They are indeed. But one of the complexities of the situation in the region is that you don’t have a classical binary of revolution and counterrevolution. You have a triangle of forces. On the one hand, a revolutionary pole consisting of a bloc of social and political forces representing the aspirations of the workers, young people, and women who rose up against the old regime, aspiring to a different progressive society.
On the other side, however, you find not one but two counterrevolutionary camps. One is the old regimes’ camp, the classical counterrevolution. And then for the historical reasons that I already mentioned, there are reactionary forces of a religious character, which were initially fostered by the old regimes as a counterweight to the Left but developed and turned against these regimes. Both are counterrevolutionary forces in the sense that their fundamental interests and programs clash directly with the aspirations of the revolutionary pole that struggles for social, economic, and democratic change.
When they came to power in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and El-Nahda in Tunisia embodied another version of the counterrevolution, one that Washington believed would work better than the old regime. They continued the old regime’s social and economic policies.
The only change they tried to implement was about Islamizing the institutions — or rather further Islamization of the institutions in Egypt, where you had already quite a deal of it under Sadat and Mubarak. Tensions arose between them and the old regime when they tried to assert their control over the state apparatuses. That’s the background of the 2013 coup in Egypt.
So you have all over the region two rival counterrevolutionary camps and one revolutionary pole. The latter’s practical and/or political weakness allowed the situation to develop into a clash between the two counterrevolutionary camps, while it got marginalized.
Syria is the most extreme case in point. There was a huge progressive potential in the uprising in 2011, as much if not more than in other countries because of the larger diffusion of progressive and left ideas among the Syrian population — quite more than in Egypt, but less than in Tunisia. This potential did not materialize in an organized form, however. Virtual internet networks are great at organizing demonstrations and rallies, but they are no substitute to a real organizational network.
Add to this the very active involvement of the regional counterrevolutionary stronghold represented by the Gulf oil monarchies
, which did their best to strengthen the Islamic fundamentalist component of the Syrian opposition at the expense of anything else. Because, a real democratic uprising is the major threat to them like it is for Assad. In a sense, they concurred with the Assad regime in promoting the Islamic fundamentalist component of the opposition at the detriment of the secular democratic.
The end result in Syria is indeed that the situation is dominated by a clash between two counterrevolutionary forces: on one side, the regime and its allies and, on the other side, an armed opposition in which the dominant forces uphold political perspectives that are deeply contradictory with the initial progressive aspirations of the uprising as expressed in 2011. True, there are also armed opposition forces which are less reactionary, albeit hardly progressive.
More important than that is the fact that a major part of those who joined the Islamic fundamentalist armed groups did not do so for ideological reasons, but because that’s where they could get salaries on a backdrop of rapidly deteriorating living conditions due to the war. This is a key factor even in ISIS’s development, one that allowed it to recruit so many thousands of fighters.
This said, the potential that exploded in 2011 has not been crushed but was rather marginalized politically. Many of those who represented this potential have left the country into exile because they are radically opposed to the regime and threatened by it, on the one hand, and they see the proliferation of reactionary forces who are equally dangerous for them, on the other.
Most of those who survived and did not end up in jail have left the country. These thousands of activists who embodied the democratic, progressive potential of the 2011 uprising and are now in exile are a reason to keep hope in the future.
For the moment, however, the best one can hope for is the cessation of this terrible dynamics of “clash of barbarisms,” as I called it in the aftermath of 9/11, with the barbaric Assad regime on one end and the barbaric ISIS
on the other end, the latter being originally a product of the chief barbarism of the US occupation of Iraq. The civil war, the destruction of Syria, and the massacre of its people by the regime should come to an end under conditions that allow the refugees to get back to their hometowns from exile or displacement within the country. This is the most urgent now.
At this moment, there are no prospects whatsoever for a progressive outcome. Anyone who believes otherwise is dreaming. In the absence of such prospects, the best that can happen is the end of the continuous deterioration brought by the war. For the war to end, you need some kind of compromise between the regime and the opposition. And for this to happen, Assad must go, because there can’t be any workable compromise, any ending of the conflict, with Assad in place.
In supporting him, Russia and Iran are blocking the possibility for compromise. Since 2012, the Obama administration has been saying, “We are not advocating regime change in Syria but we believe Assad should step down for a compromise between the regime and the opposition to see the light.”
Obama advocated what he called “the Yemeni solution
.” In Yemen, the president accepted to step down and hand power to the vice-president, and the regime was not changed. Instead, you had a coalition government of the opposition and the regime, the president’s clan excepted. It did not last long as we know, but that was regarded by Obama in 2012 and is still seen by him as the model to follow in Syria.
Iran and Russia, however, fear that if the Assad clan goes, this could disrupt the whole regime which has become quite shaky, and they would stand to lose Syria as one of their key allied states in the region. They are therefore preventing the progress toward a negotiated compromise. Such a compromise, to be sure, would be far from ideal.
But unless the war stops, there will be no revival of the progressive democratic potential of the Syrian uprising as it emerged in 2011. The potential still exists: if the war stops and the social economic issues come to the fore again, people will see the vanity of both camps who have no solutions for the country’s problems.