Building Alternative Futures in the Present: the Case of Syria’s Communes

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The Paris Commune is 150 years old and the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime, 10 years old. Leila Al-Shami uses the link made between the two by assassinated Syrian intellectual Omar Aziz to describe the Communes of Syria and to question the lack of solidarity from the Western left.

We are no less than the Paris commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” Omar Aziz, 2012

On 18 March, 2021, people around the globe will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. On this date 150 years ago, ordinary men and women claimed power for themselves, took control of their city and ran their own affairs independently from the state for over two months before being crushed in a Bloody Week by the French government in Versailles. The Communards’ experiment in autonomous, democratic self-organization, as a means to both resist state tyranny and to create a radical alternative to it, holds an important place in the collective imaginary and has provided inspiration for generations of revolutionaries.

Al Shami Funambulist 2
Protest in Damascus’ Ruken al-Din neighborhood on September 10, 2012. / Anonymous photographer.

On March 18, another anniversary will pass, but surely to much less acclaim worldwide. On this date a decade ago, large scale protests were held in the southern Syrian city of Dera’a in response to the arrest and torture of a group of school children who had painted anti-government graffiti on a wall. Security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing at least four, provoking wide-spread public anger. Over the next few days protests spread across the country, transforming into a revolutionary movement demanding freedom from the four-decade dictatorship of the Assad regime. In the following years, as people took up arms and forced the state to retreat from their communities, Syrians engaged in remarkable experiments in autonomous self-organization despite the brutality of the counter-revolution unleashed upon them. As early as 2012, Omar Aziz, a Syrian economist, public intellectual and anarchist dissident, compared the first of these experiments to the Paris Commune.

Omar Aziz was not a mere bystander to the events underway in Syria. Living and working in exile, he returned to his native Damascus in 2011, at the age of 63, to participate in the insurrection against the regime. He became involved in revolutionary organizing and providing assistance to families displaced from the Damascus suburbs under regime assault. Aziz was inspired by the movement’s level of self-organization in its resistance to the regime. In towns and neighborhoods across the country, revolutionaries had formed local coordinating committees. These were horizontally organized forums through which they would plan protests and share information regarding both the accomplishments of the revolution and the brutal repression the movement faced. They promoted non-violent civil disobedience and were inclusive to women and men from all social, religious, and ethnic groups. Revolutionaries were also organizing the provision of food baskets to those in need and setting up medical centres to tend to injured protesters who feared going to hospitals due to risk of arrest.

Aziz believed that whilst such activities were an important means to resist the regime and had indeed challenged its authority, they did not go far enough. Through their organization, revolutionaries were developing new relationships independently of the state based on solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid, yet were still dependent on the state for most of their needs, including employment, food, education, and healthcare. This reality enabled the regime to maintain its legitimacy and perpetuate its power despite people’s wide-spread opposition to it. In two papers published in October 2011 and February 2012, when the revolution was still largely peaceful and most of the Syrian territory remained under regime-control, Aziz began advocating for the establishment of Local Councils. He saw these as grassroots forums through which people could collaborate collectively to address their needs, gain full autonomy from the state, and achieve individual and community freedom from structures of domination. He believed that building autonomous, self-governing communes, linked regionally and nationally through a network of cooperation and mutual aid, was the path towards social revolution. According to Aziz, “the more self-organizing is able to spread […] the more the revolution will have laid the groundwork for victory.”