The persistence of the regime`s cohesion in the face of all the fissures and strikes it has sustained demands that every Syrian—whether an activist, a fighter, a partisan, or [a] silent [observer]—take pause and reconsider the trajectory of change in Syria. This change has exceeded in its level of danger anything our imaginations and expectations contained within them. Every Syrian citizen that does not reconsider the factors of success and failure [of the revolution] can be considered directly responsible for the accumulation of destruction, violence, pain, and bloodshed.
I will not waste time and effort on discussing the internal and external elements of the Syrian political opposition, because they are all in need of an intensive care unit. Their scandalous impotence is the consequence of objective internal and external factors, as well as a regressive self-assertion. Their lack of political programs and instruments has turned them into blocs that are void of revolutionary content, unaware of the real functions and intended gains [of revolutionary blocs]. They are incapable of analyzing the realities and problems of the revolution so as to [adequately] plan its stages and define its tactics for the purposes of expanding the capacities of the revolution. This impotence is expressed through its pitiful and shallow rhetoric, which does not go beyond describing the crimes of the regime in media and bowing down to external intervention. This intellectual and political impoverishment has had catastrophic effects on the course of the revolution, such as the escalation of militant religious discourse and the entrenchment of [various] fears among broad sectors of society, which in turn have held tightly to their role of observers of the fate of the struggle. The absence of political organization and revolutionary political discourse, both of which the revolution was and continues to be in need of, is the primary reason for multiple deviations and setbacks in the course of the revolution. Therefore, let us leave the Syrian political oppositions to their own devices.
Has the armed opposition fared better than the political opposition? Is the former a revolutionary armed opposition or a [set of] fighting forces with particularistic goals? What are its problems and what are the factors underpinning its success?
The revolution is but the midwife of a new society during the latter`s birth. However, the primary logic, law, and condition of success of a revolution are not to be found in its peacefulness or arming. Rather, it is to be found in broad popular consensus on a minimal set of objectives, as well as on the dismantling—or, at the very least, the neutralization—of the coercive apparatuses of the ruling regime such that those apparatuses reach a point of self-dissolution under the pressure of popular mobilization. If arming the people (in the waging of revolution) was an inevitable choice, then we need to accept this only as Hegel describes we should: a temporary path in a revolutionary journey. This requires that we know the rules and laws of armed action as well as that we commit ourselves to the factors of its success. Otherwise, armed action will be a prelude to the fall of all.
Therefore, the feasibility of popular arming, or the arming of the opposition, lies in the ability to confiscate or take apart the arms of the regime. If the armed wing of the opposition does not succeed in crafting a well thought-out strategy for this purpose, and therefore fails in establishing this equation, it will inevitably lead to a civil war. At that point, the people will be forced to pay an extremely high cost, even if "the revolution succeeds." We can evoke the example of the armed struggle of peasants in Tambov or that of the Russian naval soldiers at Kronstadt against the Soviet government in 1920, both of which ended in failure, despite an immense humanitarian cost. Therefore, taking apart and dissolving the coercive apparatuses upon which the regime relies is a necessary condition for the success of a revolution—that seeks to build a new society based on non-authoritarian and more just governing relationships—rather than for the success of the opposition in merely brining down the ruling regime.
This leads us to the issue of the responsibilities that fall on the armed opposition in Syria, for which it is no longer acceptable to simply carry weapons and clash with the regime`s standing army without a planning military mind, a studied military strategy, and an organizational structure that is binding on all the various armed parties. Everyone that takes a stand in a time of revolution, whether it is a military, political, or what is called partisan stance, is fully responsible for the requirements and consequences of his position. Where are the armed battalions, which I will take care to refrain from calling the Free [Syrian] Army due to their lack of coalescing under one military leadership and one military discourse? Where are those that will live up to their responsibilities in the face of its people, the owners of the revolution, and the ones that are paying the great cost?
Let us proceed from the premise that the armed opposition is a national opposition with defined goals. This is in contrast to both a seller of political speeches in the media market and a shop that sells and purchases (with labels of moral value) those that curse the regime. It also contrasts with those that play the role of God`s caliph on earth, forcing a militant religious discourse on a diverse people simply because they carry arms.
The armed opposition has other tasks that are clear and defined. These are military tasks, not political or religious tasks. The aspiration of the people cannot be realized without a political opposition whose authority is higher than that of the armed authority. If the armed opposition cannot carry out these tasks and fulfill its responsibilities, we as a people and as a revolutionary mobilization need to correct it and reject it just as we have rejected the many political oppositions that have failed to carry out their political responsibilities. There can be no fear or hesitancy in critiquing the Syrian armed opposition. This is because no person and no party is above the interests of the people, their will, or the revolution. The people have raised the following slogan in their peaceful mobilization: the revolution is above all. Those that cannot accept critiquing the armed opposition or confronting its problems do so for one of several reasons: they are naturally ignorant of things; their fears that the revolutionary winds had chased away have returned to them; or they do not want the revolution to succeed but rather to deviate.
Let us therefore put forth the following thoughts to the armed opposition in Syria, to its various leaderships, and to ourselves. Let us try to seek out the position of the combat forces relative to the revolutionary popular mobilization so that we can all work towards saving the country.
1) It is assumed that the armed wing of the revolution is in the first instance revolutionary. That is, its allegiance should be to its mother, who gave birth to it, which is the popular revolutionary mobilization. Therefore, it should express the motivations and aspirations of this mother, who is the reason for the existence of any popular revolution. This means that the original goals of the revolution should be liberation and emancipation from the bondage and tyranny of the ruling regime, as well as the building of a new era of justice, freedom, and dignity for all the sons of society.
2) Given that the revolution in Syria includes a broad set of groups, with their diverse sects and nationalities, in their peaceful and civilian wings, the armed wing has no right (even if its majority is drawn from a specific sect) to produce an exclusivist discourse on the different components of Syrian society, which, until today, continue to participate in different proportions and various ways in the civilian sphere. This is because a genuine national opposition, whether armed or not, defends the rights and liberties of all citizens irrespective of their different allegiances, and irrespective of their participation in the revolution or lack there of. It must speak in a national language that is composed above all religious, national, or political allegiances. This is because the freedom that the people are struggling for cannot be separated from its comprehensive humanitarian depth. The freedom that is sought by those chanting for justice, dignity, and the reclamation of rights will be turned on itself and transformed into a new authoritarianism if it does not include everyone.
3) The armed opposition draws its legitimacy from its popularity and social base. Otherwise, it will become a new burden and oppression for both the revolution and the people. When the source of its strength is the same source of strength for the ruling regime—meaning arms—it loses its legitimacy even if it is an opposition. Some of the most important criterion for the legitimacy of the armed opposition are its sincerity, transparency, integrity, and candor with the people. All that is beyond the realm of military secrets—that must be concealed from the ruling regime—must be genuine (meaning honest) amongst the people. A lot of times the Syrian political opposition was not genuine or honest. Was the Syrian armed opposition better than its political counterpart? Did it honestly and fairly present information, news, analysis, and positions of both positive and negative natures to the Syrian people that defend it?
4) The armed resistance is not an urgent issue in the history of revolutions, but it does have its laws and strategies. One of the forms of armed resistance is the partisan form, or what is called guerrilla warfare, which is the form that the armed opposition in Syria has taken. This type of armed fighting emerges in an asymmetrical situation with respect to the arms of both sides. It begins as guerilla warfare relying on hit-and-run tactics within the villages and cities. However, when the partisans lack a united national military leadership, reinforced by a national military discourse, that is above all smaller allegiances in society, and when they are unable to set strategies and tactics to be implemented by all fighters, this is when a revolutionary military opposition is transformed into mere fighting groups that are sustained by the power of arms and that see no goal for themselves except to destroy the regime by any means necessary. This then drives them to carry out subversive and destructive operations against both the society, as well as the state, and thus lose the necessary popular legitimacy.
So what are the rules of guerilla/partisan warfare?
As Carl Schmitt argues, and as is the case with the Syrian armed opposition, the partisans function as one form of armed resistance with the goal of destabilizing the regime. The danger in this is that it creates for itself, and by itself, legitimacy when the regime falls, or even before it falls, that legitimizes its own specific set of rights, laws, and system. This form of armed resistance puts the country in a permanent state of emergency, as the country is threatened by chaos and the destabilization of security. In the shadow of partisan warfare, or what is called guerilla warfare, against the army of the ruling regime, the entire system in the country—not just the regime—breaks down. This is what we are witnessing in Syria today. There is no law today in the face of the violence that is imposed by armed combat. In the absence of political leadership, the principle of which the armed opposition should be brought under, a new reality has been imposed on the revolution: armed combat monopolizes to a great extent the determination of the fate of popular mobilizations and revolutionary civilian popular forces. This is part of the nature and consequences of armed resistance. The massive setbacks for the role of peaceful revolutionary civilian mobilization in Syria are evidence of this.
The armed opposition in Syria began under the name of the Free Army, as part of the oppressed people, having been the weaker party and the defender [of the people] in the face of the regimes violence and brutality. Its establishment was natural despite the external factors that supported it. However, the militarization of the struggle has escalated to an unbelievable point between, on the one hand, the army of the Asad regime and, on the other hand, disorganized armies that have no revolutionary military leadership. The role of arms has been transformed from that of self-defense to that of an incoherent armed opposition entity. According to the nature of such things, this will lead to one of two developments. In the event that the opposition gains in strength and the regime`s army is weakened, it will lead to a decisive battle between the two sides. Alternatively, it will lead to a situation of guerilla warfare without a decisive battle, and thus a long-term continuation of a battle that is destructive to both humans and the country, and thus one in which everyone perishes.
If we wish to exceed the teenage-level politics practiced by the Syrian opposition in their estimation and analysis of the Free Army or armed combat in Syria, and if we deal with the reality of armed opposition with national responsibility, political maturity, and rational analysis far from emotional and populist language, we must analyze with depth the reality of the militarization of the revolution, point out its problems, and propose without fear or hesitation our reading of the odds for successful armed combat, genuine representativeness of the revolution, or its deviation. If we do not do so, we are nothing but a bunch of political entrepreneurs who care only about populist mobilization and opportunistic gains.
The military strategy and the ways of armed combat of the opposition in Syria do not call for optimism. This is a time when the regime`s army and its coercive apparatuses continue to function with a high degree of coherence despite all the shocks it has sustained. This is a time when the regime is developing its means of gaining control over the armed opposition, which now includes collective punishment of every area in which there are armed battalions, such that it destroys the humanity of the Syrian citizen and threatens the premise of subsistence itself. Nevertheless, we see that the armed opposition has not developed its military strategy, its military discourse, or its war tactics. It has not been able to unify the military leadership, the general plan, the command structure, or execution of military operations. Nor has it given a chance to those with military knowledge and competence to put forth a new military discourse to replace the religious and sectarian political discourse that is dominating the language of many of the fighters. It has also failed to instantiate an image of general ethics and morality that gives the impression that these fighters are fighting for the sake of the freedom of the Syrian people in its entirety, so as to truly deserve the title of a popular liberation army on the road to achieving freedom, dignity, and justice for all Syrians (of all sects and nations, and allegiances) whether they are supportive or armed opposition or afraid of it.
Theorists of revolutionary armed struggle, such as Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara, have put forth general observations on the laws of armed combat against an authoritarian ruling regime. They consider the first stage of armed struggle to be based on strategic defense, which in turn is based on weakening the adversary. This is on the condition that the people support the armed struggle, and whereby tactical attacks are integrated into the defensive strategy within a plan to balance power with the adversary. It is in the next stage that there begins a gradual transformation of the armed opposition from a scattered and disorganized form to an organized one. In the final stage, the unorganized combat units are dissolved and the military body takes on an fully organized form with respect to its structure, command pyramid, and means of execution similar to the army of the regime. There is, however, a necessary and decisive condition for this: the application of a strict policy of maximum commitment to the values and goals of the revolution. This discipline includes avoiding acts of looting, kidnapping, and revenge that have happened in Syria and continue to happen at the hands of a segment of those bearing arms.
The armed opposition needs to always keep in mind Guevara`s wise insight that guerilla warfare derives its strength and legitimacy from broad popular reach, and must always be the first line of defense for the people. Its legitimacy is eroded when it is based on one segment of the people (and does not include the others), or when it is saturated with religious ideology or authority that does not include all the people. The discourse of revenge and sectarianism is one of the most salient symptoms of the deviation of the Syrian revolution, and we must boldly confront it with awareness so as to not lose out on revolutionary change at the end of the day.
Where does the armed opposition, or what is called the Free Army or several other names, derive its popular legitimacy when it carries out sectarian assassinations, torture, humiliation, and executions against its prisoners from amongst the [regime`s] security services and army? This was precisely what we described as brutality when it was committed by the criminal regime. Where does it derive its popular legitimacy when it speaks of a war between Sunnis and Shi`is, or Alawis, as is wished for by those that call themselves the Friends of Syria or the friends of the regime? What distinguishes the discourse of the opposition from the discourse of the regime when one of them speaks of Sunnis, Shi`is, and Alawis, while the other speaks of Salafis, Islamists, and terrorists? Both discourses operate beneath the national level, which gathers and views all as equal with respect to human rights. Both discourses indirectly call for a long-term Iraq-like divisive civil war. How can the people consider the armed opposition to be the military arm of the revolution, for which one of its principles were "one, one, one … the Syrian people are one," and that offered the lives of its sons for the sake of building a civilian state, not a religious emirate or a Muslim Brotherhood state? If we take into consideration the external role of exporting a militant religious or Salafist discourse—that is a stranger to the moderate religious discourse of Syrian society—to the ranks of combat battalions, then this only increases the deviation of the revolution from its national level. In this view, the enemy is no longer the sectarian authoritarian Syrian regime, but rather the Alawis, the Shi`is, or other categories of people.
There is a major difference between striking specific military targets of the regime (which work to weaken the coercive apparatuses) and striking state institutions (for the sake of revenge and ignorance). Striking at state institutions means contributing to poverty, chaos, and the absence of security for many years beyond the fall of the regime. This will benefit the states whose companies are awaiting contracts with post-Asad Syria, so as to accumulate profits on the bones of our martyrs and the ignorance of our opposition. If the armed opposition does not discriminate between bringing down the regime and destroying the state as an entity, then let us bid the world farewell and mourn the loss of the revolution.
What is happening today in Syria is a war of extermination whose source is not only the regime that is burning everything for the sake of its survival. Its source includes the armed opposition that desires to bring down the regime but has begun to bring down society without evening knowing it. There absolutely cannot be any equivalence between the violence and bloodiness of the regime with the violence of the armed opposition. The Syrian regime is in the first and last instance responsible for all the destruction that is happening to both the people and society. However, both sides—the ruler and the ruled, the oppressor and the oppressed—are today destroying the basis and foundations of the state, and are threatening the national unity of the country. The regime is doing this with intention and purpose, while the armed political opposition is doing this unintentionally and in complete ignorance of the laws of armed resistance. Nevertheless, the result is the destruction of society and part of the institutions of the state that are the property of the people. Let us all—Syrian activists, politicians, and soldiers—work together to think and act so as to correct the path of the revolution on the political, military, and civilian levels, and consolidate the nationalism and citizenship of all above the religious allegiances and away from foreign gambles, so as to save both the revolution and the country. What is needed from all of us is to think, then to think again, and then think again of every political or military act we adopt against this treacherous regime that is outthinking and outplaying us so as to exterminate both the Syrian citizen and Syrian society.
[This article was originally written in Arabic and published on Jadaliyya here. It was translated into English by Ziad Abu-Rish.]