Like every story, a revolution has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 2013 was the end of the beginning of the armed struggle as hard-won revolutionary victories gave way to debilitating stalemates, stalemates that led first to friction and infighting and then to greater unity among the revolution’s armed factions.
In January, Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra assaulted and seized the massive Taftanaz airbase in northern Syria. In March, al-Raqqa was the first capital of a governate to be completely freed of regime control, an event orchestrated by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya who worked in conjuction with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Ahfad al-Rasul brigade.
Al-Raqqa’s liberation inaugurated the second stage of Syria’s democratic revolution: the struggle over the post-regime order. This struggle in and over al-Raqqa split Al-Qaeda into two competing factions — Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — as the leader of Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seized the opportunity to buck the group’s chain of command and carve out a niche for himself as the most powerful warlord/emir in a transnational caliphate. Baghdadi’s ISIS vigorously rejected Jabhat al-Nusra’s tactful moderation — both in relation to other armed brigades and to governing liberated areas — and campaigned successfully over the next six months to dominate the city. Peaceful protests by residents were met with ISIS rockets and machine gun fire; activists were kidnapped, detained, and tortured; independent media outlets were closed by their violence; competing brigades such as Ahfad al-Rasul were liquidated or defeated one by one; ISIS even drove Jabhat al-Nusra out of the city and kidnapped its commander.
Local protesters who initially defied ISIS later fled the country after it became clear that a liberation struggle to oust ISIS was not possible for the time being, given the balance of forces. Rumors that ISIS is a regime sock puppet, a fifth column organization, or sponsored by Iran to create fitna (division) among the mostly Sunni armed opposition have become commonplace as the regime launches airstrikes against schoolchildren but seemingly never touches ISIS’s massive HQs in al-Raqqa, Aleppo, or Azaz.
ISIS was unable to defeat and disrupt the second stage of the democratic revolution in Aleppo. The city and surrounding liberated areas are governed by elected authorities, the product of the first democratic elections in Syria in half a century, working in tandem with armed brigades (including ISIS). These elected authorities struggled (relatively successfully) to govern with scant resources, insufficient international support, and under constant, murderous bombardment from the regime. Providing security, a semblance of law and order, and keeping bakeries and medical centers open under these conditions is nothing short of heroic.
Regime military victories in Qusayr (June) and Sfira (October/November) bolstered the anti-revolutionary narrative promoted by Western and Eastern media outlets and bourgeois analysts who claim that the momentum is ‘now’ on Bashar al-Assad’s side, as if they had not claimed the same for almost 36 months in a row even as his forces lost half the country. Major rebel victories such as the seizure of one Syria’s largest weapon depots at Mahin are invisible to them since their bias only allows them to see the counter-revolution’s strengths, advantages, and victories and the revolution’s weaknesses, shortcomings, and setbacks. Qusayr and Sfira demonstrate the regime’s weakness, not its strength; neither led to further strategically important advances and were possible only because the wholesale obliteration of all standing structures rendered their defense impossible.
These regime victories did not flow from renewed popular vigor or shifting class or demographic allegiances and in a people’s war, the human factor is decisive.
The central political-military contradiction of the regime continues to be its insufficient and diminishing manpower which is a function of the revolution’s popular, broad-based nature, or conversely, the regime’s unpopular, evaporating social basis. Simply put, Assad is running out of Syrians to fight and die for him; the regime is continually forced to choose which areas to cling to and which to surrender despite importing foreign fighters from Hezbollah, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. The use of chemical weapons to break rebel control of Ghouta on August 21, 2013 was a desperate act born of this contradiction and one that led Russia and the U.S. to unite to remove the regime’s strategic deterrence against Israel from its arsenal and the battlefield.
Bashar al-Assad’s brazen defiance of U.S. president Barack Obama’s so-called “red line” transformed the landscape of opposition politics. Obama’s endless backpedaling, backtracking, and backstabbing of the Syrian opposition became frenetic as he squirmed away from his own “red line” into the arms of Russian president and Assad’s top ally Vladimir Putin. Among Syrian revolutionaries on the ground and abroad, this turn of events shattered whatever remaining illusions they had about the U.S. and President Obama. It painfully exposed the utter bankruptcy of the Western-oriented National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces who spent countless man-hours over the previous two years lobbying Washington and London for action that would never come. It also propelled the formation of the Islamic Front whose leaders treat Western government as the false friends they are and refuse to play pointless games at Geneva 2 while the criminal regime’s killing spree continues unchecked.
In 2011, Assad lost politically when he opted for the military option against his own people; in 2012, he lost militarily with the fall of Aleppo; 2013 became a draw between the revolution and the combined forces of Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah. With greater unity comes greater victories; 2014 promises to be a year of great victories, with an increasingly united and politically sophisticated armed rebellion.