This text was written and posted quickly, but has since been edited slightly and had problems with the endnotes corrected
After four years of autonomy, East Aleppo, the rebellious city, has fallen. As I write this, buses full of evacuated people are arriving in areas controlled by non-Assadist armed groups in the Idlib area, to the south-west, and some ambulances carrying seriously injured people are crossing the border into Turkey. In the past few days, over a hundred thousand people had their homes, already destroyed by months of intensive bombardment, captured by the the Syrian military or (more likely) allied armed groups, such as Hezbollah (1). Some of these people have been killed in the streets, others divided up by sex and sent to internment camps or conscripted into the military to serve as canon fodder. The others wait, watching as more soldiers arrive and their neighbours are sorted, wondering what’s next.
What has been lost in these past few days, for those of us not directly touched by the violence? As I hide in the bathroom at work and flip through images of people burning their cars and furniture so that the army can’t loot it, what does it mean to me that Eastern Aleppo has been captured? These are some thoughts and reflections I have, as I watch the Aleppo revolutionaries be crushed, about the importance of this moment and what we, as anarchists based in Western countries, might learn from it. (2)
What does revolution mean? Is it still desirable?
The story of revolutionary Eastern Aleppo raises many questions for anyone who finds themselves in struggle against systems of domination such as capitalism and the state, the first being the desirability or possibility of revolution as it’s traditionally understood. Already in Spain in the 30s with Germany’s intervention, or even in the Paris commune sixty-five years earlier, we’ve seen the limitations of a revolutionary population finding itself in armed conflict with the state — with modern weapons of war, the state simply withdraws from the territory, destroys it from outside, then deals out victors justice among the ruins. Many of us call ourselves revolutionaries, but is a revolution like the one in Aleppo even desirable? There is no easy answer to this question and I won’t try to offer you one.
As described by Aleppan anarchists in the Hourriya editions text, Revolutionary Echos of Syria, (as well as in other accounts) the armed liberation of Eastern Aleppo came as a surprise to many of the people most active in organizing demonstrations there. This reduced the less-armed activists (who often had more liberatory political projects) to the role of aid workers. as well as trying to build a popular counter-power that could impose some level of control over the increasingly fragmented armed groups. These radicals suddenly found themselves in a completely novel situation that they struggled to engage with.
We often dream of the moment when our tactics will generalize to a point that we are overtaken by the pace and scale of events, like what Greek anarchists experienced in 2008. But in Aleppo, it was different – the shift to armed struggle represented a fundamental break in the tactical and strategic priorities of anarchists and other autonomously-minded people, rather than a precipitous escalation of them. Many ideas of revolution imagine some sort of escalation of conflict towards armed, territorial struggle against the state, but in Aleppo, this armed struggle became the motor for counter-revolution. What does this mean for our romantic visions of defending the barricades? Won’t we be more likely to end up embroiled in difficult internal conflicts with armed authoritarians behind them? Does this require us to change our understanding of our goals?
The most well-armed, mobile, and victorious armed groups throughout Syria have tended to have a Salafist ideology and receive financial support from the Gulf monarchies or from rich individuals living there. Aleppo has been somewhat of an exception to this, where local armed formations have been able to often continue controlling their neighbourhoods, organized into brigades like Liwa Tawhid (3) and even managed to push out Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusrah, affiliated with Al-Qaeda) for about a year, until this past summer, when it was Fatah al-Sham who briefly managed to break the siege on the city. It’s heartbreaking that the response to the cry for help from the 300 000 people besieged by the Assadist state were part of a fascist organization that Eastern Aleppo had already massively rejected.
Why was so little effort made during these four years to support the liberatory elements of the uprising? Why were they left to be dependent for survival on the most authoritarian elements of the anti-Assad movement? This is a vital question, because many revolutionaries described their strategy as being that some sort of outside pressure or support would restrain the Assadist state if they were able to secure their own areas. Is it possible to make a revolutionary strategy that doesn’t rely on receiving practical solidarity? If we aren’t prepared to give solidarity when it’s needed, can we imagine it as any more likely that we would receive it? As well, at least in the places I’ve lived, it seems unlikely that people with anarchistic values would be able to play a significant military role in the event of armed conflict with the state – would we end up in a similar hopeless position should our revolutionary desires gain momentum?
The outside support the revolution did receive came from totally unreliable authoritarians, like the US military and the CIA, who provided them with an inadequate and inconsistent supply of weapons. These weapons were ones that the US felt would not be a threat to it later (so no anti-aircraft weapons) and they would cut off the supply if it looked like rebel militias were about to score a decisive victory (this on-and-off support happened most dramatically in the south). This way, the rebellion would stay focused on weapons and therefore somewhat answerable to Western states, but would never become strong enough to achieve its goals on its own terms. What choice did they have, really? But we should remember two things: that the enemy of our enemy is likely also our enemy and that the “support” the Syrian revolution received from other states played an important role in trapping them in a hopeless situation; and also that the groups that did not receive this double-edged support were often marginalized on the ground.
Fighting the state and social revolution
The conflict in Syria contained several competing forms of struggle against the Syrian state. The Rojava project acts more in the vein of a national liberation struggle, working from a linguistic and ethnic minority on a limited territory without necessarily trying to dislodge the central state. The revolution throughout non-Kurdish Syria contained a majority tendancy that emphasized unity in order to carry out an armed overthrow of the state (with differences within the opposition to be settled later) and another that aimed at radical decentralization and autonomy from that state. In that latter model, their project approached the attempts at grassroots social transformation in Rojava, where conflict with the state was no longer necessary for their freedom. But unlike with Rojava, the state wasn’t willing to leave areas like Aleppo or Homs — those revolutionary projects were never given the (slight) distance from war that Rojava has had.
The ability to carry out a social revolution varied a lot from place to place, though unfortunately the general tendency was that the pressures of war meant that people became extremely precarious and dependent on a capitalist black market in food and basic goods, and that the political strength of Salafist armed groups was often able to push women out of the public space (though that does not mean there has not continued to be inspiring organizing among women throughout the territory). This is the very question the rebels of ’36 had to ask — do we begin collectivizing now, or do we wait for the war to end? Do women have full equality now, or are there more important concerns? The emphasis on unity against the Assadist state in order to survive as autonomous zones essentially meant that the social gains that were possible in Rojava were not in the rest of Syria. It was also these gains that have attracted so much international support to Rojava, and it is often their absence that has allowed the shit-eating state-commie narrative of the heroic Assad’s war on terror to confuse so many of us into inaction in support of the struggle in the rest of the territory.
There is also the Islamic State, the prime counter-revolutionary project, attempting to establish a new state on territories captured from the revolution and competing with the Assadist state for access to resources and markets. Understandings about where this organization came from will probably continue to develop over the coming years, but it’s probably not too far wrong to say: it came from a fusion between the remains of the Iraqi Baathist military and intelligence structures (long supported by the US) with al-Qaeda groups operating against the US on the Syrian-Iraqi border (with some level of support or cover from the Syrian state). Their rise in 2014, right after the Damascus chemical attacks, when it became clear that decisive action by western states was never going to come, completely changed the narrative and allowed all the state-actors to agree to fight terrorism. Over night, the Assad regime, that has caused a thousand times more death and suffering that IS, became the lesser evil. IS also took some pressure off other Salafist groups in Syria, because their actions and beliefs now seemed less repulsive — it shifted the bar on what was considered moderate. This later meant, as the anti-terrorism narrative took over, that everyone fighting the Assadist state kind of looked like a terrorist or like an ally of a terrorist (4).
This idea is only half developed, but I see a parallel in the way that the far-right has taken up much of the terrain that anarchists held during the anti-globalization movement and are, in many places, leading the attack on the neoliberal state. As Crimethinc pointed out, like in the Ukrainian uprising a few years ago or in Brazil or Venezuela right now, anarchist involvement risks being marginalized or recuperated by the far-right’s ability to control events. This cuts off outside support and even opens us up to additional repression. In some situations, even the left has begun conflating anarchist and far-right positions, when anarchists critique things also targeted by the right, like antifa or Islam.
Critical solidarity and the role of anarchists
The failure of any form of international solidarity with the Syrian revolution is utterly devastating. The only group that received consistent anarchist support was the PYD and its armed formations, the YPG/YPJ, which have done a lot of work in building a social revolution in Kurdish-majority areas of Syria. However, the open collaboration of the PYD/YPG with the Assad regime as it crushed free Aleppo barely caused a ripple. The YPG helped to cut supply lines, prevent retreats, and attack positions. The relations between Sheikh Maqsoud and Efrin Canton with non-PYD armed groups around Aleppo has been complicated, but even if we can accept some of these maneuvers, how can we accept that a revolutionary project has been content to watch another be crushed right in front of it? How can we explain that a movement based on the spread of directly democratic assemblies fought to opportunistically seize territory that had been held by other popular decision-making structures, the dozens of local councils that existed in Aleppo? Wouldn’t a truly revolutionary position involve encouraging the autonomy of other areas, not monopolizing power and striking alliances of convenience with authoritarians? Really, it is two revolutionary dreams that died with Aleppo, as it seems pretty clear now that at least the armed and political structures of the PYD are not pursuing popular, liberatory goals (5)
So much of the support that has mobilized recently for Aleppo has been purely humanitarian — they don’t necessarily disagree with the reconquest of the city by the state, just how it is being carried out. The support that does call for solidarity with the Syrian revolution is often doing so in a framework that could be called imperialist — open support for escalated NATO involvement in the country. Western Assad-supporters have latched on to that and bundled it into their conspiracy theories, and (although they’re despicable cold-war throwbacks who have found themselves in bed with the far-right in their Putin-worship) are not wrong to criticize this (6). But these crummy politics have created a confusion which has often meant that anarchists have stayed away or completely avoided building an anarchist position on the Syrian revolution. At a recent demo of two hundred people for Aleppo in a major western capital, there was only one person holding a sign denouncing all states as enemies of people in struggle, with a cute little circle-A. Anarchists are well positioned to cut through the bullshit smokescreen of the so-called anti-imperialists and the military interventionists – it’s our own fault if after four years we still don’t see any organizing in support of Syrian revolutionaries that speaks to us.
Although demonstrating is often a position of weakness, it is better than doing nothing, especially because anarchists and anti-authoritarians who are on the ground in Aleppo are looking for it from us. They deserved to see some level of even symbolic support, to feel that they are not alone, but too often, and especially in North America, we didn’t do it.
Nothing is over yet, even if the liberatory character of the Syrian revolution (at least within the fight against the state) was probably dealt a final, fatal blow with the fall of Aleppo. Some sort of cessation or reduction of violence is likely on the horizon, opening up possibilities for more organizing that isn’t dominated by war, especially if it becomes safe for people hiding out in Turkey and Lebanon to return. The reconstruction of Syria will be a new phase of struggle and support for prisoners will only get more important. Maybe we can use this moment of increased attention to clarify our collective understandings and be in a position to at least show symbolic support going ahead. Or look closely enough at the largest revolution of our time to supplement our understandings of what it really means to be a revolutionary.
- The two other main groups are The Noble movement for the party of God, from Iraq and also participating in the battle of Mosul on the side of the Iraqi state and the US, and the Fatimid Brigade, mobilized by Iran.
- I was going to try to put lots of footnotes and source everything, but it’s just not in the mood I have today. If you want to get updates, #Aleppo, or visit the list of blogs and twitter feeds listed at the bottom of other posts
- Although these formations can’t be described as liberatory, they were often local and answerable to the people living in the areas they defended. Today is the one year anniversary of the death of Liwa al-Tawhid commander Abu Furat
- The use of the word “terrorist” in talking about Syria is almost completely unhelpful. Really, all it means is that the state or state-supporter using the term considers some group an enemy.
- Though, to repeat, at a grassroots level, there is still lots of revolutionary energy throughout Kurdish majority regions and as well this is increasingly threatened by the Turkish state. To be caught between an increasingly counter-revolutionary domestic party and a hostile neighbouring state is a bad situation to be in — we should definitely not drop our support of Rojava, but we should be critical and understand that there are different currents within it.
- Like when the United States and Saudia Arabia use starvation seige and aerial bombardement on Sanaa in Yemen, people don’t seem to be so upset?