressive groups within Syria.

A lot of the diaspora played an important role when it came to medical assistance, military assistance. Syrians have established lots of numbers of NGOs, of different types of organisations to come and help Syrians, you also saw various forms of organisation of political level outside as well, or helping newspapers within the country, dozens of newspapers were established, even more than 50 newspapers were established at the beginning of the uprising in Syria. Whereas before it was only… many newspapers controlled by the state, or by figures of the state.

Syrian diaspora also played a role in trying to control in trying to control the Syrian issue on the agenda of various countries, providing different discourse. Also very often now, what we see is they’re playing an important role, [Syrians] living in exile, part of the diaspora, when it comes to making sure the regime’s human rights violations, trying to push forward these cases in various international or local tribunals. So, [members of the Syrian diaspora] have had different roles, and it’s not homogeneous, it has its differences. Yeah.

Ani White: So the Turkish regime is now saying that Syrian refugees are able to return to their homes. What’s your take on this development?

Joseph Daher: Well the Turkish regime and the Lebanese regime also have been trying to push refugees to go back to Syria, forcefully more often. And both countries putting their blame for their socio-economic negative situation on Syrian refugees. This is obviously not true. For the vast majority of Syrian refugees, they are not able to go back to their homes, because the war is continuing, or because the economic crisis in Syria is very hard, or because of security issues, very often you need particular permission of the security services, you need to pay various offices to reach your home, your home might have been destroyed, you’re also under the threat of entering military conscription, for a man between 18 and 22 years old.

Only a small amount of Syrian refugees have come back until now, a very small amount, and this should be said. So no, the situation is definitely not allowing a safe and secure return of the vast majority of Syrian refugees for the reasons I mentioned, whether the threats of being arrested, imprisoned, being killed, there have been situations of refugees coming back to Syria and being killed or arrested, being forced to go serve in the military. So, what we witnessed a bit is some IDPs [Internally Displaced People] or, mostly refugees coming back are elderly people, or women with their children, and even these are a very small amount… so no no, the situation is not safe for people to come back to Syria.

Derek Johnson: Is the plan still being suggested by other countries, and by Syria and Russia and Turkey, to have camps within Syria, that they then send Syrian refugees back to Syria, and then they hold them in the camps, so they can figure out who’s loyal, and then like you said who to conscript, etc?

Joseph Daher: For the moment, the only kind of border refugee camps you have are in the North, as Turkey is closing its border, and not only closing its borders, its gendarme… are even violently killing Syrian refugees trying to go to the Turkish side. They’ve been doing this for the past few years, they built a wall as well.

But also, in this case it’s very important to denounce the role of the European Union, that has transformed the Mediterranean sea into a big cemetery. Not only of Syrian refugees, but of refugees more generally speaking, thousands of refugees are dying in the Mediterranean Sea, you have companies such as Frontex, which is a border patrol, police patrol, security patrol, funded by the European Union, preventing refugees to reach Europe, and Europe has turned into a fortress…

In refugee camps it’s catastrophic, people are even killing themselves because of the situation, it’s completely overpacked, so the European Union is playing a destructive and murderous role, while still still funding the Lebanese [refugee effort], the Turkish [refugee effort], in officially saying it’s helping the refugees, while in Turkey only 10% of the refugees live in camps, so this money doesn’t go for the refugees… so it’s very important to denounce the role of the European Union in this perspective, and it’s not only the extreme right-wing forces, it’s also the so-called liberal [parties], the liberal right-wing [parties], having the same policy regarding this. So the most important thing [for European liberal and hard right] being for the European Union to not have a new wave, as they say, of Syrian refugees.

And Turkey has also used this in its relationship with the European Union to pressure them, on many occasions in a very racist way saying ‘I will unleash another wave of refugees on you if you don’t come to an agreement on these issues with me.’ It’s a catastrophe, regarding the refugee situation, and even though you have, especially in the European Union a very nice and superficial discourse regarding the suffering of refugees.

Derek Johnson: Why have sections of the left so singularly failed to correctly appraise the Syrian Revolution?

Joseph Daher: Well I think, first of all, we have to acknowledge the weakness of the left internationally speaking, it’s [partly] a reflection of this situation. Linked to this, I think the internationalist aspect of many progressive groups, and leftist groups, has been weakening, but it also linked to the first reason. Also, it’s a bit linked to the myth we mentioned in the beginning of the interview, I think a lot of the left has concentrated only on the geopolitical consideration, following very much ‘campist’ policies, meaning in other words that you follow a bloc, whether you’re with US imperialism or against US imperialism, without looking at the struggle from below, and seeing that it’s a much more complex situation.

Obviously we oppose US imperialism, but we also oppose for example Russian imperialism, or we oppose the various regional powers, whether they might have a so-called rhetoric opposing the US, which unfortunately has been understood as anti-imperialism, which it is not at all, by Iran, Hezbollah. So I think also, a lack of understanding of the various dynamics of the region, understanding of the nature of the regimes we’re facing, and in this case of course much more could have been done, in terms of international solidarity. And again I think the main reason is due to a generalised crisis of the left.

Before [the left] used to raise the internationalist flag very high, but you do have some sections of the left having a more nationalistic perspective, sovereignty etc. And taking sides with, as I mentioned before, with this or this particular ‘camp’ and not with the people in struggle. And this is a direct result of, I would say, weakening of class consciousness, and forgetting that all our destinies are linked. We should not forget that the beginning of the Middle East uprising inspired the whole world, the Occupy movement came out of Tahrir Square, and other forms of these kind of experiences.

Also you have some sections of the left, as I said, only focusing on Western imperialism, without trying to learn from popular struggle in the Middle East, they point to the limitation alone, without noticing that these uprisings are shaking the world. They also, these sections of the left, refuse to denounce some regional despotic regimes. And, as Lenin said, some expect a perfect social revolution – this never occurred in history, not even the Bolshevik one was a perfect, nice one without contradictions, problems etc.

This said… [for] some small sections of the left, internationalism is still very important, and I have collaborated throughout the world with various sections of the left that have supported the Syrian uprising. Not only in a rhetorical sense, but as a means to learn from certain experiences abroad, regional revolutionary experiences, revolutionary dynamics, and this is without forgetting the large participation of progressive and democratic groups and individuals occurred initially in the Syrian uprising, especially in the first years there was a lot of presence of progressives in the Syrian Revolution.

Derek Johnson: Some who despair at the left responses (I know I do), to the Syrian Revolution, say socialism is no longer relevant. Why do we continue to support a socialist political project? What relevance does this have to contemporary uprisings?

Joseph Daher: Well, especially coming from this political background, I would say it’s not because Stalin claimed to be a Communist that this was communism, quite the opposite. I mean, I think, he was a form of counter-revolution again the Russian Revolution of 1917. And just as it’s not because people claim to be on the left, with very bad policies and politics, that I should stop struggling for the emancipation and freedom of popular classes, within a socialist project that is internationalist, that is linking issues of oppression and exploitation, and we don’t differentiate it.

And because, what is the alternative? Move to the right? I don’t think the right has a better record regarding the Syrian Revolution, or at least in supporting the aspirations for democracy, social justice, and equality…

And I still believe that a socialist political project, not only for Syria, but for the whole world, is still very much of relevance, and especially when you see the crisis of neoliberalism, and the hegemony of the neoliberal ruling classes since 2008, but more particularly in the past year. We shouldn’t focus only on the Middle East, but these revolts were against authoritarianism, but also against a project of neoliberalism. And we see it throughout the world, in Chile, Haiti, rising protest movements in different parts of the world, Hong Kong as well, and Catalonia, for self-determination of the people.

We see also in the US, now saying you’re a socialist is not any more an insult – well depending for who obviously, but it’s some things that are interesting to see – in that what the famous conservative Fukuyama said, that it was the End of History, it is not. It is not. And unfortunately, what we’re seeing is that this crisis of neoliberal hegemony of the ruling class is not necessarily directly benefiting to the left or progressives alternatives, but also unfortunately to right-wing, fascistic movements or personalities, from Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin, we can see similar things occurring in the European Union.

We have to provide an alternative that is against these far right-wing or fascistic political actors, but also against a form of neoliberal authoritarian project, represented mostly by Trudeau, Macron, or Merkel. Both of these are enemies of the popular classes, we should be very clear, and aren’t providing anything better for the popular classes. And especially when we see all the challenges, do we seek a solution from the right, from a capitalist perspective, for the ecological crisis? No, obviously not. What about the borders? They mostly all agree on transforming Europe, or all Northern countries, into a huge fortress, huge barrier preventing people that are in need to seek a better life.

So even, again as I mentioned, it’s not because some claim to be socialists that we should abandon the ideals of socialism. I mean, the track record of capitalism since it became dominating the whole world, is catastrophic. Do we blame capitalists for this? No we blame the personality of people, I don’t know what, etc. So no, I still believe, and I will always believe, that what we need is an internationalist socialist perspective, and that the solution is not obviously in one country but across borders, because I believe that our destinies are linked, when I see a struggle, wherever it is, I feel it’s my struggle as well, because I know if they [achieve] victories, it’s also victories for our camp.

And, as also the ruling classes know that they are leading a class struggle, we should be aware of it as well. So this is why I believe that it’s very much of relevance, today and more than ever with all the challenges facing the popular classes across the world.

Ani White: Yeah, when you talk about the liberal authoritarian regimes, I think of the recent stuff in Canada with the encroachment into the Wet’suwet’en territory, having Trudeau hasn’t stopped that. And having Trudeau as a president hasn’t stopped that.

Joseph Daher: [Also in] France, the repression of the Gilet Jaunes has been terrible, as well.

Ani White: Yep, yep. And what can people outside of Syria do to show solidarity with the Syrian Revolution?

Joseph Dagher: Well, I think still many things can be done. First of all, it’s on two main aspects I would say. Continue to support solidarity groups with the Syrian Revolution that have a democratic, non-sectarian and equality aspiration, and social justice as well. I think this is very important, to continue to support these groups, to support the memory of the Syrian uprising, that was strong and democratic, and had this initial aspiration. Not as you mentioned in the beginning, not portraying the Syrian Revolution today only as a geopolitical and sectarian war. Not forgetting that you had millions of people in the streets, so this is very important, having this memory being transmitted to the people, whether Syrians or others.

One of the biggest advantages, I think, of this Syrian uprising, compared to the protest movement and the resistance we had in the 70s and 80s, is that a memory has been accumulated in these past few years. That has not been the case, unfortunately, in the 70s or 80s, where you had huge strikes, strong leftist and trade union movement, this was not transmitted to the new generation of Syrians. So this is very important, to build on these experiences for future experience.

Also pursuing democratic struggles regarding the condemnation, and denouncement, of violations of human rights in Syria. For example, it’s very important what happened at the end of the 2019 in Germany, where two former members of the security services were arrested in order to condemn them for violation of human rights in Syria. And I think this is very important: all criminals should be pursued for their criminal actions in Syria, but to continue to put the pressure on this aspect, to put pressure, to know where are the disappeared, the people that were kidnapped, the political prisoners, the prisoners in general, pursuing to know what happened to them is very important.

Also what I think is important is linking these uprisings to the struggles we have in the countries we live in. Meaning that we link the refugee issue, to the socio-economic situation, to the political appeals, to the political struggles, such as struggling against Islamophobia, struggling against racism, struggling against austerity measures that attack all of us. Also making the links between these uprisings, and these causes where we live. Because a refugee that wants to be politically active, it will be very difficult to him if he’s not able to have a proper job, housing, to be able to not have a document saying he can only stay a year, or he has to leave, where he’s under the threat of being kicked out every minute.

And this is linked to our own political struggles for democratic and socio-economic issues. When we struggle against anti-terrorist laws it’s not only about struggling against Islamophobia, more repressive policies, but it’s also because these laws are used against activists, against ecological activists, against trade unionists, or against other types of activism. So I think it’s very important, again as I very often say because really I believe it, that our destinies are linked.

And just understanding as well the way imperialism works. The various imperial interventions in the region, the Middle East, has not helped the people of the region. On the opposite, it has forced the problems of this country, whether by supporting directly or indirectly these authoritarian regimes, or by bombing and creating the conditions for the rise of groups such as the Islamic State, or al-Qaeda, etc. Many reasons, sectarianism, authoritarian regimes, neoliberal policies, but I think it’s very important to link these two issues when continuing to show solidarity with the Syrian Revolution.

And understanding that the Syrian Revolution is not only something isolated from the rest of the uprisings also. Making links with the regional uprising, and trying also, challenging the sectarianism and ethnic tensions that are currently occurring in Syria, while putting forward a democratic and social framework.

So I would say a lot can still be done, even though the conditions are very difficult, the situation in many ways is worsening.

Ani White: Really I think, in terms of the analysis of imperialism, I really think 2011 was a set of revolutions obviously, but I think it also overturned our understanding, as any revolution does. And so, as you say, we had these coordinates before, that it was all about the USA, but then you had these uprisings that were against various regimes whether they were officially aligned with the USA or not, so we kind of had to re-orientate, and so it’s actually not all about the USA. There’s a lot that I think is still to learn from that, and I agree, keeping the memory alive is a part of that.

And we’ll link recommended sources [on the revolution] in the description for the episode.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, what are the next steps for your group, the Alliance of the Middle East and North African Socialists?

Joseph Daher: Well, to continue to work, we know we’re still a small network, but we try to expand, to have new people contributing to the website, contributing to articles, analysis, statements, doing these kind of livestream conferences that have been I think a success, trying to do translation work as well, from Arabic, English, Persian, sometimes Kurdish if we can. Continuing to expand this small network, we don’t see ourselves as going to change the whole situation tomorrow, or after tomorrow, but it’s important for people to know that they can find people with internationalist aspiration, with a socialist appeal, and inclusive.

And foster debates among us that want to build something new, and better for the popular classes of the region. So even though we know we’re small, we’ll continue in this perspective, and bring our support as much as we can, through our work, through our different activities, to the liberation and emancipation of the popular classes of the region, and elsewhere, continue collaboration with internationalists such as you and others, this is what we think is important, while knowing that we’re still a small network, but trying to do as much as we can.

Derek Johnson: Well thanks for coming on the show.

Joseph Daher: Thank you.

Derek Johnson: You’re very welcome. Just a reminder for our listeners, Joseph released a book last year entitled Syria After The Uprising: The Political Economy of State Resilience, so be sure to check that out if you want to know more. Thank you for listening, good night, and resist.

Audio: Protestors chanting ‘Asha’ab yurid izquat an nizam/The people want the fall of the regime’.



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