Syria: The Sovereignty of the Revolution Lives in the Bodies of the People in Struggle

Syria. Uttered in Arabic, we hear Sou-ree-ah. What is the meaning of this word today? Its utterance produces shivers, sighs, perhaps sparks of hope along with the horror. And of course fights. There is alive in the 2.0 world of print/blog media a war of words concerning Syria – is it a revolution? is it still a revolution? what about the islamists? what about Assad’s nominal anti-imperialist stances? What about resistance against American hegemony? What about American funding of the rebellion? It might be said that it does not matter so much what is said on blogs in the West about Syria, that the revolution or rebellion continues regardless of what we think about it. But there is a universal human obligation to try to understand those things to which one is connected. And a still more universal obligation to pay witness to suffering, and to those who stand up against oppression. There is something to be learned from every rebellion, every revolution, because there is a truth in the physical manifestation of standing up against injustice. Not because this standing necessarily leads to justice, but because it opens a door, a way towards justice. Because without sacrifice, there is no justice.

At a talk I attended on last week, a professor that I know and respect made a four-part distinction concerning the uprising in Syria, a four-stage theory of the revolt, the thaura. He distinguished between (1) causes behind the peaceful protest movement, which called only for reforms and not for the fall of the regime, (2) its transition into a more militant and eventually armed opposition calling for the fall of the regime, (3) the growth of sectarianism in the conflict, and (4) the reasons behind the difficulty of reaching a negotiated settlement to end the violence. I won’t repeat the details of the talk here, but in essence, he argued that the conditions for the protest movement were socio-economic, increasing poverty especially in rural areas, as well as changes in the state which saw it become more of a “family affair”, rather than run by the Ba’ath party. The protests then turned increasingly militant in reaction to the regime’s torture and killing of peaceful protestors, and in the context of the armed rebellion sectarianism has flourished. And peace is so difficult to achieve because none of the centres of power see it as in their interest. So what exists today in Syria is a corrupt, ossified state which is at war with an ever increasing section of its population, its people. And this has been the case now for more or less two years. What exists also is the increasing sectarian-ization of the conflict, people identifying with smaller than state identities for protection. And a military-political situation where neither side sees value in backing dow; all sides prefer to continue the fight rather than make a deal.

It’s in this context that, as Canadians, we’re obliged to have some sort of attitude towards the violence. As Canadians we are a NATO country, and virtually all the arms going to the rebellion are passing through a NATO country – Turkey. As Canadians we are also a strong US ally, and according to Rebel commanders, no weapons get through to the rebels without Turkey getting prior approval from the USA. As members of a NATO state we can agitate and demand that arms shipments stop, or that they be increased, or that they be changed in kind. We can argue that the shipments of US made arms from Gulf states through Turkey are illegal according to US law and pressure America to stop them. Or we can pressure our governments to increase support for the rebels, to give them higher tech weapons which they need if they are to fight in open confrontation against the regime. This external involvement, these western hands inside the conflict that give us a responsibility to know about it, it does not make everything automatically a conspiracy. At present, all it means is that America has its hand on the flow of arms into Syria. America isn’t supplying the arms, isn’t paying for them (this seems to be coming largely from Gulf pockets). But even if they were, Americans aren’t fighting and dying to bring down Assad.

This brings me to the point that I want to make. It’s easy to talk about “imperialism”, to talk about the flow of arms, to talk about conspiracies and the “middle east 2.0”. It’s easy to accuse the rebels of taking arms from the Zionists, to say they’re causing the destruction of their country, to write from the comfort of your computer screen that you support “only indigenous revolutions” and that intervention from outside, even US aid or approval, invalidates the cause. The fundamental mistake here is to place the sovereignty of the struggle according to the flow of capital rather than the flow of blood, to play into the imperialist logic and assume that only the positions of great powers are important in a conflict. But what about the Syrians? This talk of imperialism alienates Syrians who need guns to defend themselves from the regime, who can’t have a peaceful protest without protection by guns. This talk alienates those Syrians who have chosen to sacrifice their own safety for what they understand to be a revolution, for the freedom of their country. This is not to romanticize the one who holds the rifle, but to think about them honestly, as a locus of decision, and as a bulwark against oppression which can itself become a source of oppression. In other words, as a moment of sovereignty  We cannot seriously do without the one who holds the rifle because this would be for the people to give in to power unilaterally, to surrender in every way to the state. We must always remember that in Syria the rebellion was peaceful and was pushed to arms by actions of the regime! And by extension, we cannot condemn the one who holds the rifle if his or her rifle says “made in USA”, or if they can only find a bullet for it because a great imperialist has decided for them to have access to that bullet creates a “beneficial instability”. Perhaps revolutions are possible today only if great powers allow them, this is certainly unfortunate but does it remove the justness of the cause of struggle against oppression?

Naysayers always ask “but what will happen afterwards”, as if because the state can offer such a plan (but can it?), a rebellion must do so as well. The truth is, we know what happens afterwards – those groups involved in the uprising have a say in the power struggle insofar as they consolidated their power through the struggle. Whether a rebellion turns into a civil war even after the regime is defeated rests on the way of the rebellion – does the struggle produce unity, does it produce ideological affinity between groups strong enough to overcome differences between ideologies? Can a compromise be reached between comrades? The answer is always “perhaps”; there is always the possibility of revolution in an uprising. I can’t say why some uprisings turn sectarian, why others turn against all forms of oppression. But why do we say “we must stand with the oppressed”? Is it because the oppressed always have the correct political interpretation? Or, is it because it is from the position of oppression, and the victory of the oppressed over the oppressor, that universality and freedom emerges into the social world. That oppression is the site for the emergence of genuine revolutionary co-existence. Not that such an emergence is necessary, not that the oppressed cannot become oppressors, but rather that this possibility is perhaps the only possibility – that every attempt to move towards a universal politics from a position of privilege (i.e. liberalism, charity, reformism) will be merely moderations of systems of unearned privilege which ultimately serves to protect those systems. But if we are honest we must admit that the victory of the oppressed is only a chance, only a possibility. But without belief in the victory, without solidarity with the oppressed, then there is not even the chance, only the resentful condemnation of the real as impure. In truth, the real is always impure, or rather “purity” in the real does not mean the ideological perfection of the cause, but the absoluteness of the need and the trueness of the impetus towards brotherhood and freedom. In truth, the revolt never has the program of peace inside it as a series of propositions, but it carries the truth of freedom as a physical experience of revolutionary comradeship. Whether this truth emerges into a revolutionary political plane is only a chance, but it is not a chance which rides on which imperialist approves the shipments of the revolutionary’s arms. The sovereignty of the revolution lives, if it lives anywhere, in and between the bodies of revolutionaries.

thaura thaura hat al-Nasra


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