- Interview by
- Razan Ghazzawi
In a few weeks, many Syrians, Syrian-Palestinians, and their supporters will be commemorating the sixth anniversary of the Syrian uprising. Amid ongoing diplomatic talks that expose just how much of Syria’s future is in the control of outside powers, it’s an important time to assess the challenges and debates facing ordinary Syrians.
While in March 2011 peaceful protesters demonstrated in the streets, facing Assad’s army and paramilitary forces, the battle has shifted six years later to become between states (the Assadist state, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United States) and non-state actors (ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham [JFS], Ahrar Al-Sham, etc) against a population caught largely between them.
Razan Ghazzawi participated in the 2011 protests in Syria and was detained twice by the Assadist state; the threat of a third detention forced her to escape the country. Still, in 2013 she returned to live in Kafranbel, a town outside government control, before entering the PhD program at the University of Sussex. Here, Ghazzawi interviews American grassroots activist Ramah Kudaimi on questions of grassroots activism, transnational solidarity, American politics, and the Left on Syria. They discuss the need to rethink mobilization and advocacy strategies in the service of people’s protection, justice, and accountability in Syria.
Trump’s first weeks in office have been eventful, as he has signed extremely worrying executive orders. Two in particular will have an immediate impact on Syria: the so-called “Muslim ban,” which includes an indefinite denial of Syrian refugees, and the one calling on the Pentagon to present a plan to escalate the war against ISIS. What does this signal in terms of US policy towards Syria moving forward?
There was a lot of fear from communities across the globe following Trump’s election and all that fear has been proven legitimate as these racist, right-wing orders are being signed. The administration continuing to peddle the Islamophobic narrative that Syrian refugees are terrorists combined with its eagerness to expand the “war on terror” in partnership with Putin does not bode well for ending the war in Syria, let alone in a manner that guarantees freedom and dignity for the Syrian people, especially for refugees being able to return home.
There is going to be a lot more bloodshed and while under Obama there was for a while at least a pretense that the US government supported the revolution, that is not at all the case with Trump. His priority is to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism” as he declared during his inaugural speech and he will work with anyone to do that, including Assad, who claims to have the same priority. So the US will continue the same course of war on terror strikes in Syria but much more intensely and in a manner much more openly supportive of Assad.
The Assadist state media and their apologists at the end of 2016 depicted Aleppo as a symbol for “victory” against the “terrorists.” How do you think we should see Aleppo, especially considering that the area of Wadi Barada is currently under heavy state bombardment, as well?
What happened in Aleppo has been years in the making. The regime and its backers have been using this tactic of siege and mass expulsion of opposition fighters and civilians to regain control with other parts of the country like Homs and Daraya. The United States has for a while given up pretending it supports the aspirations of the Syrian people to live free from an oppressive regime and has stepped aside to let Russia and Iran do what they want in Syria.
And we are now in an era of warfare in which there is not even an attempt to abide by any basic international humanitarian law standards, as evidenced by for example the increased number of attacks on hospitals not only in Syria, but in Yemen and Afghanistan as well, and the continued use of chemical weapons by Assad in Syria with no accountability.
We saw all these realities come together in Aleppo. It is quite damning of the international community that what saved Syrians from mass killing in Aleppo was mass expulsion from their homes, which itself is a war crime. So one war crime is used to alleviate people from facing another war crime.
The atrocities that took place in Aleppo and the complete lack of any accountability have given Assad and his allies the green light to continue these tactics to regain control across the country and already we are seeing the result of this in Wadi Barada. The immediate future does not bode well for Syrians as it seems like the regime is going to be staying in power for the time being and the entrenched role of Assad’s backers in determining the future of Syria.
Recently a “ceasefire” was proposed by Russia in conjunction with Iran and Turkey. What will this mean for grassroots activism in Syria?
Russia, Iran, and Turkey are playing the role of occupying forces in Syria and at this point don’t seem to be bothering to consult much even with the regime about the future of Syria as they each seek to carve out zones of influence and get what they want for their own interests. The Syrian people have been left out of discussions about the future of their county for some time by the various intervening powers and it is laughable Assad and his supporters continue to claim he is defending the sovereignty of Syria when he has turned the country over to other states and foreign militias.
The uprising has faced a great deal of setbacks and the various counterrevolutionary forces have succeeded for the time being in thwarting its ambition for freedom and dignity. It is important now for Syrians and those in solidarity with the revolution to regroup about how what happened in Aleppo coupled with Trump’s presidency is going to impact the future.
I want to have your take on Trump as an American grassroots leftist activist. Under Obama much of the Syrian-American organizing and lobbying has been focused on the decision makers in the US administration, in the hopes of influencing its foreign policy over Syria. That didn’t work very well over the past few years. Now that Trump is in office, do you think Syrians should continue focusing on influencing Washington?
The focus of most mainstream Syrian-American political groups these past few years has been to influence the Obama administration and lobby Congress in support of the revolution. Examples include pushing a demand for a no-fly zone (NFZ) and sanctions against the regime. But what has been the mistake from the start for Syrian-Americans is assuming that the United States was seeking regime change and that this could be exploited to benefit the revolution.
This idea was based on US political pundits claiming the regime was an enemy as well as Syria’s alliance with Iran, a country plenty of neocons and Zionists were itching to weaken and attack. While Obama did speak against the regime and even called for Assad to step down, the reality has been that the United States has done a lot more to preserve the regime these past five years.
Why would the United States want to get rid of a leader that had been useful and replace him with one that would truly be democratic and anti-imperialist? Assad has been serving US national security interests for years: Syria took part in the CIA’s rendition program, the regime had kept the border with Israel calm for decades, the country had been going through neoliberal economic reforms for the benefit of global capitalism.
The United States has provided some training and basic supplies for various rebel groups but also blocked more sophisticated weapons from being sent and those who were trained were told to focus their fight on ISIS, not the regime. Most significantly when the United States did outright intervene in Syria in September 2014, it was to bomb Al Qaeda and ISIS, not the regime, and even before Trump’s election, Obama and Putin were ramping up their coordination in Syria. Nothing the United States has done has been in support of the Syrian people’s aspirations for freedom and dignity.
The mistake of many Syrian-American political groups was to pretend that the US government, which has suppressed revolutions across the globe, would have any good intentions towards the Syrian revolution. The shame of many Syrian-American political groups is to ignore the US oppressing fellow revolutionaries in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, the list goes on, because some US politicians have called out Assad’s war crimes.
Political advocacy is going to continue under Trump but now is an opportunity to rethink the strategy and push for a foreign policy that truly respects the rights of all people and demands accountability for all war crimes, which will not only help Syrians but all those fighting for freedom.
Trump has sparked resistance among a broad swath of Americans, which has been seen in the massive mobilizations against his policies. Why should Syrians organize on the grassroots with local communities rather than merely focusing on targeting government decision-makers?
I am a grassroots organizer so to me power is built from the ground up. And that begins by building one’s base in local communities. A Trump presidency is an opportunity for Syrians in the United States to take some major lessons from organizing under Obama and really think about who we want to be building relationships with in order to strengthen our community, especially Syrian refugees, who we have witness are one of the first groups being targeted.
Especially with the new reality that the priority of Trump will be to expand the war on terror, which in Syria means closer coordination with Putin and Assad, it is more important than ever that Syrians in the United States are building with other oppressed communities to put an end to the destructive impact of US empire, which will benefit all liberation struggles.
Collective liberation is the only way forward. Syrians and those in solidarity need to make sure Syria is part of the movement to resist Trump. And this cannot be done in some depoliticized way that focuses on the plight of refugees without calling out the regime and its backers as the main perpetrators of violence against them and the main reason Syrians are fleeing. As this movement against the Trump regime coalesces, an internationalist solidarity with struggles against oppressive regimes globally needs to be articulated and Syria will have to be a big part of that.
The context in which the Syrian diaspora must organize is a daunting one. There is an emergent far right in Europe, the American-Russian cooperation on Syria which has revived Russian imperialism, and finally the Trump presidency in the US. What are the aims and challenges of grassroots organizing in this context?
We need to be standing in solidarity with oppressed communities and building locally. I hear some Syrians in the United States asking why don’t people care more about Syria. Well when was the last time your Syrian community turned out for a Black Lives Matter protest, an anti-deportations action, or talked about political prisoners in the United States? It is our duty as Syrians in the United States to relate Syria in a way that people will understand the revolution but we cannot do that if we are not aware of the struggles taking place right in our own backyards.
We cannot blame people for not being interested in Syria when we haven’t been interested in their struggles, or have let elite members of the diaspora set our agenda.
Part of figuring out what to do next as Syrians and activists supportive of the Syrian uprising is to pause and reflect on past mistakes and strategies. What do you think were the major advocacy mistakes made in the past five years in relation to justice in Syria and what do you think is the way forward?
It is problematic when people want to fight a revolution based on pragmatism. Revolution means a complete break with politics as usual. Syrians didn’t take to the streets starting in March 2011 in order to replace an Iranian and Russian backed regime with one backed by any of these various regimes claiming to be friends of Syria. Syrian women didn’t die at the hands of the regime so that women are now victimized by rebel groups with extremist religious beliefs based on which regimes are sending them aid.
We cannot ignore the war crimes of other regimes just because their leaders are supporting Syrian refugees. The regime dropping bombs and massacring children in Yemen is not a real friend of Syrians. The leader denying Kurdish self-determination is not a real friend of Syrians. The empire that destroyed Iraq is not a real friend of Syrians. If this is truly a revolution, than the utmost revolutionary principles need to be pursued.
Now the reality is that capitalism, US empire, and various counterrevolutionary forces do exist and Syrians have to navigate all this while still fighting for freedom and dignity. So I don’t want to pretend that for the sake of survival Syrians don’t and shouldn’t act based on realism. But we need to make sure our discourse around the revolution stays principled and rejects the way things are because this is how we can continue to chip away at both reactionary and liberal politics and build a truly transformative world free of all oppressive systems.
Another thing I do want to highlight is the mistake of not being against the killing of Syrian civilians no matter who is the culprit. We cannot be silent about the US coalition forces that have killed over a thousand Syrians. We cannot be silent about war crimes by rebel groups. We must constantly hold the regime and its backers primarily responsible for the destruction of Syria and the spread of sectarianism but that does not mean we give a pass to other forces contributing.
Do you think some of these mistakes contribute, more or less, in excluding some voices who were initially in solidarity with the uprising in 2011? How can we build a strong transnational solidarity movement today despite all these challenges?
I don’t want to place too much blame on Syrians for the lack of solidarity with the revolution. The Assad regime is one of the most brutal in the region and Syrians were raised in an autocratic state where you had to be suspicious of even your own family. So how can people in such a climate organize in opposition to this regime, which from the start was intent on using violence and sectarianism to stay in power?
And yet the barrier of fear was broken and beautiful and inspiring protests took place across the country. And even after the revolution was militarized and eventually dominated by armed groups, protests continued, not only against the regime but against armed groups that didn’t uphold the revolution’s values and groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.
We saw hundreds of protests across the country on the five year anniversary of the revolution, saw protests in Aleppo in between the latest bombing campaign, and then again protests broke out across the country with the announcement of a ceasefire last month. And the message continues to be the same: We demand the fall of the regime. The reality is that there has not been enough transnational solidarity with this call and people instead have made all these demands of Syrians to prove themselves worthy of solidarity that would sound ridiculous if made of other struggles.
Unlike most of the region’s uprisings, the Left, whether regionally or internationally, hasn’t been supportive nor did it take a solidarity stance with the thousands of Syrian protesters’ right to self-determination under an authoritarian and neoliberal regime. Instead, many voices have rather acted as apologists for the Assadist state. Why?
Many on the Left have ignored the evidence and have not been in solidarity. We have antiwar groups who have openly come out in support of Assad’s regime and Russian imperialism. We have pundits and bloggers who serve as regime apologists, attempting to blame anyone but the regime for the destruction of the country, adopting the “war on terror” framework to whitewash the crimes of the regime, using Islamophobia to smear Syrian activists as extremist sympathizers.
We have leftists who completely ignore this dangerous behavior because yes even though Assad is a criminal, we cannot be assured of what comes next, because of sovereignty, because US empire is the real evil in the world. All of these arguments would be laughed at in the context of other struggles.
Zionists were demanding Mubarak stay in power back in February 2011 because otherwise extremists were going to take power. No one argues sovereignty to excuse Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen since they were invited in by the Yemeni government. And if anti-imperialism is fine with replacing US imperialism with Russian imperialism, then that’s a bad anti-imperialism. There is also a purposeful ignorance being perpetuated around Syria by those who want us to think the choice is either Assad or ISIS, ignoring the existence of local coordination committees and other grassroots formations that could be an alternative and are need of support.
The US left for the most part continued to push the regime change narrative, which again ignored all the actions the United States has pursued to preserve the regime despite all the rhetoric. They mocked the idea that there were moderate Syrian rebel groups, claiming everyone fighting Assad was an extremist and then acted all shocked right wingers would smear Syrian refugees as terrorists and want them banned. And most disgustingly is how the US left spent most of the past two years or so hysterically organizing against a nonexistent NFZ instead of the actual US bombs falling on Syria killing over a thousand people.
This is why I don’t buy into the claim that US antiwar activists should only be concerned with US actions and thus their focus on Syria is about ensuring US military intervention doesn’t happen. The reality has been that many in US antiwar movement have only mobilized around Syria to preserve Assad. In September 2013 there were protests to stop US war on Syria following the Ghouta chemical weapons attack. The US did not bomb Syria then. Since September 2014 the United States has been bombing Syria constantly — in 2016 alone twelve thousand US bombs were dropped, even more than the number dropped on Iraq.
I have not seen one protest against these bombs by the “Hands Off Syria” crew. The only difference between September 2013 and September 2014 was the target of US bombs. So when antiwar activists are only out in the street protesting proposed US bombing of the regime while being silent about actual US bombing of Syria, don’t be shocked that people will conclude the US left is soft on Assad.
The US left has an opportunity to redeem itself in the age of Trump. The US backing of regime and Russian war crimes in Syria will become more explicit, there will be no more proposed NFZ to derail the conversation, and solidarity with the Syrian revolution will become a must.
Part of the problem too is that people want to analyze Syria in a vacuum without any historical or regional context. It has been six years since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the harassment he faced by police. His act inspired Tunisians to take to the streets and demand the fall of the regime, a call that was soon echoed by people across the region including Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. Six years on, people continue to struggle for these uprisings’ goals of freedom and dignity in the face of regime repression, counterrevolutionary forces, and outside interventions.
I think a big problem with analysis of the region in general is either pretending the last six years didn’t happen or just narrowly focusing on the last six years. People want to talk about US-backed regimes and attempts at regime change as if the people in the region have no agency. People either dismiss the long term impact of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq on the region or can only see the region in the context of the United States, a form of US exceptionalism but from the left. We need to be in solidarity with all the struggles for freedom and dignity in the region and that means being very clear about being against all regimes and imperialist powers.
How do you see the relationship between the Palestinian and Syrian struggles?
In relationship to Palestine in particular, I am a firm believer that Palestine will not be liberated until all criminal Arab regimes fall and that the people of the region will not be free until the fall of the Zionist regime. Zionism has obviously had the most direct impact on Palestinians, but it has also targeted Arabs and Muslims in general.
Let’s not forget the Syrian Golan has been occupied by Israel since 1967, when Israel ethnically cleansed the majority of the population. The first settlement Israel ever established on stolen land was not in the West Bank but the Golan. These Arab regimes have used Palestine as a way to legitimate their rule, while themselves killing and torturing Palestinians.
In Syria, Palestinian refugees have been killed and tortured by the regime, refugee camps have been bombed and under siege. And yet there are people who claim to be pro-Palestine who will defend the regime in the name of Palestinian liberation. The plight of Palestinian-Syrian refugees should have reignited a push among Palestinian rights activists to discuss the importance of the right of return but instead the dominant discussion is how Syria has divided movements.
We need to understand that the struggles in the region are intimately linked, not in some chauvinistic Arab nationalism sense, but in the sense that all people in the region — Arabs, Kurds, Iranians, Armenians, etc — are facing various oppressive forces and no one group’s liberation can come at the expense of another’s. In general across the globe as right-wing fascist politicians and groups rise to power, we need to do better at building towards collective liberation.
I want to also note there have been beautiful displays of solidarity between Palestinians and Syrians. After Israeli settlers firebombed the home of the Dawabshe family in the West Bank village of Duma in July 2015, Syrians in the town of Kfranbel carried a banner reading: “Your Douma and ours, your killer and ours. The years are witness to our pain and yours and we’ll remain brothers in death.” The Syrian city of Douma has been the sight of several massive bombing campaigns by the regime.
In April of last year, Russian and regime planes bombed a hospital in Aleppo by the name of al Quds (Jerusalem). Palestinians in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, who have been under blockade for over ten years, who have been denied their right of return for nearly seventy years, held a protest in solidarity carrying signs with slogans: “Aleppo is bleeding, Gaza is being choked. Gaza and Syria hand in hand.”
A lot of time is spent in organizing spaces discussing the theories of solidarity, but sometimes the best way to understand what these concepts actually mean is just bearing witness to how oppressed people struggling to simply survive under bombs and sieges are practicing them in their day-to-day lives.
When we met in DC, you proposed that the call of action Syrians need to be advocating today is stopping the war on Syrians. Why do you think this will carry more legitimacy than previous calls and how we can actually enforce it?
There needs to be an immediate end to all bombing of Syria. That needs to be the first demand. There is currently no space for Syrians to continue the revolution because it is all about survival as so much of the world, in addition to the regime, is waging war against them. But it is at least a demand that people can rally around and use to educate people and build solidarity with Syrians. The need for political education is particularly important too to counter the purposeful misinformation campaigns to smear the revolution and whitewash the crimes of the regime. And the most basic form of solidarity is pushing back against false narratives about Syria.
Another thing to think about is how we bring attention and advocate on specific issues related to the revolution. So for example, if people work on mass incarceration issues or torture, then focusing on Syrian political prisoners would make sense. If people are interested in the use of art in pursuing political change, there is so much to study related to Syria.
People in the medical field or in journalism or education can think about how to highlight the bravery of their colleagues in Syria and demand they are allowed to do their job. In the absence of a clearly articulated political project moving forward, these acts of solidarity do make a difference as they continue to impact the discourse, which is the first step in organizing for change.
We need to really be thinking about the long term now and how we can continue to push so that the seedlings of freedom and dignity that are planted across Syria have the ability break out and grow.
Assad’s violent crackdown on peaceful protesters since day one of the uprising has led to the militarization of the uprising. This imposed great challenges for the participation of women protesters and other groups in the society. In time, they have been mostly sidelined. How do you think such challenges should be addressed?
In any struggle, militarization tends to favor the participation of men at the expense of women. Women were very much present in protests early on in Syria, have played essential roles in local organizing committees, and do very important media work. They also have suffered at the hands of the regime like men have by being killed, imprisoned, tortured, and exiled, but also in ways men don’t face, for example the crime of rape and living under extremist interpretations of religious doctrine by some armed groups ruling certain parts of the country.
The issue of women’s rights in the region has been misused by both liberals and regime apologists over time but that shouldn’t keep us from discussing the negative impact the sidelining of women has had on the revolution and to think about what we can do to create space for Syrian women to be able to fully contribute to its fulfillment.