The Tragedy of the Syrian Revolution and the Responsibilities of Socialists

The inaction of the majority of the global Left in face of the Syrian regime/Russia/Iran perpetrated massacre in Aleppo is the sign of a very deep problem.  In this article, I will attempt to explore the roots of this problem in order to draw out some lessons about what socialists can do now.  ( This article was originally published by the Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists on December 6, 2016.)

Frieda Afary

December 4, 2016


The response of large sections of the Left to the Syrian revolution will go down in history as an infamy.   How could so many socialists turn their backs on a popular revolution for democracy and human rights?  Why have some who did not immediately turn their backs on this revolution, subsequently abandoned it and dismissed it as a cause lost to  Islamic fundamentalists when human forces on the ground are still fighting for a future not defined by Islamic fundamentalism?  How could justified support for Kurdish self-determination in Rojava be so completely separated from the need to support the rest of Syrian revolutionaries? [i]

I would argue that Marxists who opposed, ignored or abandoned the Syrian revolution have in fact abandoned Marx’s humanist and dialectical method.  This method examines every phenomenon in its distinctiveness, views it as a process of development containing contradictory elements, and grasps each process as a whole to pinpoint the  human subjects struggling for liberation and to articulate a liberatory vision that could offer a pathway forward.

More specifically, socialists who viewed the Syrian revolution as a conspiracy of Western imperialism and its allies did not do an analysis of Syria’s political economy.  They have not seriously examined the changing character of the global economy and its relationship to the role that other imperialist powers such as Russia and Iran play in Syria.

I.Analyzing the Contradictions of the Syrian Revolution 

In their excellent book,  Burning Country:  Syrians in Revolution and War, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami have given us facts and analyses that allow us to comprehend the contradictions within the Syrian revolution . [ii]

They demonstrate that despite the lack of independent and organized labor unions which were banned by the Assad regime,  unorganized members of the working class participated widely in the revolution and the strikes which the Local Coordination Committees called for on a number of occasions.  After the Dignity Strike of December 11, 2011, the regime closed 187 factories and laid off 85,000 people. (p. 62).  Some of the socioeconomic demands of the working classes were implicitly anti-capitalist.  However, given the Baath party’s Stalinist distortion of the ideas of socialism and Marxism, these ideas were discredited in the eyes of many Syrians.  Nevertheless, Independent socialists and anarchists were active in the revolution.   Many young members of the Stalinist parties also broke from those parties to participate in the revolution.

Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami  help us see how the ethnic divisions within Syria were skillfully used by the regime to promote sectarian divisions between Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Alawis, Muslims and Christians.   Not only had the Assad dynasty turned many Alawi men into a military caste, it also took advantage of the divisions between Alawis and Sunnis to promote fear among Alawis and to present the revolution as a Sunni threat.

The authors’ documented facts also reveal that Kurds in the Kurdish region in northern Syria, as well as cities such as Aleppo, Damascus and others had actively participated in the 2011 revolution.  However, most Arab leaders of the Syrian revolution did not welcome any talk of Kurdish self-determination or federalism.  Hence, by the Summer of 2012, when the Assad regime was on the verge of being overthrown by the majority of the population, it carefully took advantage of the anti-Kurdish prejudices of the Arab opposition, to enter an implicit non-aggression agreement with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).  The PYD took charge of the northern Kurdish region which is now known as the autonomous Rojava.  Assad’s army and courts continued to be present in Qamishli, the de facto capital of the Jazeera canton, and in Hasakah.   (pp. 73-75)

Opportunities that the Arab democratic opposition had for creating unity between Kurds and Arabs and other ethnic groups were lost, and that loss in turn strengthened the Assad regime.   On the other hand,  the Rojava experiment has not been limited to  the pragmatism and authoritarianism of the PYD  but includes the PYD’s  promotion and support for some forms of women’s rights and secularism.

Finally, Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami’s Burning Country help us understand  why various types of Islamic fundamentalism (from moderate to Jihadist)  grew over time.   First, “ in the face of the regime’s violence and sectarianism, there was an intensification of not only religiosity but also of Sunni identity and sectarian resentment.” (p. 121)   Secondly, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent Iran-backed Shia government in Iraq had created a condition that alienated Sunnis and in fact strengthened Al-Qaida.    The Assad regime had also allowed Salafist networks to operate  in Syria, and had facilitated their passage across the border to Iraq to fight against the United States.    Furthermore, from March to October 2011, the regime released up to 1500 of the most well-connected Salafist activists from its prisons and facilitated them in their work in the creation of armed brigades in order to prove its claim that the opposition forces were only Salafi-Jihadists. (p. 45 and pp. 119-120)

Other factors that Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami argue led to the growth of Islamic fundamentalist forces (from moderate to Jihadist) were the following:  1.  Lack of sufficient funds and other forms of help or solidarity from progressive and non-governmental sources and organizations.  2.  Support from Saudi Arabia,  the Arab states of the Gulf,  and Turkey.   3.  Ideological discipline among the fundamentalists which proved effective in the battlefield and in providing services to civilians.  4.  The lack of an international response to Assad’s massacres and ethnic cleansings, especially after its use of Sarin Gas to kill civilians in a suburb of Damascus in August of 2013 made many lose hope in international solidarity. (p. 122)

All of the above specificities of the Syrian revolution, from the lack of organized labor to the regime’s cunning use of ethnic divisions and the factors that led to the rise of Jihadists,  were not seriously analyzed by most socialists who turned their backs on the Syrian revolution.   Instead, for them everything was reduced to the role of the U.S. and its allies in the region.

II.Analyzing the Character of the Global Economy and its Relationship to Imperialism

A Marxist analysis of the changing global economy would have revealed that the U.S. was no longer the main imperialist power whose policies played a determinant role in Syria.  Despite its military and economic strength, the U.S. has become relatively weaker because of its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the 2008 economic crisis.  Instead Russia as well as a new regional imperialist power, Iran are playing the determinant role in defending the Assad regime.

According to the facts and statistics presented by the London Economist, in the emerging economies of China and Russia and the global economy as a whole, governments are tightening their grip on the commanding heights of the economy even as the private sector grows.  State-owned enterprises are becoming more powerful even as the overall state sector shrinks.  [iii]  In other words, we are witnessing the unity of seemingly opposite phenomena:  The decline in the overall state sector and the increasing growth of state control over the economy to the point where eight of the ten largest companies in the world are state-owned.   In most emerging economies, the state is inseparable from the army.  In fact, the state/army is omnipresent.

This reality has led to a situation in which we see a variety of states exerting their influence as imperialist powers:  Russia and China globally, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and not only Israel regionally.  At the same time, the global and regional influence of the U.S. and Europe are on the decline.

From a Marxist standpoint, this reality can be explained by Marx’s discussion of “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation” in Capital, Volume 1.  Capitalism’s drive for ever-increasing  profits leads to the concentration and centralization of capital in fewer hands in order to make possible the further extraction of surplus value from labor. [iv]

It was on this basis that Lenin’s  Imperialism (1916) had concluded that “economically, the main thing in this process [imperialism] is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly. . . At the same time, the monopolies which have grown out of free competition, do not eliminate the latter, but exist over it and alongside it, and thereby give rise to a number of very acute, intense antagonisms, frictions and conflicts.”  These acute antagonisms, he argued, in turn lead to war between capitalist powers.    He had also explained “inter-imperialist alliances” as “inevitably nothing more than a ‘truce’ in periods between wars.” [v]

We are now witnessing such “inter-imperialist alliances” between global and regional imperialist powers to promote “stability” in the Middle East region by maintaining the Assad regime and rejecting Kurdish self-determination.  [vi]

Donald Trump’s open declaration of an alliance with Putin’s Russia further strengthens the cooperation which had already started in the form of the Obama administration’s proposal for a joint command and control center with Russia in Syria.  While Obama has rhetorically criticized Russia’s continued aerial bombing of the innocent residents of Eastern Aleppo, and has claimed that his alliance with Putin was limited to fighting ISIS,  Trump has put aside any humanitarian rhetoric.  He openly supports the Assad regime and praises Putin as a great leader.

III. Responsibilities of Socialists

Faced with the tragedy of the Syrian revolution and the above mentioned global changes, the following tasks are urgent for socialists:

1.Challenging the myth that the Assad regime is the lesser of the two evils:   The Assad regime is the cause of the majority of the 500,000 deaths, the displacement of 13 million (7 million inside and 6 million outside Syria) and the 150,000 who are languishing in Syria’s prisons.   The continuation of the Assad regime with or without Assad will mean the continuation of ISIS or other Jihadists and endless war.

  1. Emphasizing that the majority of Syrians inside Syria and the majority of the Syrian refugees abroad are still demanding justice, human rights and democracy which were the demands of the 2011 revolution: The majority do not support ISIS or other Jihadists.  This was proven in March 2016, during a brief cessation of bombings and ground attacks by Assad and Russia, when the people in opposition areas immediately started demonstrating against the Jihadists in many places.   The  250,000  people under siege in Aleppo who are being massacred by the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, are continuing to resist because they want justice and democracy and because they know that their fate under the Assad regime will be nothing but death.  The majority of the rebels in Eastern Aleppo are not Jihadists. [vii]

Socialists need to organize protests and forums to oppose the Assad regime, ISIS/Jihadists, Russian and Iranian military intervention as well as the alliance between the U.S. and other global and regional powers which is aimed at maintaining the Assad regime and rejecting Kurdish self-determination.   We need to challenge the lie that these powers are currently only fighting ISIS when in fact their main aim in Syria for now is to destroy what is left of the moderate and revolutionary opposition to the fascistic Assad regime. [viii]

  1. Defending the Kurdish right to self-determination in Rojava and elsewhere in the Middle East; opposing Turkey’s endless attacks on the Kurds, but also remaining critical of unprincipled behavior on the part of established Kurdish parties. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the collaboration of Arabs and Kurds in the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011 was later weakened considerably, while racism and sectarianism increased.   First, Syrian liberal and Islamic opposition leaders and groups opposed any type of Kurdish self-determination, and on some occasions supported attacks by Islamic fundamentalist groups against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish civilians.  In doing so, they expressed a chauvinist position that must be condemned.  Secondly, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party chose a pragmatic non-aggression agreement with the Assad regime in the Summer of 2012, instead of directly addressing and joining the revolutionary masses who were still actively fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.[ix] In addition, in the Fall of 2015, the PYD supported Russian imperialism’s massive airstrikes which were aimed mostly at Syrian Arab democratic opposition forces and civilians, and only in a minor way against ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra.  Those air strikes destroyed the much needed civilian institutions in the areas that were not under the control of the Assad regime or ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.[x]

Considering that the PYD calls itself a revolutionary socialist organization,  socialists who support Rojava, should have the right to express criticisms of the unprincipled policies and authoritarian practices of the PYD.  [xi]

  1. Stating clearly that the U.S. and its allies, Europe and Israel are not the only imperialist powers on the global scene today: We have witnessed the re-emergence of Russian imperialism, Chinese imperialism and the rise of Iranian, Turkish and Saudi Arabian regional imperialism.


  1. Recognizing that the rise of new imperialist powers is directly related to the logic of capital, a logic which  leads to the concentration and centralization of capital in the hands of state/armies and  which in turn leads to wars between these states.    At the same time, imperialist powers can come together in temporary alliances.


  1. Not limiting our definition of capitalism to neoliberalism and privatization but recognizing that capitalism is a mode of production rooted in what Marx called alienated labor. It can exist as state capitalism, another authoritarian form of which has been growing in the emerging economies and is spreading globally.


  1. Expressing our solidarity with Middle Eastern labor struggles and with Middle Eastern women’s struggles and LGBT struggles which are not only against the patriarchy of Islamic fundamentalist and authoritarian regimes but also the sexism of many socialist men and the heterosexism of society as a whole.

In sum, I would argue that the task of immediate solidarity with those who are demanding justice and human rights in Syria goes hand in hand with developing a humanist alternative to capitalism. [xii]  Without Marx’s humanism and without regional and international solidarity among labor and women’s liberation struggles as well as those of oppressed national, ethnic and sexual minorities, we will never be able to challenge the growing authoritarianism that is suffocating the Middle East and the whole world.

December 4, 2016

Frieda Afary is the producer of Iranian Progressives in Translation and a member of The Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists.

This article was originally published by the Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists on December 6, 2016.


[i] For further details on the responses of some well-known socialist thinkers to the Syrian revolution,  see Joseph Daher’s “Syria or a Political Compass to Redirect Towards People in Struggle”  forthcoming in    Daher himself represents one of the Marxist tendencies that have had a consistently principled position on Syria.

[ii] Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami.  Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.  Pluto Press, 2016.

See also  my review-essay,  “Lessons of the Syrian Revolution for Iranians.”

[iii]  “The Rise of the Superstars” and “Why Giants Thrive” in “A Special Report on the World’s Most Powerful Companies” in The Economist.  September 17, 2016.  pp.3-7.

“How Red Is Your Capitalism? Telling a State-Controlled from a Private Firm Can be Tricky.” In “Special Report on Business in China.” The Economist. September 12, 2015.

“Emerging Market Multinationals: The Rise of State Capitalism.”  The Economist. January 21, 2012

“State Capitalism’s Global Reach: New Masters of the Universe.” Economist. January 21, 2012

آفاری، فریدا. «اقتصادهای نوظهور: نولیبرال یا سرمایه‌داری دولتی؟» سایت نقد اقتصاد سیاسی. 29 ژوئن 2013

[iv] Marx, Karl.  Capital, Volume 1.  Vintage, 1976.  p.772-781.

[v] Lenin, V.I.. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. 1916.

Although I am not a Leninist,  I consider Lenin’s analysis of imperialism important and relevant.

[vi] Frieda Afary,  “New Alliances in the Middle East and Iranian Discussion on 21st Century Imperialism” in website of Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists.  August 24, 2016.

[vii] See  Leila Al Shami,  “Breaking the Siege of Aleppo.” Leila’s Blog,  August 11, 2016.

[viii] The Economist reports that neither the Assad Regime nor Russia,  the U.S.  or Turkey have been serious about attacking Raqqa,  the capital of ISIS in Syria.  See  Economist,  “Islamic State in Syria:  Anyone for Raqqa?”  November 12, 2016.

During the first quarter of 2016,  26% of Russian airstrikes in Syria targeted ISIS.  That number dipped to 22% in the second quarter and 17% in the third quarter.  See Al Monitor, “Fewer Russian Strikes Targeting IS” ,  October 9, 2016.

[ix] See Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al Shami,  Op.Cit.  pp. 73-75.

[x]  Ishaan Tharoor, “Top Syrian Kurdish Leader Seems to Back Russian Airstrikes.” Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2015.

The Guardian.  “More than 90% of Russian Airstrikes in Syria Have Not Targeted ISIS, U.S. Says.” October 7, 2015.

Helena Merriman. “The Inquiry: Is Russia Vulnerable?” BBC World Service. October 13, 2015


Michael Karadjis.  “The Kurdish PYD’s Alliance with Russia Against Free Aleppo.” Feb. 28, 2016

Joseph Daher.  “The Kurdish National Movement in Syria.”   Nov. 1, 2016

Alex De Jong, “The Rojava Project”  Jacobin,  November 30, 2016

[xii] See Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism.  Haymarket Press, 2013.