With the Assad regime and the Islamist rebels currently laying siege to one another in the major city of Aleppo, its worth looking back at the beginnings of the civil war, and remembering the radical roots of what once looked like a genuine revolution.
Consider the influence of the Damascus-born anarchist Omar Aziz, whose ideas of “local self-governance, horizontal organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid” contributed heavily to the creation of a sprawling network of locally-based organizations — the Local Coordination Committees — that created a system of dual power that reorganized political, economic, and social life outside of the regime’s authoritarian neoliberal boundaries.
In stark contrast to liberal and Islamist elites in exile, the LCC resisted calls in late 2011 to militarize the unrest or to advocate for foreign military intervention, arguing that such turns would undermine the democratic and popular nature of the revolution. They were, of course, correct.
But given their lack of friends outside of Syria (the West conveniently upheld the pro-intervention exile lobby as the true voice of “the Syrian people”), the descent into a violent sectarian civil war fueled by regional and international geopolitics was perhaps inevitable. What could have been done about Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s intense desire to pour billions of dollars into Salafi-jihadist paramilitary groups loyal to them, absent a significant leftist anti-imperialist movement in those countries that could resist such turns? And the same goes for US cooperation with the efforts and desires of the Gulf States.
Radical civil society was the spine of the uprisings in 2011; but the lack of strong leftist anti-imperialist movements in the US and the Gulf arguably meant that they were doomed from the start, as there were no obstacles to the inevitable efforts by regional and global powers to exploit the chaos for their own benefits. Those of us who live in these areas need to be ruthlessly self-critical about the consequences of our failures in this regard.
The only seeming bright spot is Rojava, which seems to be continuing its radical projects — but this is largely because of the temporary alliance of convenience between the military forces of Rojava and the US military in their fight against Islamic State. It remains to be seen how this alliance will affect the politics and future of libertarian municipalism in the region.