Syria, imperialism and the left (2)
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.