The Trotskyist Guerrillas in Syria

Okay, so a few things right off the bat. A Trotskyist is a revolutionary socialist following in the footsteps of Russian Bolshevik Leon Trotsky and (debatably) Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. They distinguish themselves from Marxist-Leninists (often termed ‘Stalinists’ or sometimes ‘Tankies’) with a focus on the theory of permanent revolution, this being the idea that countries which had not achieved a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution can be led by a revolutionary proletariat supported by peasantry to undergo their bourgeois democratic revolution simultaneously with a socialist revolution. This is at odds with the common ‘stageist’ theory, which dictates that for a country to become socialist, it must undergo a bourgeois democratic revolution first, only then allowing for development into socialism. (It all gets very confusing when you find that Trotskyists and Marxist-Leninists fundamentally disagree on the requirements for a socialist country.)

Anyway. That’s a Trotskyist. In the context of say, Syria for instance, their ideal would be to develop a revolutionary movement in the country that is independent of what you could term the ‘national bourgeoisie’, this mainly being the role of the Syrian government. So, naturally, Trotskyists in Syria would be a part of the opposition movement. However, while considering this, big parts of the opposition movement in Syria have zero interest in revolution. Hell, the biggest movements within it are the Kurdish YPG, who operate on a quasi-anarchist, pro-US model and Tahrir al-Sham who are… Well, Al Qaeda. It’s pretty much Al Qaeda’s Syria branch. They say they aren’t, but they literally just formed out of the official Al Qaeda branch, Al Nusra Front, joining together with a bunch of smaller Islamists factions and changing their name.

So yeah, not exactly firm grounding for a revolutionary movement! But that depends on who the Trotskyists are. How powerful are they, how many are there, where’s their base of support, what’s their platform? Well, I’ll tell you. This is the Leon Sedov Brigade, one of the only openly militant Trotskyist movements out there today.

So, first of all, who’s Leon Sedov? Well, he’s the son of Leon Trotsky, the man after which their whole ideology is named. Much like his father, it’s strongly believed that Sedov was killed in February of 1938 by agents of the NKVD, the then-secret police of the USSR under Joseph Stalin. Evidence strongly leans towards this, but it’s not exactly definitive, having apparently died of appendicitis while the NKVD maybe just interfered in his treatment for the condition. Either way, he had followed in the footsteps of his father and is still considered an inspirational figure by many!

The brigade itself though, where did they come from? Well… They emerged initially from the ‘Fracción Leninista Trotskista Internacional’ (FLTI), a predominantly Latin American movement of Trotskyists which nonetheless has bases of operation all over the world. One of these places was Libya, where affiliated member Abu Muad (fake name) was taking part in the ‘revolution’ against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Abu Muad himself was south American but wished to fight in Libya in the hopes that such a country could become a base for militant working-class revolutionary struggle. After being shot in the head and surviving, he gained some prominence after an interview with Argentine journalists who had thought him long dead. In June of 2012 the following year, he and an estimated 10-12 others officially founded the Leon Sedov Brigade, with the expressed intent bringing revolutionary struggle to the places they fought.

The following month, the group crossed through Turkey into Syria, where they believed far more fertile ground for socialist revolution was being laid. The civil war had just entered its infancy, groups such as ISIS and Al Nusra were hardly a blip on the radar! Obviously, we know that they failed, but at the time it wasn’t quite as obvious that radical Islamism would become so overwhelming in the conflict. Rapidly, they picked up support in the city of Aleppo, where they held their base of operations. Allegedly their membership hit 200 at its peak!

The Leon Sedov Brigade functioned as a ‘workers militia’ rather than a professional military force. What this means is that they weren’t paid for their membership, rather members were expected to work in factories and other jobs, ensuring that they were never alienated from their proletariat base. A noble goal to be sure, but it’s not hard to imagine that this barrier to entry kept their ranks as small as they were. They were highly reputed, but it didn’t translate into the kinds of armed groups that surrounded them. Even worse, they were one of the few armed groups to receive no foreign aid. While the FSA and affiliates were being armed by the USA and many Middle Eastern countries, with even some outright Islamists being armed by the likes of Turkey and others, the Leon Sedov Brigade was having to scrounge for their supplies and take donations.

Even worse for them was that these disparate groups had many issues with one-another. Inter-factional conflict plagued the Syrian opposition from the very start and the Leon Sedov Brigade, with its very unorthodox goals, weren’t always popular. On more than one occasion, they were attacked by their supposed allies. In one notable case, a thief was arrested by the brigade, but the thief was a major ally of ‘Nour al-Dein al-Zenkey’, an Islamist movement. Representatives attempted to negotiate a release, but the Leon Sedov Brigade wouldn’t budge. Realising it would be unpopular to gun down these men who stood in the interests of the workers, they got Jabhat al-Nusra (an Al Qaeda affiliate) to do it for them! In the end, the Leon Sedov Brigade was forced to flee, damaging their reputation somewhat.

In another case, Abu Muad, the aforementioned leader of the brigade, was kidnapped by ISIS. For most, this is a certain death sentence, but for the time being, they wished to ‘blackmail’ him. In an unprecedented case, locals actually rallied outside of the school he was being imprisoned in and demanded his release. During the confusion, he was able to escape and rather bizarrely, ISIS returned his possessions and offered him Ramadan food to apologize. One can only speculate as to why. On the one hand, ISIS may have only had a loose grip on the location at this time and were hoping to engender support… On the other hand, there’s always been the question of where exactly the Leon Sedov Brigade’s motives lay.

Some have made their criticisms quite explicit. The Permanent Revolution Collective, another Trotskyist movement, delivered scathing accusations that the Leon Sedov Brigade was itself an Islamist movement along the lines of Al Nusra (Al Qaeda) and despite their statements, the writings on the wall with their actions. To quote a response to comments on the Leon Sedov Brigade:

“Pröbsting, Brown and company forget that the representatives of the LOI (party affiliated with Leon Sedov Brigade) do not fight the American army, but Syrian and Iranian soldiers. In practice, this tiny troop is necessarily fastened to more important armies. Which ones? The LOI does not say it. Munzer and his stooges disguise to the world labor movement—and to their own militants—that the self-styled BLS (Leon Sedov Brigade) is under the command of Islamists. It suffices to see the raised forefingers, the beards and the black headbands of its members. (common Islamist iconography) This explains that the BLS is silent on class struggle, on the necessity of soviets and the expropriation of Arab big landowners and capitalists, and even on national rights of Kurds, democratic freedoms, secularism, women’s emancipation … To dare calling this operation by the name of Sedov, son of Trotsky, atheist, anticlericalist, communist, leader of the 4th International, is a filth, an infamy.”

Yeaaah, they don’t exactly play it safe with their criticism. As far as they’re concerned, the Leon Sedov Brigade are stooges for western imperialism, as well as being no different from Al Qaeda or even ISIS. And this is Trotskyists talking, imagine if it was people even further apart ideologically!

On the one hand, there’s an occasion where the militia aided workers in occupying a textiles factory, protecting them from attacks by all sides. That was certainly a socialist thing to do! On the other hand, when asked about Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (just Al Nusra combined with some other groups, essentially Al Qaeda) Abu Muad stated “As long as the masses can use any faction to fight against the regime, it’s a positive.” Which basically sounds like he’s endorsing radical Islamism. Further, the brigade repeatedly attempted to form united fronts with other militant groups, many of which were Islamists. Regardless of the rhetoric, it’s hard to argue that they weren’t functionally working a lot like those reactionary, thoroughly anti-socialist groups. Given they refuse to ally with the far more progressive YPG (Kurdish quasi-Anarchist militants in northern Syria), it seems even more glaring. One might argue that the YPG are backed by the USA, but then again, Tahrir al-Sham are backed by Turkey. Hardly any better.

So! What’s happened to them since then? …Well, there doesn’t seem to have been much news since 2016. The Brigade is vague on whether their military campaign is ongoing, but their party’s newspaper occasionally makes reference to them, even if without photos. They admit that many of their membership are now dead and with the loss of Aleppo to the Syrian government, there’s a lot less room for them to operate within. It’s probably safe to say that the Leon Sedov Brigade no longer exist in any major capacity. All the same, they remain a fascinating tale of a much lesser known militant force in the Middle East. Will they be influential on all those Trotskyist groups in the west who just support their equivalent of the Labour party and split every ten minutes? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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