Syria, imperialism and the left (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.