With the emergence of the 2011 Arab Spring, Syrians began assembling in support of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Protests in Syria spread rapidly in March of that year. Using horizontally-organized forms including the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) and local councils, Syrians have experimented with local autonomy and community control and have taken inspiration from the late Anarchist, Syrian economist and martyr Omar Aziz. Moreover, these Syrians have collaborated, sometimes uneasily, with groups in the predominantly Kurdish part of northern Syria, sometimes known as Rojava, home to the democratic confederalist experiments that explicitly oppose the state, capitalism, patriarchy, and other forms of domination.
An August 2016 article reported that there were some 400 local councils across liberated Syria that were experimenting in stateless forms of self-governance. Alongside these councils, rebels have established women's centers, radio stations and other autonomous institutions.
The Syrian revolution is far from pure, as some rebels have received training and arms from the US and its allies, especially Turkey, and some have become dominated by jihadists forces. Still, the revolution persists today and fights, on one front, against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian supporters, on the other front, against Daesh (ISIS), while being repeatedly back-stabbed by the US military.
Syrian journalists Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami, in their authoritative English-language Burning Country, summarize the anti-authoritarian ethos of the revolution:
In 2011 it burst into speech - not one voice but in millions. On an immense surge of long-suppressed , a non-violent protest movement crossed sectarian and ethnic boundaries and spread to every part of the country. Nobody could control it - no party, leader or ideological programme, and least of all the repressive apparatus of the state, which applied gunfire, mass detention, sexual assault and torture, even of children, to death.
On 28 January 2011, Hassan Ali Akleh set himself on fire in the town of Hasakeh, in northeastern Syria, repeating Mohamed Bouazizi's famous act of self-immolation the prior month in Tunisia. Protests spread around Syria, including at the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan embassies. On 6 March, in the town of Deraa, 15 schoolboys were arrested for revolutionary graffiti. They were tortured and had their fingernails ripped out. When parents met with the local head of political security, who happened to be President Bashar al-Assad's cousin, he responded, "Forget your children. Go sleep with your wives and make new ones, or send them to me and I'll do it." When thousands gathered to demand the children's release and the security head's resignation, four protesters were killed. The funeral the next day turned into another protest, and more protesters were killed by security forces.
On 15 March, protesters assembled in Damascus and decided they would form Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) in their communities to coordinate street protests, document security forces' responses, and advocate on social media. LCCs quickly formed around the country and, over time, expanded their activities to include distribution of food and medical services. In October 2011, the LCCs and other groups coordinated strikes in 600 locations around Syria. In an LCC in Damascus, decisions were made by voting and leadership rotated monthly.
Syrian security forces brutally repressed the uprising, and by 3 June, the UN reported that 1,000 had been killed and a minimum of 3,000 detained. On 9 June 2011, the Syrian military's Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush publicly defected and called of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a network of militias. With the militarization of the movement in the summer and fall of 2011 came the Islamization of many strands, undoing much of the horizontal organization that characterized the rebellion early on. In "An Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria's Uprising and Civil War," Javier Sethness Castro summarized, in February 2015, the degree to which rebel militias depend on foreign imperialists' assistance:
a “conservative” estimate of the quantity of arms supplied to rebels by the US/GCC has been calculated as amounting to at least 3,500 tons, in acccordance with the findings of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad cites estimates that Qatar has provided between $2 and $6 billion to rebel forces in Syria. Officially, the U.S. gave only “non-lethal aid" to Free Syrian Army units in the first couple years of the civil war, though numerous stockpiles of US-made heavy weapons as well as tanks and armored-personnel personnel carriers have made it into the hands of ISIS—“appropriated,” the story goes, as they were by ISIS from other anti-regime forces, as well as Iraqi Army units, who surrendered Mosul
Some branches of the Syrian Revolution have remained explicitly leftist, including the Revolutionary Left Current, which established an armed brigade in March 2014. Many currents have been strongly influenced by the anarchist theorist and economist Omar Aziz, who wrote a paper proposing a network of local self-government to replace the state. Local councils based on Aziz's vision spread in 2012, distributing aid, water, electricity, and education, disposing of waste disposal, and coordinating security with militias. Aziz was arrested on 20 November 2012, and he died in prison in Februrary 2013, at the age of 63.
Hundreds of local councils were set up around Syria. The councils tend to make decisions by majority vote, and some hold elections every three or six months to give residents a chance to recall representatives.
Influential revolutionary writings by Omar Aziz called for liberated communities to stop operating according to "authority's time" and start living in "revolutionary time." This meant transcending the separation between "the tasks necessary to live in this world and revolutionary activities." The shift entails a full transformation of everyday life.
The liberated town of Daraya, before it was re-captured by the Assad regime in August 2016, had an active local council with offices to manage various community affairs. A relief office ran a soup kitchen and grew spinach, wheat, and beans. A medical office managed a field hospital. A services office was responsible for opening alternative roads when regime bombing made the normal roads unusable. The local brigade of the Free Syrian Army was subject to the local council's civilian control. Women established a revolutionary magazine, Enab Baladi, that regularly promoted civil disobedience. The town came under intense assault, with 9,000 imprecise "barrel bombs" dropped daily by the government at the same time as the regime blocked food and medical supplies from entering the Daraya for 1,368 days. The town's residents ended up evacuating to Idlib.
Prior to the Assad regime's recapture of Aleppo in December 2016, the city's local council posted meeting minutes online detailing their work including "repairing phone lines, cleaning the streets, fixing water pipes, running courses to train and empower women, implementing price controls on commodities [and] distributing bread."
According to the Swiss-Syrian academic, Joseph Daher, about half of the local councils were democratically elected and the number and strength of councils had greatly declined after Assad's capture of Eastern Aleppo in December 2016. Daher offers critical though appreciative account of the local councils:
Regarding local councils that played an important role in the opposition held areas, we must be clear that their very important experiences did not mean that there were no shortcomings, such as the lack of representation of women, or of religious minorities in general. Other problems existed as well such as some forms of disorganization, undemocratic practices, over-representation of some influential families in some areas, etc. Civil councils were also not always completely autonomous from military groups, relying often on military groups for resources. While numerous council members were generally elected, nearly half of them, there were also a number of councils undemocratically appointed rather than elected, based on the influence of local military leaders, clan and family structures, and elders. Another problem that was encountered in the selection of the council’s representatives was the need for particular professional and technical skills.
Despite these limitations, local councils were able to restore a minimum level of social services in their regions and enjoyed some level of legitimacy.
In the primarily Kurdish region of northern Syria, or Rojava, Syrian security forces withdrew in 2012 and the roughly 2.5 million residents have organized a federation of communes inspired by the anti-authoritarian, feminist writings of the Kurdish dissident and political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan. At each level of decision-making, at least 40 percent of delegates are women. Communes organize worker cooperatives, environmental protection units, security forces, and more. At the federal level, government takes a representative, parliamentary form that, to many anti-authoritarians, resembles at least a proto-state, although by some accounts its ability to impose its will on local communities remains limited since security forces remain answerable to the local bodies. Anti-authoritarians have criticized Rojava's revolution for maintaining prisons and arbitrary arresting dissidents, and for coordinating closely with US and Russian imperialist interests in the fight against Daesh.
At times, the Syrian revolution and Rojava revolution have collaborated. In 2014, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) collaborated with the Kurdish militia known as the YPG, a Rojava milita, to fight ISIS. A minority of FSA groups have joined the YPG in forming the Rojava-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In a 2018 New York Times op-ed, a high-level Rojava official wrote that the Kurdish struggle shares the broader Syrian rebels' aim of replacing the Assad government with a decentralized democracy.
However, the relation between the predominantly Kurdish rebels of Rojava and the predominantly Arab rebels in the rest of Syria has been uneasy, and at times there has been fighting between the movements. FSA groups assisted Turkey in taking five villages from the SDF in August 2016. Many Syrians have strongly criticized the SDF. For instance, Hassan Hamidi, in the SDF-liberated, predominantly Arab town of Mabij, told Now Media, "We really appreciate everything the SDF fighters did in order to push ISIS out of Manbij. But it seems that we are moving from one dictator to another. Manbij's local council, which was elected to run the city, was uprooted by ISIS before and now it is dissolved by the SDF."
Relationship with United States
The US military, despite ostensibly supporting and arming the FSA in order to combat Daesh, has been uninterested in supporting the rebels' revolutionary aims or even in protecting Syrian civilian lives. In fighting ISIS, the US has committed possible war crimes against Syrian civilians in places such as Raqqa. While US war planes had no problem dropping bombs on Syria, they repeatedly declined to drop food and supplies to areas under siege from Assad. In part, the US cited fears that jihadists might get their hands on the food, leading critics to point out the obvious: "we're talking about food, not guns. [...] We say drop food, not bombs."
Prior to 2017, the only time the US attacked an Assad regime target was in September 2016, when it accidentally killed 62 regime troops. The US quickly apologized and offered "condolence payments" to the troops' families. American journalist Bill Weinberg argued at the time, "The US is now openly fighting on the side of the Assad dictatorship. Anyone who fails to see it simply isn't paying attention." In July 2017, the United States stopped funding Syrian rebels. In December 2018, the US announced that it would begin rapidly withdrawing 2000 ground troops from Syria. The Alliance of Middle East Socialists denounced this move as "a green light to Recep Tayyip Erdogan to decimate the Kurds in what remains of Rojava in northern Syria."
- Max Boothroyd, "Self-Organization in the Syrian Revolution," Countervortex, http://countervortex.org/node/15014.
- Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Sham, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (London: Pluto Press, 2016), viii.
- Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami, 35-38.
- Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami, 35-37
- Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami, 59.
- Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami, 57-58.
- Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami, 83-85.
- Leila al-Shami, "Challenging the Nation-State in Syria," World War 4 Report, Summer 2016, http://ww4report.com/node/14822.
- Javier Sethness Castro, "An Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria's Uprising and Civil War," Anarkismo, 15 February 2015, http://www.anarkismo.net/article/27895.
- Yassin-Kasab and al-Shami, 62.
- Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami, 68-69.
- Leila al-Shami, "Challenging the Nation-State in Syria," World War 4 Report, Summer 2016, http://ww4report.com/node/14822.
- Omar Aziz, "To Live in Revolutionary Time," trans. Bordered by Silence, https://www.indybay.org/uploads/2017/05/10/aziz.pdf.
- Leila al-Shami, "The Fall of Daraya: From Roses to Evacuation," Countervortex, http://countervortex.org/node/15005.
- Boothroyd, "Self-Organization."
- Dan Fischer and S. Maja, "Our Destinies are Linked: Joseph Daher on the Syrian Revolution," It's Going Down, 5 April 2015, https://itsgoingdown.org/our-destinies-are-linked-joseph-daher-on-the-syrian-revolution/.
- Kurdistan democratic confederalists, Anarchy in Action.
- Bill Weinberg, "Best hope to destroy ISIS: indigenous resistance," Countervortex, 13 September 2014, https://countervortex.org//node/13524.
- Ilham Amed, "A World of Tyrants and Graves," New York Times, 16 September 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/16/opinion/politics/syria-democracy-survival.html.
- Bill Weinberg, "Syria: reject Arab-Kurdish ethnic war," Countervortex, 6 September 2016, http://countervortex.org/node/15022.
- Amnesty International, "Syria: 'War of annihilation': Devastating toll on civilians, Raqqa – Syria," 5 June 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde24/8367/2018/en/.
- Medea Benjamin and Stan Heller, "Food Airdrops to Syrians," New York Times, 22 January 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/opinion/food-airdrops-to-syrians.html.
- Bill Weinberg, "Syria: genocidal regime troops' lives matter," Countervortex, 18 September 2016, http://countervortex.org/node/15043.