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Syria, imperialism and the left

Monday 8 January 2018, by siawi3


Aug 8 2012

Posted on rooieravotr: The blog of Peter Storm from the Netherlands, containing libertarian communist news and views on international events.

Syria, imperialism and the left

By Peter Storm

Part 1

A debate is taking place in left wing and radical circles about the Syrian revolt, what side to take, what to think about Western intervention against the Assad regime. Part one of a three-part series.

Some see this intervention as the biggest danger and tend therefore to side with the regime as a kind of lesser evil. Others see that regime’s oppression of the revolt as reason, not only to support that revolt, but to support (or at least, pointedly not to oppose) western aid to the armed struggle, either in the form of weapons for the insurgents, or a no-fly zone, or maybe air support for the Free Syrian Army, like NATO did in Lybia. Yet others say: yes to the Syrian Revolution, no to Western intervention. The latest position comes close to what I think and is not as bad as the first two. Supporting the regime is criminal; supporting intervention is criminal; supporting the revolt as if it is a ’thing’ that can be supported as a whole, while opposing intervention, however, is seriously problematic as well.

First, the support-or-tolerate-Assad-/ down-with-the-revolt- position. We leave the fans of the dictatorship to their own devices. Much more interesting are the forces who say: yes, Assad may be a horrible dictator. But he heads a state that has progressive aspects. First, because Syria stands in opposition to Israeli occupation and US -led imperialism. Syria supported hezbollah against Israeli occupation in Libanon. Syria supported Hamas, and Palestinian resistance more broadly. The fall of the Syrian regime threatens to end all that, and would play to the advantage of the Israeli state and its US sponsors/ backers. Syria is one of the remaining allies of Iran. The Iranian regime is under pressure of Western powers – US, Israel, but also Western European states. A collapse of the Syrian dictatorship would weaken Iran and strengthen the imperialist pressures against Iran. In short: Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Palestinian resistance form an “axis of resistance” - a word actually used by an official of the Iranian regime pledging support to Assad - against imperialism and Zionism. Syria, as part of this resistance alliance, should be defended.

The revolt against the Syrian regime, so this reasoning continues, is mainly an instrument for Western interests – US, Israel, but also conservative pro-Western regimes like Qatar and Saudi Arabia – to weaken the resistance axis. The armed insurgency, supported by Qatari and Saudi and most likely also Turkish arms, can best be seen as a Washington-directed proxy war against not just Syria, but mainly Iran. However we may dislike Assads regime, that regime has to be defended; self-reform of the regime, or maybe a negotiated solution with Assad in place, is internally, the best we can hope for. But in the meantime, a defeat of the armed revolt should be applauded. That is, basically, what the blog Moon of Alabama, a well-informed but terribly one sided source, hopes for. The position of the World Socialist Web Site, Trotskyist, less friendly to Assad but just as hostile to the revolt, comes close to this as well. That website talks about a "U.S.- led war to overthrow Assad".

The analysis leading to such a choice is thoroughly wrong-headed. First, the anti-imperialism of Syria is doubly fake. The Assad dynasty has collaborated with the US empire as it saw fit. Father Hafez, Assad the Elder, sent Syrian soldiers alongside the US, UK, Saudi and other troops, to fight the Iraqi state in the Gulf War in 1991. Son Bashar, Assad the Younger, helpfully accepted prisoners the US sent to Syria to be “interrogated”, and after 9/11 generally collaborated with US intelligence in the fight against Al Qaeda. Besides, the Syrian army was quite bad at fighting Israel, but quite good at repressing Palestinians in Lebanon, just as it is quite expert at bombing Damascus and Aleppo these days. Syria as part of a resistance axis was, and remains, a bit of a joke. Syria as an enemy of anything that even looks like real resistance, however, is not at all funny.

There is a deeper sense in which the anti-imperialism of the Syrian regime is fake. The Syrian state, and its business backers, represents local capitalist interests. Their alliance with the Iranian regime makes them a part of a regional, Tehran-centered power bloc; the Hezbollah and Hamas connection gives this bloc extra power, the rhetoric of resistance, often combined with hints of Shiite identity against Sunni identity forms the ideological mix justifying things. Behind rhetoric and ideology stand powerful state and economic interests. That Iran strives for nuclear capability – with or without an armed dimension – is not surprising. What we see here are the interests and ambitions of a regional imperialist bloc under Iran leadership, of which Syria is a part, a willing accomplice if you will.

Things don’t end there. The regional Iran-Syria alliance is connected to bigger powers, China and above all Russia. Syria has been armed by Russia for a long time; Russia sees Syria as a remaining ally in a time where most states hav tilted – or been forced – in the arms of the US empire. Russia has a military naval base in Syria. Besides, Russia is worried about jihady movements on her southern border, and sees the officially secular Syrian regime – which smashed a Muslim Brotherhood revolt, repression culminating in a state-imposed massacre in Hama in 1982 – as being on the same side in the fight against “Muslim fundamentalism”. All this, and probably more, makes Syria a junior part of an bigger imperialist power bloc, led by Russia.

Defending Syria against the armed insurgency – even if we would accept that this insurgency is just a proxy force fighting for Western/ Saudi/Qatari interests – means siding with one wing of imperialism led from Moscow against an admiddedly even bigger one led from Washington. Siding with Assad is siding with imperialisms weaker wing. There is nothing remotely anti-imperialist, progressive or revolutionary about that choice.

It is also wrong to support the Assad regime for internal reasons, as if it were a ’bulwark against neoliberalism’ or something like that. Yes, the Baath party enforced reforms in the 1960s, and some of these reforms benefitted workers and poor peaasants. However, the thing was bureaucratically controlled from above; Syria became a very authoritarian welfare state, with that state as an enforcer of capitalism and a capitalist in its own right. In 1970, when Assad the Father took power, the regime already began to shift. Assad the Son presided over neoliberal reforms, away from the welfare state aspects, and away from state dominance in the economy. It was accelerating neoliberal reform that undermined the limited economic security that existed. The basic, unspoken deal between regime and population – we obey you; we expect you to give us food and shelter in return – broke down. An oppressive, but somewhat paternalistic bureaucratic clique on top evolved intio a kind of mafia.

Anger, rooted in insecurity felt by already poor people, is one of the driving forces that led to the outbreak of revolt. The protests generally started in poor neighbourhoods, in suburbs of the cities where people from a poor rural background lived. It is no accident that Aleppo, a relatively wealthy place, only recently became the scene of rebellion; while poor places like Deraa saw protests from the beginning. It is no accident that people from the business class generally remained supportive of, or at least tolerant towards, the regime up till recently, and only shifted to a position on the fence: hesitating between seeking shelter under Assad’s dictatorship or seeking for new protectors under a new leadership. The backbone of the revolt – even if it expresses itself too often in a reactionary fashion – remains the urban and rural, mostly but not exclusivey Sunni, poor. That, by the way, makes any rejection of the complete revolt as nothing but a proxy force for reactionary powers, very unfair and unjust.

In sum, the regime is not anti-imperialist. It is not seriously anti-neoliberal as well. It should be neither defended nor supported. It has to be opposed and rejected totally, and not be given any progressive-sounding apologies. Poor and oppressed people in rebellion against it don’t deserve to be contemptuously sneered at. Whatever side anyone can be on, certainly not on the side of the mafia ruling and exploiting Syria by brutal means.


Part 2


Aug 9 2012 22:21

Some people on the moderate but also the Trotskyist-influenced left defend not only the Syrian revolt, but also, sadly, find Western intervention against Assad quite acceptable. Second part of a three-part series.

That we detest the Syrian dictatorship enough to want it to be seen overthrown, does not mean that we should become cheerleaders for the revolt against the Assad regime! That brings us at the other side of the argument, which basically goes like this. The revolt against the dictatorship is a struggle for freedom and justice . First demonstrations, later armed struggle, against the regime is fully justified and should be supported by progressives. Not only that: the rebels have the right to get arms where they can find them, and we should not stand in the way. If the CIA, the Saudi, Turkish, Qatari states send arms to the Free Syrian Army, that is useful. If the rebels want a no fly zone and call for air strikes on Syria army positions, this also should go unopposed. Western help to the revolt may have its downsides. Still, better that the revolt wins – like the Lybian one – with NATO aid , than that it becomes suppressed while the West stands aside. Such a pro-revolt position, with a refusal to oppose Western interference (to say the least) is expressed by moderate progressives, like Juan Cole on Informed Comment, like Paul Woodward on War in Context , but also by people considering themselves Marxist and revolutionary, like Louis Proyect on Unrepentant Marxist , and Pham Binh on North Star . Both are from a Trotskyist background.

What we see here is: legitimate sympathy for a struggle against oppression, combined with the most wrongheaded search for allies where allies cannot be found: in Western imperialism. Also, some very unsavoury aspects of the revolt tend to get overlooked or badly underestimated by people like Binh, Proyect, Cole and Woodward. First, there already is a serious amount of Western intervention. There is a consistent pattern of arms support from Saudi and Qatari sources to insurgent groups in Syria. The CIA is, at the very least, monitoring things, while the US is giving “non lethal” aid to “the opposition”. That is: US-delivered communication tools make it possible to use Saudi-delivered arms to strike more efficiently against Syrian regime forces. The distincion between ’lethal’ and ’non-lethal’ aid may help Obama prevent trouble with Congressional oversight. In real war terms, the distinction is not that relevant. There are other forms of US interference as well: the Syrian National Congress, the exiled opposition umbrella – not taken seriously by many anti-regime fighters in Syria itself, by the way – has spokespeople who are connected to all kinds of US government-funded bodies acting to undermine the Syrian regime for their own reasons. There is also a US role in ’advising’ Syrian opposition forces on a transition to a post-Assad regime. Connections go bak to 2005, when the Bush administration had Syria on its hit list. Charrlie Skelton describes a number of these connections in the Guardian.

The big worry for the US at the moment seems to be a ’power vacuum’, a collapse of the Syrian state; the US hope is a managed transition from above, Assadism without Assad. That is, the US wants to get rid of the dictator, without the revolt being in a position to enforce thorough change from below. For instance, you can read talks are described in Foreign Policy about meetings, held in Germany, between opposition politicians and US experts, with State Department money involved and U.S officials indirectly in touch. “The idea is to preserve those parts of the Syrian state that can be carried over while preferring to reform the parts that can’t. For example, large parts of the Syrian legal system could be preserved.” Dissidents having been punished by the ’Syrian legal system’ might disagree. The US supports the opposition in order to prevent its development in a revolutionary direction. They would have much preferred to work with Assad himself. Now that he proves a bit recalcitrant, he must be replaced – with a somewhat more amenable look-alike. Encouraging this kind of support for the revolt is encouraging the events to develop in a more and more counterrevolutionary direction.

The same applies to the arms deliveries that the Saudi and Qatari regimes organize, no doubt with US toleration, permission, maybe encouragement. They do not strengthen the revolt as such. They certainly do not strengthen the forces in Syria who try to bould broad-based protests, demonstrations and so on, and who try to resist the increasing militarization of the struggle. Resistance coalitions like the Local Coordination Committees, for instance, may not find Qatari guns very useful. The arms end up in, you guessed it, armed insurgent’groups. Of course, there are strings attached. The Saudi and Qatari regimes detest the Syrian regime, not because it is an oppressive dictatorship – they operate an oppressive dictatorship at home - , but because it opposes their ambitions and religious preferences. The Saudi state stands opposed to Iranian regional ambitions, and therefore considers Iran’s ally Syria, as an enemy as well. Both the Saudi and Qatari monarchies encourage a conservative Sunni identity, which stands opposed to the ostentatiously secular Syrian regime with its Shiite friends in Tehran and Lebanon. Both these monarchies tend to support, not ’the Syrian opposition’, but the most right-wing, Sunni-based Jihadi forces within the revolt – with all the sectarian dynamics this implies. The Telegraph gives interesting details. Saudi support mainly goes to such forces within the Free Syrian Army. Qatari support tends to go to groups outside the FSA umbrella, independent Jihadi groups. There is a bit of competition between those regimes. But both work in the same direction: towards replacement of the Assad dictatorship with a conservative Sunni-dominated Jihadi regime, hostile to Iran. Where these kind of right wing forces are strong – in Homs - members of the Alawite minority feel threatened and insecure, with good reason. Many Alawites have already fled.

There may be even bigger interests at stake. Pepe Escobar describes an oil-and-gas connection. Syria was involved in a pipeline project connecting Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. This would leave Western ally Turkey out of the loop and without the loot to go with projects like these. And it would help Iran, which is not what Washington wants. Now, it would be simplistic to say: aha, so that is why the US and Turkey wants Assad to go! To put a stop to this project that harms US and Turkish interests! But that the thing is wholly unconnected is not very credible either.

What all this US, Qatari, Turkish, Saudi activity amounts to is a serious effort to derail the revolt, instrumentalize it and turn it intio a proxy war against Syria and against Iran as well. The more intervention like this there is going to be, the weakar any prospect that anything positive comes out of the struggle becomes. A Western-backed, Saudi-and-Qatari-armed, well-organized insurgency may get rid of Assad for sure. But this wil not be liberation, only the replacement of one oppressive regime with another. The less Western interference, the more chance that this will not be the fate of the revolt. Supporting or encouraging Western intervention against the Assad regime is supporting a counterrevolutionary derailment of whatever liberatory dynamics the revolt may possess or have possessed.


Part 3:


Aug 10 2012 14:09

There is a third position on the Syrian events: opposition to Assad and to Western interference. This position also is unsatisfactory in its way to positive account of the revolt. Third and final part of the series.

There is a third position on the Syrian events, defended by, for instance, people from the Socialist Workers’ Party in Britain like Alex Callinicos and Simon Assaf, but also by an interesting left wing blog called Syrian Freedom Forever. The bare outline is summarized well by Simon Assaf:


The Syrian revolution has two enemies. Assad wants to crush it to remain in power. The Western powers want to hijack it to ensure an friendly government replaces him

. He is right about the two enemies. Buts as we will see, he underestimates a third enemy.

Basically, this position supports the revolt, generally called a revolution. In this, it agrees with the position above, defended by Proyect, Cole, etcetera: they also like to talk about the ’Syrian revolution’. But supporters of this third position combine support for the revolt with a clear opposition to Western intervention. They rightly see these kind of interventions – like the Lybian NATO precedent - as an effort by Western imperialism to ostenstatiously stand on the side of “democracy and freedom” against “dictatorship”, in order to regain ideological influence and hegemony on the enfolding movements that became known as the ’Arab Spring’. When revolt ended the rule of the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the US was seen as being on the wrong side. By supporting the Lybian and now the Syrian armed revolt they hope to be seen as freedom’s friend again. This will help them to recuperate strugges and and lead resistance forces in a more pro-Western direction, and will help if regimes produced by revolts have to decide whom to sell oil to and who to sell arms from. In other words, intervening in Libya and Syria is a form of business investment taken with a longer view.

This analysis is sensible, the opposition to imperialist intervention is welcome. Where this position errs is in its estimate of the revolt itself, and of the amount of intervention already taking place. Callinicos, Assaf and the maker of Syria Freedom Forever write as if Western interference is basically a danger in the future to be warned against, not yet a big reality. I think this grossly underestimates the extent of deliveries of arms, equiment and advice already going on for months. It underestimates the relevance of the location where nerve centres of the FSA are based: in Turkey, controlled by Turkey, a NATO alley;. Such headquarters means a place to train fighers, to fall back to if defeat looms, to regroup to fight again. It is a serious contribution Turkey – and by implication, NATO and its US leadership, even though the US holds back from more open and voluminous intervention – is already making. Turkey has established a base where assistance to the fighters is coordinated and monitored. I think now the revolt would survive when Turkey would not allow FSA its bases: the resistance is too strong, too locally-rooted, to be defeated by such things. But it would still weaken the fight from a purely military point of view. Turkish support of this kind is one of the forms of intervention going on for more than a year now. This underestimation of the amount of intervention also characterizes the supporters of position two, the likes of Cole, Woodward and Binh. They find more intervention acceptable, while Callinicos annd Assaf warn against it. But both think that present interference amounts to not very much. I think they are wrong. And opposing intervention mainly in the future, while almost neglecting the intervention already taking place, is a rather weak form of opposing intervention.

They are also wrong in their rather positive picture of the revolt as a whole. For instance, SWP writers talk about “mass strikes” being part of the revolt. But the specifics of these strikes do not point to workers’ action, but mainly to shops and businesses closing ther doors for one or more days. Youtube videos with empty streets with texts like ’General Strike’ probably show business shutdowns like that. It is not always even clear wether they do so as a form of protest by the business classes themselves, or whether they are forced to do so by FSA fighters. There have been civil disobedience campaign initiatives in December 2011, talk of a "Dignity Strike" in December 2011 and January 2012 on the website of the Local Coordination Committees, one of the main resistance alliances. Whether much remains of these forms of struggles, I do not know. Of course, strikes and similar actions are rather difficult in a civil war situation. And ofcourse, there are different forms of workers’ struggle. But the suggestion implied in the word “mass strikes” that there is a strong element of specifically workers’ revolt is, I am afraid, wrong.

There are other aspects of the rather too positive picture these people are painting of the events. Sectarian dynamics, attacks on minorities, on non-Sunni communities like Alawites, execution and mistreatment of prisoners, are not denied. But they are not given much attention either. That FSA fighters don’t just fight the armed regime forces, but also take revenge on people suspected of sympathizing with the regime; that parts of the resistence use bloodthirsty rhetoric against not just regime sypporters but against whole communities thought integrally to support the regime – the Alawites most of all – is not totally ignored. But it is treated as the sort of information that hurts the support the revolt deserves, and therefore not emphasized as it should be. The fact, however, is that these disagreeable aspects of the revolt are not minor incidents. They are logical practices for future bosses. They are symptomaticof a right wing of the revolt, a wing that is at the same time the deadly enemy of its liberatory potential. And this right wing is not a minor force; on the contrary, it is quite strong, and it seems to be growing.

This is the rational kernel in the otherwise despicable position of many of Assads ’critical’ defenders: however horrible Assad may be, strong elements of the insurgency are no improvement. The revolt has not just two enemies: Assad and Western imperialism. It has a third enemmy: right wing forces operating inside the revolt, whether connected to outside reactionary powers or not. It is not totally irrelevant that many of the high-rank defectors of the Assad regime reappear to pronounce their support for the revolt – from exile in Qatar of all places, of all counterrevolutinary regimes in the region one of the most horrible. What kind of revolution is this, with a military base in Turkey, and two of its main sponsors the Saudi and Qatari regime? Asad Abu Khalil, on his blog the Angry Arab, asks questions like these, and gives item after item illustratiing these reactionary elements – and they are much more than just ’elements’ - in the revolt. He exaggerates where he paints the FSA as almost only an Saudi/ Qatari / US proxy force, and misses some of the more positive things happening. But he should be taken seriously, as he is at the same time an opponent of the Assad regime and cannot stand its apologetics.

Yes, there is more to the revolt than the FSA; there is also the LCC, building community resistance. And no, the FSA is not just the sectarian outfit that for instance the Angry Arab says it is. But large parts of the FSA are sectarian outfits, and the various Jihadi groups outside it certainly are. That is not at all a reason to support the regime. But it should be a reason not to cheerlead the resistance as a whole, not talk about “The Syrian Revolution” as mainly a wave of progressive resistance. It is not. Yes, people had and still have very good and valid reasons to revolt. The rebellion has deep social roots, and resistance was and still is fully justified. But that does not at all mean that the dominant ideologies, practices and organisations now leading the revolt are just and supportable as well. They should be exposed and opposed just as ferociously as the regime should be exposed and opposed.