Syria, imperialism and the left (3)
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 andSimon 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 andJanuary 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.