Is the Syrian Revolution at its End? Is Third Camp Abstentionism Justified? (Part 2)

The Contradictory Nature of the Petty-Bourgeois Rebel Factions




As we noted in the introduction, many leftists justify having dropped their support for the Syrian Revolution by claiming that the rebels have become "reactionary Jihadists" and/or proxies of US imperialism and the regional powers.


To address this contention, let us first summarize the general development of the armed rebels fighting against the Assad dictatorship. The Syrian Revolution began as a peaceful movement of mass demonstrations in March 2011. When the regime began to indiscriminately arrest, torture and kill protestors, the protest was transformed into an armed civil war.


This was not a surprising development, seeing how no ruling class ever relinquishes power without a fight. For historical reasons, which are beyond the scope of this document, the ruling class in Syria – similar to the case of Libya with the Gaddafi clan – has been dominated since the early 1970s by a single clan (the Assad family). This is the reason that, in Syria, it was not possible to follow the model of the ruling classes of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen who made concessions to the popular protest by replacing one president with another, without losing their economic and political power as a class.


When the regime tried to drown the protests in blood, people spontaneously took up arms and many soldiers (and officers) deserted their units because they were not prepared to kill their compatriots. Out of these men (and some women) emerged the hundreds, if not thousands, of local militias. Let us state the matter unambiguously: Not only was the creation of these popular militias a necessary step in that they provided the workers and peasants the means to defend themselves against a genocidal regime, but their creation was also an enormous progressive step from a revolutionary perspective.


However, from the start, these militias lacked weaponry, as they only had those weapons which they captured from Assad's army. Furthermore, they lacked a clear strategy and coordination among themselves which, again, resulted from their lack of political perspective (which, again, we attribute to the lack of a revolutionary Marxist leadership).


By the time some loose alliances emerged, with the Syrian National Council (SNC) and later the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the political representative of the opposition, they where characteristically heterogeneous alliances of bourgeois liberal, ex-Stalinist, nationalist and Islamist (in particular the Muslim Brotherhood) parties. The LCC movement was also part of the National Coalition. Also, a number of militias constituted the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as the military alliance of the revolution.


As we have written repeatedly in the past, the Syrian National Council, as well as the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, proved to be fragmented and were dominated by intellectuals living in exile who only had weak roots within the country. These bodies called for the overthrow of the Assad regime and advocated a liberal democracy as its alternative. They hoped to receive recognition from the "international community," i.e. the Great Powers, and financial and military support from the Western imperialists. [1]


As an aside, we note the existence of yet another organization, the National Coordination Committee, which is composed mostly of groups and individuals who split with the main Baathist and Stalinist parties. At the start of the revolution, they were a kind of official opposition tolerated by Assad which called for "non-violent resistance" and a "dialogue with the regime." Unsurprisingly, they had only very little popular support and were despised by the revolutionaries. In 2012, they began joining the call for the overthrow of the regime. However, they remain very small and their goals do not go beyond bourgeois democracy.


The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has always been a loose alliance without an effective military command. In addition, they became increasingly discredited as a number of FSA leaders proved to be self-serving, corrupt and incompetent. While the FSA does not function as a centralized command, numerous brigades and groups affiliate themselves with this alliance.


While the leaderships of the SNC and the FSA were hoping for decisive help from the West, this never arrived. Support was mostly rhetorical and diplomatic, but in terms of finances and heavy weaponry the rebels hardly received anything. Because US imperialism could not control the rebels it didn’t trust them and refused to send modern anti-aircraft missiles and similar desperately needed weaponry. A few small units were trained by the CIA, but the US stopped the program when these units were overrun and disarmed by the Islamist militias. [2]


As a result of the failures of the SNC and FSA, scores and even hundreds of groups either broke with them or were independent from the beginning. Most of these groups combine – to varying degrees – petty-bourgeois nationalism and Islamism. Many of them joined – often unstable and temporary – alliances. Today, the most prominent of these petty-bourgeois Islamist alliances are Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (or Ahrār al-Shām, Islamic Movement of the Free People of the Levant) and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front). The latter was affiliated with Al-Qaida, but officially broke with it in 2016. Through a process of fusion with other Islamist (Ansar al-Din Front, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq) and FSA brigades (Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement), these organizations recently founded the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, Organization for the Liberation of the Levant). In addition, up to 60,000 fighters are organized in small, local, unaffiliated militias.


In general, events have shown that virtually all of these alliances are loose and relatively unstable. The results are recurring splits and fusions between the hundreds of local brigades, demonstrating how alliances are formed (and broken) not so much on ideological grounds but rather on practical considerations. This local orientation of most rebel militias, with strong roots in the regional population, also manifests itself in their operations being determined in large part by pressure from their popular base, the military necessities of the local situation, rather than any nationwide or foreign considerations.


According to estimates, there are some 200,000 armed Syrian rebels (not counting the Kurdish militias which number about 60,000 fighters). [3] This is a very high proportion of the population relative to that of Syria as a whole, which on the eve of the revolution numbered 22 million (approximately 5 million of whom subsequently fled the country), and an even higher proportion relative to that portion of the population currently living in the increasingly smaller liberated areas controlled by the revolutionaries!




A note on the adjectival juxtaposition of "progressive" to liberal democrats versus "reactionary" to Islamists




At this point it becomes necessary to state that we entirely reject the dichotomization – so widespread among the pseudo-Marxist left – between "progressive" liberal democrats and "reactionary" Islamists. While these leftists support struggles led by the former, they refuse any support for struggles by the latter.


Naturally, we don’t ignore that, generally speaking, liberal democrats hold more progressive views on women’s rights and accept a pluralism of opinions, among other things, than most Islamists do. But at the same time we have seen so often how liberals become servants of Western imperialism. Let’s just recall how closely the leaders of the Syrian National Council were willing to collaborate with the US and EU (but these Great Powers were not prepared to lend them any serious support). Furthermore, how can one forget that many of these liberal democrats (plus their Stalinist and centrists friends) applauded the military coup in Egypt in 2013 and refused to defend the pro-Mursi masses against the slaughter which followed 3 July?!


To this one has to add the horrible crimes of the Western imperialist powers – first of all the US – who have always been the role model of liberal democracy with which the liberal democrats in the South mostly identify. In fact, the crimes of imperialist "democracy" far outstrip those of Daesh, to say nothing about other Islamist movements. In March 2015, the Washington DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility (PRS) released a landmark study concluding that the death toll from 10 years of “War on Terror” since the 9/11 attacks is at least 1.3 million, and could be as high as 2 million. The study also estimates the total deaths from Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 1990s – from direct killings and the longer-term impact of war-imposed deprivation. They reach the conclusion that the number of deaths is likely around 4 million (2 million in Iraq from 1991-2003, plus 2 million from the “War on Terror”). [4]


In other words, in decisive situations, liberal democrats turn out not to be so democratic, but rather pro-imperialist and pro-dictatorship (if the regime is capitalist and secular). Given the lack of a revolutionary leadership, the petty-bourgeois Islamists are given the chance to opportunistically exploit the crimes of the "liberal-democratic" Great Powers and to present themselves as the only consistent anti-imperialist force.


Naturally, there are many shades among Islamist forces. Some – like the Jamāʻat al-Ikhwān al-Muslimīn (the Muslim Brotherhood) – try to combine Sharia law with capitalist democracy (for instance, the Mursi government in Egypt). Others want to create a reactionary Caliphate without democratic institutions. However, we have always insisted that Marxists have to judge Islamist movements by their current role in any given concrete struggle. And, as we have elaborated in our Theses on Islamism, history has shown that, given their betrayal of Stalinism and bourgeois nationalism, Islamist currents have managed many times to stand at the forefront of mass movements against dictatorships and for national liberation. [5] To give just a few examples, we cite the cases of Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Yemen, etc.




Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham and Other Islamist Militias




Another factor demonstrating the popular character of the rebels is their class composition. They are dominated by urban and rural workers and poor. This class composition is directly related to the historic discrimination of the Sunni majority in Syria by the Assad regime. It was no accident that the uprising started with mass demonstrations in cities like Daraa, Homs, or Hama and that it had its strongholds in the proletarian and poor districts of Aleppo and Damascus. Since the close of the 19th century, East Aleppo – which the rebels managed to hold until the end of 2016 – has been proletarian in character, in contrast to the middle class western part of the city. Similarly, even today, it is the working class suburbs of Damascus like Qaboun, Jobar and Eastern Ghouta which the rebels control.


Naturally, in the wake of the revolution’s defeats and setbacks, millions of workers and urban poor have had to flee – as we noted above, nearly half of the entire population of Syria has become refugees, whether internal or those 5 million who have migrated abroad! However, this doesn’t change the fact that the rebels are deeply rooted among the popular masses.


In our opinion, it is vital to understand the contradictory nature of the rebels. On the one hand, their composition is essentially popular, as they are recruited from the poor masses. Furthermore, as they have no state apparatus or foreign troops behind them, they are entirely dependent on popular support. This popular character must be compared with the areas under control of the Assad regime, where there is a centralized bourgeois state apparatus, notorious for its brutality and corruption. In regime-held areas where the state apparatus has been weakened, the vacuum has been filled by private armed gangs linked to local businessmen. This demonstrates, once again, why it is that the rebels essentially represent the democratic revolution, i.e., one aimed at toppling the Assad dictatorship and achieving national independence (irrespective of the ideological cover of its participants).


The contradictory, undemocratic aspect of the rebel forces is the result of attempts by various Western powers to increase their influence among the leaderships of different rebel movements by means of political pressure and limited financial support. Naturally, such foreign influence is much less than that exercised by Russia and Iran on the Assad regime. Nevertheless, it constitutes a reactionary influence in the ranks of the rebels.


On the other side of the barricades, typically nearly the entire Syrian bourgeoisie – including those of Sunni background – has always supported the Assad regime. While some businessmen from the Syrian Diaspora do lend their support to the rebels (thereby adding another reactionary factor to the resistance), the huge majority still supports Assad. [6]


The most important Islamist formations in Syria today are Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) followed by Ahrar al-Sham. While the former is said to have 31,000 fighters, the latter numbers about 20,000 persons under arms. These formations, in particular Tahrir al-Sham, are replete with internal contradictions. On the one hand, they represent the tendency among the rebels which resolutely refuses to compromise with the regime and to capitulate to the pressure of the Great Powers. For this reason it’s no accident that the US and other Western imperialist power began castigating al-Nusra, but also other groups like Ahrar al-Sham, as "terrorist organizations" soon after their formation in late 2011 and early 2012. Since 2014, US imperialism systematically targets the leaders of these organizations and has already succeeded in liquidating a number of them.


Tahrir al-Sham sharply denounces those forces among the rebels who collaborate with US imperialism. They similarly attack as "capitulators" those rebel forces who are prepared to participate in the Astrana negotiations controlled by Russia, Iran and the Assad regime.


Among these petty-bourgeois Islamist forces there are undoubtedly many dedicated fighters playing a vanguard role in the struggle against the regime and its Russian and Iranian backers. At the same time, these organizations maintain links with various wealthy donors in Gulf States. It is here that their contradictory nature becomes manifest, for they combine an essentially progressive struggle against the bloody Assad dictatorship with the perspective of a reactionary social order. Furthermore, these groups are Islamist chauvinist in nature, entirely denying the Kurds’ national rights, while pursuing a virulent Sunni nationalism. They justify their reactionary sectarianism against the Shia minority of Syria by referring to them as agents of Iran. In other words, they fail – as nationalists typically do – to differentiate between the reactionary ruling class of Iran and Syria and the ordinary Shia workers and poor who must be won over to the side of revolution.


For these reasons we characterize forces like Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the al-Nusra Front) or Ahrar al-Sham as petty-bourgeois Islamists of the Salafi-Nationalists type. In contrast to them, we note as an aside, we characterize Daesh as a Salafi-Takfiri organization which does not support the Syrian Revolution, and sees everyone but themselves as a Kuffar ("unbelievers" deserving death). [7]




The Role of Religion in Democratic and National Liberation Struggles




One favorite argument against supporting the Syrian popular forces that have petty-bourgeois Islamists as their leadership is that such forces, defending as they do a religious agenda, are thoroughly backward. However, as Marxists we do not judge forces primarily by their ideology but by the social forces which they represent in a concrete struggle between the classes. In the case of Syria, this is the urban and rural poor – led by petty-bourgeois nationalists and Islamists – who are fighting against the Assad regime representing the bourgeoisie (plus their imperialist and Iranian backers) and most of the wealthy middle class.


We have elaborated extensively in other documents that Marxists have to understand the role of religion – as is the case with ideology in general – materialistically. [8] This means that Marxists have to view religion primarily as a distorted expression of social interests – in cases like the Syrian Revolution, the hatred of a specific dictatorship or of a foreign occupier. This is often the role of ideology in the consciousness of the masses, as Engels explained in a letter to Franz Mehring in 1893:


"Ideology is a process which of course is carried on with the consciousness of the so-called thinker but with a false consciousness. The real driving forces which move him, he remains unaware of, otherwise it would not be an ideological process. He therefore imagines false or apparent driving forces." [9]


It is therefore not surprising that liberation struggles have taken place many times under the banner of religion. Engels, referring to the peasant wars in Europe in the 16th century, wrote:


"In the so-called religious wars of the Sixteenth Century, very positive material class-interests were at play, and those wars were class wars just as were the later collisions in England and France. If the class struggles of that time appear to bear religious earmarks, if the interests, requirements and demands of the various classes hid themselves behind a religious screen, it little changes the actual situation, and is to be explained by conditions of the time." [10]


While a religious and socially conservative agenda like that championed by Tahrir al-Sham and others reflects the reactionary character of these petty-bourgeois Islamist leaderships, it is important for Marxists to learn from history that anti-dictatorial and national liberation movements have repeatedly worn religious garb. This was not only the case in the European peasant uprisings in the Middle Ages, but also in the Bahia Muslim slave rebellion in Brazil in 1835, in the Taiping Revolution in China from 1850 to 1864 [11], in the Boxer rebellion in China in 1900, [12] for the Mojahedin-e Khalq in Iran in the 1970s, or in the cases of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or the Afghan Talibans today, to name only a few examples.


However, while Marxists obviously reject the socially conservative agenda of such movements, they cannot and must not ignore the democratic and revolutionary class interests which lurk behind the religious fog, as these manifest the determination of the oppressed popular classes to overthrow a reactionary dictatorship or a foreign imperialist invader. Marxists have to support and relate to this progressive class interest and oppose such movements’ reactionary politics so as to be able to break the workers and oppressed away from the Islamist leaderships and to win them over to revolutionary politics.




Some Arguments on the Ongoing Progressive Character of the Syrian Revolution




One of the many indicators of the liberation character of a war on the side of revolutionary forces and the reactionary character of a war on the side of the regime and its foreign backers is the regime’s continuously applying military tactics of annihilation against the civilian population living in areas under control of the rebels. The forces backing of the regime systematically and indiscriminately bomb the towns and villages being held by the rebels. This is why hundreds of thousands of Syrians (at least 400,000 according to official estimates, but most likely many more) have been killed – mostly at the hands of Assad’s forces – with the result that half of the Syrian population has been forced to flee their homes.


On the other hand, rebel forces do not typically apply systematic bombardment of the civilian population as a prime military tactic. Naturally, the military struggle against the Assadist forces also takes its toll on civilians. But, while broad and systematic indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas is in fact the primary tactic of the regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, this is not the case with the rebels.


This is no accident: the regime – despised by the majority of the population – must drive out large sectors of the people so that it can maintain or regain control of regions of the country. The rebels – lacking the huge military arsenal and the financial backing of foreign powers that the regime has – needs, on the other hand, popular support. [13]


Why is this so in the case of Syria? Simply, the Assad regime has very little popular support outside of the small Alawite sect and they are all too acutely aware that they are despised by the vast majority of the population. Furthermore, the regime also understands that it lacks the military resources required to establish a stable rule over the people of Syria. Therefore, it must do everything in its power to uproot and expel large portions of the population which sympathize with the revolution.


It is for this reason that the Assad regime places towns liberated by the rebels under siege – adopting the notorious tactics deployed by Putin's Russian army against the Chechens in Grozny in 1999-2000 (which left it "the most ravaged city on Earth" according to the United Nations) – and formulate surrender deals which require the rebels and the population to leave liberated areas subdued by the regime, forcing them to move to territories which are still under the control of liberation fighters (e.g., the province of Idlib).


Another argument which used by some to demonstrate the loss of the revolution’s progressive character cites local protest against the Salafist militias, and the counterrevolutionary repression by which such protests are put down. There can be no doubt that such incidents clearly demonstrate how such militias constitute a reactionary danger to all the democratic liberties won through the revolution.


However, we must not forget that the very existence of such demonstrations in the liberated areas actually affirms the revolutionary and democratic character of the liberation struggle being waged by the rebels who control a given region. Can we possibly imagine such protests ever taking place in those areas controlled by Assad? Of course not! All such protests were drowned in rivers of blood in 2011, which is precisely the reason that the revolution had to be transformed into an armed civil war against the dictatorship.




Have the Rebels Become Agents of US Imperialism and Regional Powers?




An argument often given for refusing to support the Syrian revolutionaries is that they are in fact "agents of US imperialism" or of regional powers. As we shall demonstrate, this argument is reactionary slander and simply stupid.


Let’s start with the "strong" side of this argument: It is certainly true that there have been contacts and tacit support by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for this or that faction of the rebels. During the first phase of the revolution, the US and the regional powers hoped to replace Assad with another figure, without at the same time disrupting the Baathist state apparatus. This was particularly true of the Erdoğan regime in Turkey, which sought to destabilize its local rival while at the same time gaining popularity among Turkey's Sunni-majority population which identified with the uprising of their sectarian brothers and sisters in Syria.


However, the point is that such support for the rebels by the Erdoğan regime was always limited. It never came close to the systematic support of Russian imperialism and the Iranian regime for Assad. This is why the Syrian rebels have always been at a total disadvantage from a military point of view when compared with the Assadist forces. If the US (or Turkey or the Gulf States) would have seriously supported the rebels, they would have done much more than simply support them with their air force (as Russia did for Assad). Rather, they would have sent tanks, artillery and BMP's (as the Russians in fact did for Assad). But the only tanks which the rebels posses are those which they have captured from their enemies! Furthermore, these foreign powers would have sent anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels in order to end the terror brought down upon them from the sky. But the Western imperialists did not do so because they never wanted the popular revolution in Syria to be victorious.


At this point, we must address the idiocy of the claim that the rebels are "agents" of the US or Turkey. As a matter of fact, the US and Turkey are increasingly intervening in Syria. They are deploying their air forces and bombing their “opponents.” They are increasingly sending their soldiers and heavy weaponry into battle. If the "agent theory" were true, the US and Turkey should, it would seem, be intervening on the side of the rebels fighting Assad. But as everyone knows, this is not what’s happening. Quite the contrary: the US and Turkey are not deploying their military power against Assad, but against Daesh and Islamist factions of the rebels (in particular Tahrir al-Sham)! The US air force has repeatedly attacked various Islamist rebels and killed a number of their leaders. Turkey – with Erdoğan looking for an alliance with Putin – put pressure on militias to leave the Aleppo front when the Syrian people were under siege in Eastern Aleppo and needed the militias the most! How idiotic is the argument that the rebels fighting against Assad are supposedly agents of the US, when the latter doesn’t care about attacking the Assadist forces, but rather the Islamists! In fact, very early on in the war the US designated several Islamist rebel militias as "terrorist organizations." Only fools can claim that these militias are the supposed allies of imperialism!


[1] See e.g. Yossi Schwartz: Victory to the Revolution in Syria! The second anniversary of the uprising in Syria, 15.3.2013,

[2] See e.g., Tom Perry, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and John Walcott: Exclusive: CIA-backed aid for Syrian rebels frozen after Islamist attack - sources, Reuters, Feb 21, 2017,

[3] See e.g., Fabrice Balanche: Status of the Syrian Rebellion: Numbers, Ideologies, and Prospects, November 22, 2016,; Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande: Syrian Armed Opposition Powerbrokers, Middle East Security Report 29, Institute for the Study of War, March 2016; Wikipedia: Syrian Civil War,

[4] Nafeez Ahmed: Unworthy victims: Western wars have killed four million Muslims since 1990, 8 April 2015, On the RCIT’s analysis of the imperialist wars and the position of Marxists see e.g. Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South. Continuity and Changes in the Super-Exploitation of the Semi-Colonial World by Monopoly Capital Consequences for the Marxist Theory of Imperialism, 2013, (in particular chapter 12 and 13)

[5] Michael Pröbsting and Simon Hardy: Theses on Islamism,

[6] See on this, e.g., Samer Abboud: The Economics of War and Peace in Syria. Stratification and Factionalization in the Business Community, January 31, 2017,; Revolutionary Left Current: The Syrian bourgeoisie and the people’s revolution,

[7] For a closer analysis of Daesh as a counter-revolutionary formation we refer to the RCIT's theses: The Revolutionary Struggle against Daesh and the Imperialist Aggression in the Middle East, 28.02.2017,

[8] See, e.g., ISL: Islam, Islamism and the Struggle for Revolution, November 2016,; Yossi Schwartz: The Marxist View of Religion in General and Islam in Particular, December 2016,; Michael Pröbsting and Simon Hardy: Theses on Islamism,

[9] Friedrich Engels: Letter to Franz Mehring (July 14, 1893), in: MECW Vol. 50, p. 164

[10] Friedrich Engels: The Peasant War in Germany (1850), in: MECW Vol. 10, p. 412

[11] The Taiping Revolution was a social-revolutionary movement of miners, poor peasants and ethnic minorities against the corrupt Qing dynasty which aimed to create an "Heavenly Kingdom of Peace" and which was organized by an millenarian sect known as the God Worshipping Society led by Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. See on this, e.g., Franz Michael and Chung-li Chang: The Taiping Rebellion. History and Documents Vol.1, University of Washington Press, London 1966; Stephen R. Platt: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom : China, the West, and the epic story of the Taiping Civil War, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2012.

[12] The Boxer rebellion was a Chinese nationalist insurrection with the initial tacit support of the Qing dynasty directed against the imperialist powers. They considered the Christian missionaries as foreign agents and massacred about 30,000 Christians (many of them were beheaded). See on this, e.g., Joseph Esherick: The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, University of California Press, London 1987; Larry Clinton Thompson: William Scott Ament and the Boxer Rebellion. Heroism, Hubris and the “Ideal Missionary,” McFarland & Company, London 2009.

[13] It is remarkable that even the counterrevolutionary and barbarian Daesh hardly applies the genocidal tactics which are so characteristic of the regime and their Russian and Iranian backers.