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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.

Death in Syria has become so normalized that 100 people being killed in a day no longer warrants any international media attention. But there are some images that are so brutal, so gruesome, so inhumane, that they shock us all, no matter how normalized we may be. Well, most of us, anyway.

The discovery of tens of corpses near the Qouaiq River in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood in Aleppo is one of those images. This image will certainly be one of the images that remain in our historical conscience, long after the Syrian revolution is over.

Bustan Al-Qasr is a neighborhood in Aleppo that is famous for its enthusiastic, critical protests (which I have written about before here). Yesterday, the residents of Bustan al-Qasr were doing this:

And today, they are doing this:

A few of the dead have been identified. Their names are:

Mohammad Dahala

Mohammad Mounir Rabhaoui

Anas Jamal

Yousef Oudba

Yousef Jalilati

Mohammad Dakki

Mohsen Ali Abd El-Qader

Ammar Sankri

Mahmoud Ramadan

Mohammad Kousa

Mohannad Hamndoush

Mohammad Kaj

Mohammad Qattan

Mohammad Kassah

Abdo Mouqresh Ibn Yahya

Mohammad Abd el-Rahman Badawi

Mohammad Yahya Najjaz

The corpses pulled out of the Qouaiq river by Bustan al-Qasr activists.

The corpses pulled out of the Qouaiq river by Bustan al-Qasr activists.

 

The rest of the 80 bodies have not yet been identified. Pictures of the unidentified martyrs have been posted online. Once seen up close, it is evident that those who were killed had undergone a lot of torture and brutal treatment before they died. Some have parts of their head missing. Others’ faces are so decomposed that they are hardly recognizable. The images recall images of corpses from the Houla Massacre, and images of corpses in general after they undergo torture by Assad’s Shabiha.

There is no shortage of crimes being committed in Syria today. Many of the armed rebels have made mistakes. Some have committed crimes against local residents. Others have looted and robbed. But despite all that, despite all their misgivings, there is only one party that is capable of such sadistic and heinous brutality and inhumanity. It is not the Free Syrian Army. It is not Jabhat al-Nusra. It is the Shabiha of Bashar al-Assad

The protesters of Hama graffiti’d in 2011: “Here, humanity stumbled.” That is not to say that other humans outside of Syria have failed Syria. That is not to say that other humans should have pressured their governments for a “humanitarian” intervention. What it means is that, in Syria, the concept of humanity was defeated. When the Shabiha step on Syrians’ faces to the point of deformity with their iron boots, they are stepping on much more than a human face. They are stepping on the concept of humanity altogether.

It’s horrible that it’s come to this. I never want to delve into stupid sectarian politics. But alas, the pro-Assad right-wing forces have made the sect of the Houla victims part of their propaganda campaign to exonerate government forces with regards to the Houla Massacre. So it has come to this.

Directly after the Houla Massacre happened, many directly began claiming that the victims were Shia or Alawite. The reasoning for this is because if the victims were Shia or Alawite, then it can automatically be assumed that the perpetrators of the massacre were extremist Sunni militants allied with the opposition in Syria, because Shias and Alawites, according to conventional wisdom, are assumed to be government supporters(although this claim itself is patently false as there are many members of the Alawite minority in Syria who are supportive of the opposition as well as many members of the Alawite minority who have been thrown in jail for voicing their opposition to the regime). This rumor spread, and many pro-Assads accepted this is as fact.

The claim was granted even more legitimacy after a report by the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. This report was picked up by the conservative American magazine The National Review, which stated:

“But according to a new report in Germany’s leading daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the Houla massacre was in fact committed by anti-Assad Sunni militants, and the bulk of the victims were member of the Alawi and Shia minorities, which have been largely supportive of Assad.”

A brief look at the names of some of the victims, however, shows that this claim is most probably false. The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies has an excel sheet (in Arabic) that documents the names of the victims that were killed and the method of killing. Many of the names of the victims are names that are culturally understood to be names of Sunnis. For example, victim number 27 on the list’s name is Umar Mahmoud Al-Kurdi. Umar is generally a name given by Sunni families to their children, due to its association with Umar ibn-Al Khattab. Without delving too much into Islamic history, Umar ibn-Al Khattab is generally an Islamic figure who is regarded positively in Sunni theology, but is regarded negatively in Shia theology. Because of this, it’s very culturally rare that a Shia or Alawite family would name their child “Umar”. Thus, it is unlikely that the Al-Kurdi family, one of the three main families that was massacred in Houla, was indeed of Shia or Alawite origin.

The second family who was targeted in the Houla Massacre was the Al-Sayyid family. A look at some of the names of their family members also shows a trend for naming names that are traditionally associated with Sunnism. Victim number 90’s name is Ahmad Muawiya Al-Sayyid, and victim number 91’s name is Muawiya al-Sayyid. The name ‘Muawiya’ is a name also associated with a figure in Islamic history that Shias regard negatively. Muawiya is not a common name in the Arab world as a whole, but is common among Syrian Sunnis as Muawiyah was at one point the governor of Syria. It is very unlikely that a Shia or Alawite family would name their child “Muawiyah”, as Muawiyah is a reviled figure in Shia theology.

The third family who saw lots of members massacred in Houla was the al-Razzaq family. Victim number 59 on the list’s name is Aysha Abd al-Khaleq Abd al-Razzaq. “Aysha” was the name of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. She is also generally regarded positively by Sunnis and negatively by Shias for historical reasons.

In each of the three main families that was targeted in the Houla Massacre, there are names of children that are names that are culturally Sunni. It is highly unlikely (although certainly not impossible) that Shia or Alawite families would casually name their children after figures that are reviled according to their own theology. This is certainly not any kind of conclusive evidence, but it certainly throws the claim reported by FAZ and pro-Assad propagandists into extreme doubt. One anomaly may be possible, but  in each of the three families that are reported to be Shia or Alawite, there are names that are normally associated with Sunni theology.

Today, a graphic video was released showing Assad’s soldiers having fun after a massacre in the countryside of Idleb. It is a very revealing video. The soldiers seem to feel no remorse for the action they just committed. They call the corpses names, swear at them, throw them around, laugh at them, and undress them. This video is an important video to watch for all those who doubt that Assad’s soldiers are ‘capable’ of committing the massacres that have been occurring.

However, what is even more interesting is the rhetoric the soldiers use. Other than using swear words, one soldier in the beginning of the video shouts out, “Arour, ya akho sharmoota! (Arour, you motherfucker!)”. This gives us some insight into how the soldiers justify what they were doing to themselves. People are not simply born monsters with the capacity to massacre. A good deal of brainwashing is required before someone is able to take so many innocent people’s lives in such a brutal manner. Nazis dehumanized their victims with propaganda that convinced them that non-Aryans are subhuman or an inferior race. Israelis justify their killings by convincing themselves that the Palestinians they are killing are terrorists. People simply cannot massacre others while still believing that those people are human in the same sense that everyone else is, and thus, they tell themselves a story or a narrative that convinces them that the people that they are about to massacre are not fully human, which makes it easier for one to commit such horrid acts.

This was what was revealed when the soldier shouted “Arour, you motherfucker!”. Arour is a racist, sectarian extreme Sunni televangelist on TV who pretends to support the Syrian revolution, albeit, for all the wrong reasons. Ironically, as exhibited in the video, convincing people that Syrian revolutionaries are just Salafi, fanatic, extremist Arour followers who want to exterminate Alawites is exactly what has facilitated the massacring of Syrian families by Assad’s soldiers and shabiha. But the process of convincing people that this is who Syrian revolutionaries are was not done by the regime’s propaganda machine alone. Many intellectuals, columnists, bloggers, tweeters, journalists, and academics partook in this dehumanization process as well. They wrote off the Syrian people in their righteous struggle protesting against a fascist regime as just “Sunni extremists who want to kill Alawites”. Therefore, although it is Assad’s soldiers and shabiha who are committing the massacres, many others are guilty of enabling the dehumanization of Syrians by lending credence to the argument that Syrians protesting against Assad are just a bunch of sectarian, Salafi, Arour followers, as without this logic, it would be much harder for Assad’s soldiers or shabiha to commit such heinous acts, as they would not be able to justify them to themselves.