Deep within the valleys of cognitive dissonance, propaganda, and group think, a group of people sincerely believe that all this destruction can be blamed on those few hundred fighters that were left holed up in Old Homs. “Terrible destruction, well yes that’s the armed gangs’ fault.” Really? How? Did the armed gangs do this with all the planes and tanks they have? Has anyone even attempted to explain such a thing? No, they haven’t. Instead they victim-blame, “It’s their fault, they knew the regime would react like this.” That statist logic that it is the citizens’ responsibility to make sure not to provoke the brutality of the state, lest they be blamed for it. Instead they talk about the joy of the few hundred people who were able to return to Old Homs. Return to Old Homs? What Old Homs? Where is it? Is that it? These swathes of empty land and destroyed buildings? How can even memories survive such destruction? Buildings, streets, people, memories, these are things that make a place a place. Old Homs has none of the above anymore. What Old Homs? Is that it? Because I don’t recognize it.
A Geneva 2 that will benefit Syrians will be a Geneva 2 that puts in place ceasefires, opens humanitarian corridors, and lifts sieges off of besieged areas such as Homs and Yarmouk camp. It is time to let Syrians breathe again. Those issues—and not the imposition of a political solution—should be the first priority.
A political solution should not be decided at such a venue. The regime is obviously only interested in preserving its power and prolonging the rule of Bashar al-Assad. The National Coalition has no legitimacy on the ground. State-backers of each side only differ on whether they want Assadism with Assad or Assadism without Assad. A real political solution should reflect the interests of Syrians on the ground, and any agreement reached at Geneva 2 on a transitional government will certainly not reflect them.
But even in practice, the formation of a transitional government would be totally unsuccessful without first creating conditions on the ground amenable to the return of politics. What is needed then is good-faith measures that allow Syrians to decide their future for themselves. As it stands now, most Syrians in conflict areas are focused on survival. Before forming a transitional government, the focus should be placed on allowing those Syrians to return to a normal life. And Geneva 2 does have the power to do this. The question is, do the parties and their backers have the will to do so? Russia can—if it wants to—restrain the regime by threatening to cut off aid and support should it not abide by ceasefires. The various state backers of the opposition can also do this. Even militias not taking part in the negotiations would be scorned by local residents for not abiding by ceasefires and jeopardizing a return to normalcy.
Many have said that Geneva 2 is an attempt to derail the Syrian revolution and, thus, have written it off completely. I agree that an arbitrary political solution from above would be a move against Syrian self-determination, and thus, not achieve the original goals of the Syrian revolution. But that is no excuse to write it off completely when it could possibly lead to measures that will make residents’ lives better, at least in the short run. Let politics be decided in the streets of Damascus, the quarters of Homs, and the shores of Lattakia, but first, let politics return to Syria. The vast majority of Syrians want freedom, dignity, and social justice. They will not attain those things in the midst of a brutal civil war that has empowered the enemies of those things. Thus, enough dealing absolutes and refusing to compromise. If anything, it is our responsibility as Syrians outside of Syria to insist upon and support any initiative that will make the lives of Syrians inside Syria better. We can reject the imposition of a political solution while still calling for the implementation of measures that reduce suffering inside Syria and require negotiation between the regime and the opposition. We can insist on attaining justice for past crimes, but first, we need to stop future ones from being committed.
Journalist Asa Winstanley has written an article titled “Syria: the revolution that never was,” for Middle East Monitor. The following is a critique to a few of the claims Winstanley makes in the article. I decided to respond to this article in particular because I believe it contains many erroneous assertions that are frequently used to disparage the Syrian uprising, and thus this is a response and critique of those assertions and the substance of the article in general.
“To say Syria is now a disaster is a massive understatement. This is a sectarian civil war which could continue for a decade if the regime’s enemies, led by the brutal Saudi tyranny, continue to wage their proxy war on the country.“
What is being implied in this statement is that if the people engaging in armed struggle against the regime were to put down their weapons, the “sectarian civil war” would cease. I’m not sure how Winstanley concludes this, but it seems to be based on an optimistic view of the regime and to place the responsibility of the war almost totally on the “regime’s enemies.” I firmly believe that intervention by reactionary forces on the side of the opposition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) has done great harm to Syria and the Syrian uprising in general, but nevertheless, to state that the onus is entirely on them to end this war is to imply that the regime is somewhat innocent, which I believe is ludicrous.
“But what a difference in Syria. Yes, the regime is dictatorial and ruthless. But from the beginning of the uprising, which initially only demanded “reform,” Syria was split. Along with large anti-Assad demonstrations, there were equally huge pro-Assad demonstrations. When demonstrations supporting a brutal tyrant are attended on such a massive scale, you shouldn’t fool yourself with the farcical BBC theory that tens of thousands of people were “forced” onto the streets.”
I want to dwell on this point because I believe it is a particularly insidious claim that is oft-repeated. Let’s forget for a second that the claim that the pro-Assad protests were “equally huge” is completely unsubstantiated. First of all, those pro-Assad protests were completely centered in Damascus and took place a few times. How can you compare protests in the political center of the regime to widespread protests occurring all over Syria, from Deraa in the south to Idlib in the North, over the course of several months? The protest movement in Syria at the beginning of the uprising was scattered throughout Syria, not only from city to city, but even within cities they were scattered from neighborhood to neighborhood. How is the political capital from a few pro-Assad protests in Damascus at all comparable to people taking to the streets all over Syria everyday for weeks, even after being shot at? How are we even to compare numbers given that the Syrian anti-regime protests were scattered (and even though they were scattered they still had impressive numbers even after a year of protests and subsequent repression).
Second of all, Winstanley seems to accord some equivalence between these two, as if they are not only morally but practically equivalent. Let us assume for a moment that his claim that no one was forced into the streets for pro-Assad rallies is true. That doesn’t change the fact that these protests were regime-sanctioned protests. These were not spontaneous eruptions of popular support for the regime. These were pro-regime rallies, organized by the regime, and under the protection of the regime. Do these really deserve to be compared to the thousands who took to the streets in Homs in November 2011 at the Clock Sit-In to protest for the martyrs that were killed by regime bullets in previous protests? (Regime forces also opened fire on that protest in what is now known as the Homs Clock Massacre). Anti-regime protests were under constant threat of regime repression, and yet they still managed to have, according to Winstanley, “equally huge demonstrations.” On a practical level, the anti-regime protesters braved bullets, imprisonment and a high likelihood of death, but still had huge numbers and were ubiquitous. The regime protests did not. They are in no way equivalent.
“By now, there are no demonstrations of significance on either side…“
In his article, Asa frequently mocks people for believing mainstream media narratives on Syria, yet it seems that this claim itself is based on the mainstream media narrative that is hyper-focused on the armed groups. Many areas in Syria still have anti-regime demonstrations, and many also have anti-ISIS demonstrations. Here is one in Yarmouk Camp in October, here is one from Aleppo in October, here is one that took place today in Idlib, and here is one in Raqqa city against ISIS in September. I’m not sure if Winstanley is unaware that they exist, or if he is aware of their existence but is stating that they are insignificant (to which I’d respond: why?).
“And herein lies the second key to the mystery of Assad’s continued support base (polarised as it is): the alternative is considered by many normal people in Syria and in the region as a whole, to be far worse.“
Here Winstanley assumes that Assad has a continued support base due to the fact that jihadis dominate the armed opposition. First of all, can we please dispel any illusions that the Assad regime is still in power because it still has a support base? This is a regime that is totally insulated from any popular support it still has. Any areas it still controls it does by militarization and force, that is, setting up several checkpoints and controlling movement of people. Thus, it owes its continued survival to regime cohesion, intervention by its allies, and military might, not some ‘mandate’ from its support base. Furthermore, if you follow the moves Assad took in the initial months of the uprising, you will see that Assad indeed made calculated moves in order to posit himself as a lesser evil. For example, in late 2011, Assad released 1400 political prisoners from prison in what was seen as a concession to the revolutionary movement. These 1400 prisoners turned out to be mostly Salafist activists, many of whom had fought in Iraq previously. The Islamist military leadership is filled with people who were released from prison in that amnesty. Are they Assadist agents? I don’t believe so. But was releasing them a calculated move by Assad? Definitely. Those prisoners he released have come to dominate the armed opposition, most notably Zahran Alloush, who is now the leader of the newly-formed Army of Islam. Which brings up another point:
“As this sectarian hatred shows, they were never moderate anyway. Which explains why so many “FSA” units have now joined groups pledging allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawarhari (formerly Osama bin Laden’s number two).“
This actually isn’t the case. In fact many of the Islamist units have been distancing themselves from ISIS. The Army of Islam was formed as a counter-weight to ISIS, with many of the biggest Islamist factions joining it. While accurate numbers are hard to obtain, word on the (Syrian) street is that most Syrians have left ISIS and ISIS is now mostly composed of foreigners. In fact today, an even bigger anti-ISIS Islamist coalition was formed, the Islamic Front. I am in no way implying that these are the revolutionary forces in Syria or the progressive sectors of the armed struggle. Yet the nuances are important: these are Islamist reactionary forces, but they are not allied with al-Qaida or al-Zawahiri, and they are against ISIS. Simply painting al-Qaida and ISIS on one side and the Assad regime on the other is inaccurate.
Winstanley prefaces a list of crimes committed by the Islamist opposition armed groups with:
“Armed takfiri fanatics, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, now control large parts of the Syrian countryside, even as the regime’s forces are making steady gains. The only “revolution” with any current prospect of succeeding is an al-Qaida revolution. And of course that is no revolution at all.“
Is Syria a mess today? Certainly. The most reactionary armed groups seem to have the most resources and the most weapons (thanks to Gulf donors). Many Syrians in the “liberated” areas feel trapped between regime airstrikes and scuds, and jihadi rule. Yet when you view the Syrian conflict through this dichotomous prism of jihadis vs Assad, of course you are going to conclude that there is “no longer a revolution,” although Winstanley goes further by claiming there “never was a revolution.” I agree with Winstanley that none of the revolutions have been successful yet, but I disagree that this means that there is no longer a revolutionary process or revolutionary forces. Revolutions are a long-term process, and there is a long-term revolutionary process in Syria. They consist of mostly unarmed activists, but many armed groups as well, and they are still working all over Syria today (I have spoken about the grassroots revolutionary movements in Syria previously here, and you can read more about them here on Tahrir-ICN and here on the Syria Freedom Forever blog).
The real revolutionaries of Syria, to be frank, probably will not emerge victorious out of this latest conflict as they are pushed to the sidelines and left without resources. Yet they exist, and their existence deserves to be acknowledged. The revolutions in the Arab world have not been fully successful yet, but it is not our place on the outside to despair and write obituaries for the revolutions, but to support a long-term revolutionary struggle. And the first step to supporting that is to acknowledge and identify it, not to write it off and claim that ‘there is no revolution in Syria, there is only Assad and ISIS,’ just because the most powerful forces in Syria today are counter-revolutionary forces.
I agree that the short-term political future of Syria seems bleak. I also can agree that perhaps Syria would really benefit from a ceasefire, giving the Syrian people a chance to breathe and also perhaps the Syrian revolutionaries a chance to regroup and flourish. Yet, I don’t understand why this view needs to be paired with the “there never was a revolution” claim. I believe in a Syrian revolutionary process, and I believe that the short-term political future of Syria won’t necessarily fulfill that process, but I also have long-term optimism for Syria as I know that so many Syrians have been radicalized by that revolutionary process, and those Syrians and that process won’t go away once the dust settles and the war is over.
I’ve always been a fan of Banksy’s work. One of the images on the right side of this blog is an image of a Banksy work. But I’m honestly just baffled by this latest video that’s supposed to be a comment on Syria. It seems devoid of any kind of substance. Either that, or all of us are missing something.
But what is clear is the imagery Banksy uses is offensive, no matter the intent. The imagery is, on the one hand, Orientalist: the buffoon-ish Arabs, savagely celebrating killing a poor animal, while one jumps atop of it and the other is kicked in the shin by a child, amidst screams of “Allahu Akbar.” On the other hand, the context of the video given the imagery is offensive as well. The audio was pulled from this video, a video of a rebel attack on a Syrian warplane in Mennegh air base, near Aleppo. In the Banksy video, you can clearly discern the words “Governorate of Aleppo” being uttered at around the 15 second mark. Mennegh air base was a base that the Syrian regime used to launch airstrikes on Aleppo, causing immense destruction and ravaging the city. So what exactly is the message? That the Syrian regime warplanes are analogous to poor flying elephants? That the rebels in Syria are a bunch of ragtag buffoons going around trying to kill even the poorest creatures?
Perhaps this wasn’t his intent. Perhaps the video is an exercise in “art for art’s sake.” But that is hard to believe given Banksy’s penchant for social commentary in his works. He’s obviously trying to say something, and unfortunately, if there’s a deeper message that we are all missing, if it does happen to be about the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn or whatever, it is overshadowed by the very superficial picture painted on the surface.
Banksy’s previous works that focused on the Middle East weren’t as baffling. On the apartheid wall in Palestine, he drew pictures of “paradises” beyond the wall, and one of a little girl patting down an Israeli soldier. These were celebrated as witty, daring works. He even paired these works with anecdotes, such as this conversation he had with a Palestinian man while painting the wall:
Old man: You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.
Old man: We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.
That’s why this latest video is so confusing to me. The video just seems to be a desperate attempt to weigh in on something for the sake of weighing in on it, and by doing so, led to this analysis that at best is ambiguous, and at worst, victimizes the Syrian regime by analogizing it to a poor cartoon animal.
The Syrian revolution is a revolution that began as a struggle for self-determination. The Syrian people demanded to determine their own destiny. And, for more than two years, against all odds, and in the face of massive repression and destruction from the Assad regime, they persevered.
In the course of the revolutionary process, many other actors have also appeared on the scene to work against the struggle for self-determination. Iran and its militias, with the backing of Russia, came to the aid of the regime, to ensure the Syrian people would not be given this right. The jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and others, under the guise of “fighting the Assad regime,” worked against this right as well. And I feel the same way about any Western intervention.
Some would argue that we have come a long way from that, that it isn’t even about self-determination anymore, but rather, simply stopping the killing. This is a position I cannot support. If it was simply about stopping the killing, then I would’ve supported the jihadis when they came in, because, no one can deny, they were the best armed and the best equipped to challenge the Assad regime. But I didn’t, and many others didn’t, because we knew that despite their ability to challenge the regime, that they did not share the goals of the Syrian people. They wanted to control the Syrian people, and stifle their ability to determine their own destiny. Because of this, they were counter-revolutionaries, even if they were fighting against the regime.
And now in the face of a possible Western intervention in Syria, I hold the same position. Many would say I’m being ideological, and that I should just focus on stopping the killing; but those people are ignoring that, even on pragmatic terms and within their own line of reasoning, their argument holds no sway, after repeated US insistence that “these will only be punitive strikes” and they “do not intend to topple the regime.” What indication is there that these strikes will do anything to stop the killing, or “solve” the Syrian crisis?
I don’t care about sovereignty. Syria has become a land for everyone but Syrians nowadays. The myth of Syrian sovereignty is not why I oppose Western intervention. Neither is the prospect of the destruction of Syria, for it has already been destroyed by this criminal regime. I oppose Western intervention because it will work against the struggle for self-determination, that is, against the Syrian revolution.
Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. I have no doubt about this. And this could have been prevented if the Syrian resistance was actually given weapons that could have tilted the balance against the regime. But foreign powers sat on their hands, not wanting Assad to win, but not wanting the resistance to win either. They couldn’t give weapons to the Syrian people to defend themselves, they said, who knows whose hands they might end up in? They might accidentally end up in, say, the hands of Syrians who wanted to determine their own destiny despite foreign interests!
So we’ve come full circle. No one armed the Syrian resistance, so they were killed by the regime, or forced to put up with jihadi infiltration. So Assad used chemical weapons against the Syrians, and the West wants to respond to teach Assad a lesson, a response that still guarantees that Syrians have no say in the matter of their future. And the regime will probably live through any “punitive” Western intervention, and the killing will probably not stop.
But despite all that, the Syrian revolution, and, at its heart, the Syrian people’s struggle for liberation and to determine their own destiny, will live on.
“An emancipated society, on the other hand, would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.” Theodor Adorno
Pervasive problems can give rise to insidious solutions. Sectarianism in the Middle East is often cited as the root of most, if not all, of the region’s problems. Western and Middle Eastern thinkers alike treat sect as an outdated, archaic tribal institution that must be done away with if the region is ever to see some sort of “progress.”
The construction of an alternative ideology that supersedes sect and has support across sectarian barriers is often touted as the only way to get rid of hostility between different sects. This is seen throughout secular discourse in the region. For example, a Lebanese would advocate for this by saying, “When will we stop belonging to sect X or sect Y. When will we all just be Lebanese?” or, alternatively, “When will we all just be Lebanese first?”
This view, as well as any other view that aims to replace or deprioritize sect with a nationalist or supra-nationalist ideology (Pan-Arab nationalism, Greater Syrian nationalism) will not lead to any sort of salvation for the region.
While it is true that the pervasive sectarian sentiments (i.e. feeling of belonging to a sect, not necessarily animosity towards other sects) amongst many in the Middle East are not ‘inherent,’ nor are they the product of ‘ancient battles,’ as some assert, for the time being, they are here to stay. To think we can construct an ideology out of thin air is not only ambitious, but is also a form of elitism. People are not fickle sheep whereby you can construct an alternative ideology and expect them to instantly follow suit.
That is why when so many have tried, from Saddam Hussein to Hafez al-Assad (no doubt, while also utilizing sectarianism when they thought it would serve them), they encountered resistance from many segments of society. First, a note: the claim that Saddam and Hafez were themselves sectarian leaders is a false one. Whereas both depended on their communities for much of their diehard support, Saddam never posited himself as Leader of the Sunnis, nor did Hafez posit himself as King of the Alawites. They both posited themselves as nationalist leaders of their respective nations, and supported this with a national, not sectarian, narrative. Nor did they want to simply be leaders of their sects. They wanted to be leaders of nations. The simple fact that they often appealed to sect for help and support does not negate this fact.
The reason why advocacy of an alternative ideology to replace sect is elitist and authoritarian is because the only way the national narrative or ideology can survive is by stamping out any resistance to the rule and ideology, which is exactly what the dictators did. From Shias and Kurds in Iraq, to Sunnis in Hama, the imposition of a supra-sect plan will inevitably lead to resistance (militarily or discursively). The supra-sect plan can only succeed if this resistance is crushed. In other words, the only way these supposedly inclusive ideologies can survive is to bathe them in the blood of those who reject it. Otherwise, they will fail.
Therefore, the argument that sectarianism is the root of conflict in the region, and thus, we must get rid of it, is not the answer we have been looking for, as getting rid of it requires conflict and bloodshed as well. Centralized authoritarianism is not much more appealing than de-centralized sectarian hostility.
Even when it does look like it is working, as in Syria before the uprising, this can simply be a facade that veils sectarianism brewing under the surface. Despite jolly tales of coexistence before the uprising, it is evident now that sectarian hostility can spring up very easily, even after being curbed or ignored. Pretending that sectarian tension and differences did not exist did not accomplish anything in Syria. On the contrary, it made sectarian hostility emerge with a vengeance. That is because the differences between sects were never reconciled. They were simply ignored. They were not resolved. They were just brushed under the rug.
The utopia where sect does not exist, or is no longer an issue, will not come about through utopian means. Thus, it would be wise to no longer picture a utopia whereby sect disappears in favor of something more ‘inclusive.’ The ideal should be a situation whereby sects recognize their differences, but embrace them. The fact that sects differ in their beliefs, traditions, and customs does not inevitably lead to animosity. These differences can be reconciled and celebrated, rather than done away with. Indeed, this is the most realistic and least “idealistic” option. What this will look like in practice is not so clear. However, what the alternatives look like in practice is clear: centralized nationalist authoritarianism, or sectarian hatred, bigotry, and conflict.
Is what’s happening in Syria today a revolution, a civil war or a proxy war? Far more than just an argument over semantics, which term is used to refer to the situation in Syria today denotes a political position. Supporters of the Syrian opposition call it a revolution, while those not at all sympathetic to the opposition call it a proxy war, which is an attempt to disparage the opposition. But which of these terms is accurate?
Instead of inventing definitions from thin air, examining how each term was employed historically is helpful in this case. And the most helpful precedent that we can use is that of the Spanish Civil War. So, was what is today known as the “Spanish Civil war” a revolution, a civil war, or a proxy war?
The answer is all of the above.
The Spanish Civil war was a civil war in that it mostly consisted of people of the same country fighting against each other (although Franco had brought in some foreigners, and the Republicans had internationalists traveling from all over to help them in their struggle). The Spanish Civil war was also considered a proxy war in that each side had foreign states backing them with their own particular interests. The Soviet Union backed the Republicans while the fascist states of Germany and Italy backed Franco. The Soviet Union had its own interests in supporting the Republicans: to curb the influence of global fascism as a challenge to communism, to use Spain as a laboratory to test their weaponry and equipment, to make sure their communist party won rather than any other non-USSR aligned leftists, etc.
Despite this, the Spanish Civil War was also referred to as a revolution, and the soldiers that fought for the Republic were referred to as revolutionaries. It was a revolution because, first of all, they were trying to overthrow Franco’s fascist government that had taken power in a military coup, and replace it with another one, with a lot of popular support from the people. Secondly, it was a revolution because some of the Republican parties were revolutionizing social relations in the midst of battle.The Anarchists (CNT-FAI) and the Trotskyists (POUM), would collectivize work places and implement a number of revolutionary social measures whenever they would capture new territory, in what became known as a “revolution within a revolution.” (It is worth noting here that the USSR-allied communist parties acted in a very reactionary matter by forcefully reversing such measures under orders from the USSR).
Thus, the Spanish Civil War was simultaneously a revolution, a civil war, as well as a proxy war. What about Syria?
The situation in Syria is very similar. It is a civil war in that both sides involved are from the same country and fighting against each other (although, as in Spain, there are internationals fighting on both sides, notably, Iranians and Hezbollah militants with the Assad regime, and foreign Sunni jihadists with the opposition). It is a proxy war in that each side in the civil war has foreign state backers (Iran and Russia for Assad, the West and the GCC states for the opposition). And, finally, it is a revolution in that a large percentage of the population wishes to overthrow the regime and replace it with another. But it also is a social revolution, in that we have seen an unprecedented eruption of the “Syrian street,” whereby the elite no longer holds a monopoly on art and culture. This reclamation of the public space, exemplified by facebook pages, videos, songs, parodies, and witty signs, is in itself a revolution. And it is “popular” in that this eruption involves segments of society that were historically subaltern and excluded from the cultural and public life of Syria. Just as the Spanish revolutionaries were reclaiming their workplaces, the Syrian revolutionaries are reclaiming their voices, and this is Syria’s own “revolution within a revolution.”
So, if we look at historical precedents, Syria’s revolution, like Spain’s, is a revolution, a civil war, and a proxy war all in one. The point here is that these are not mutually exclusive categories. They are terms that can complement each other and are used to describe different aspects of a conflict. In fact, historically, there is very little precedent for any conflict in any place being only one or the other without some intersection and overlap. The Bolshevik revolution turned into the Russian Civil War. The Cuban revolution against Batista was a popular uprising against a US-backed dictator, yet the rebels later sought Soviet support, thus, Batista, and later Cuba’s revolutionaries, were also proxies, in the classical definition of the word. Yet, in leftist discourse, this was all ok, because, in Russia, Spain, and Cuba, one side was fighting a righteous struggle against another. Thus, them being involved in a civil war, or a proxy war, was not something that delegitimized their revolution.
But, in today’s usage of the term “proxy war” to refer to Syria, it is clear that people are not simply trying to state “it is a revolution with foreign state backers,” but rather, that the fact that there is a proxy war leaves no room for revolution, or even for civil war. This is exemplified by statements such as, “It is not a revolution, it is a proxy war,” or analysis that proclaims “what started out as a revolution is now a proxy war” whereby Syria is reduced to a “battleground” for foreign states.
This analysis creates the category of “proxy war” as one that is mutually exclusive and that cancels out anything and everything that preceded it. Revolutions, the argument goes, must remain “pure,” and once foreign states become involved, the situation is no longer a “revolution.” Here it is worth recalling Lenin, who, in his essay “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,” said: “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”
Those who are claiming that Syria’s conflict is “not a revolution, but a proxy war” are misusing the term proxy war and misrepresenting what revolutions were historically. The new usage of the term by those who wish to deny that Syria is also undergoing a revolutionary process denies the history of revolutions against governments frequently being proxy wars at the same time. Instead, it is trying to draw a comparison not to the righteous struggles of the past that also just happened to be proxy wars, but to historical events such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1959, whereby Cuban exiles were trained by the CIA to do the the CIA’s bidding. They were sent into Cuba with no popular support base with the express purpose of overthrowing the revolutionary leftist government of Cuba, which was the objective of the US government. This is the analogy people are trying to draw when they say Syria’s situation today is a “proxy war and not a revolution.” However, this new definition of a proxy war does not apply to the Syrian case today. The Syrian rebels took up arms on their own accord, not because some other state told them to. They receive support from, but are not directed by, foreign states, for the most part. Thus, if we wish to characterize the armed opposition in Syria as a “proxy,” meaning they get support from foreign states, this is accurate. However, if by “proxy” we mean that they simply do foreign states’ bidding for them with no popular support base on the ground, this is inaccurate. Comparing Syria’s armed opposition to Cuban anti-Castro exiles or to Nicaraguan contras is a very vulgar and inaccurate slander that is meant to render invisible the popular support base for the opposition on the ground in Syria, as well as the agency of the armed Syrian opposition.
Even calling it a “proxy war” in the disparaging sense mischaracterizes the Assad regime. The Assad regime is not an Iranian/Russian proxy fighting to do the bidding of Iran and Russia in Syria. Rather, it is an entrenched junta that is fighting for its survival, with Iranian and Russian backing. Both sides, then, in Syria, are not “proxies” in the sense that they do foreign states’ bidding. They are only “proxies” if by proxy we mean that they receive foreign state backing. And yes, those foreign states that back each side do not do so out of the pureness of their hearts (which is itself a ridiculous argument, as it suggests states have acted out of the pureness of their hearts at some point in the past, which they have not), but rather for their own interests. But there is a difference between intervening with certain interests and achieving those interests (which explains the hesitancy of some of the states backing the opposition).
If we stick with the classical definition, then yes, the conflict in Syria today is a proxy war. But proxy war is not a dirty term, and does not preclude that there is also a revolution happening in Syria today.