Syria, imperialism and the Left (3)

Derde deel van mijn serie over Syrië, al geplaatst op Libcom.

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 on this 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.

6 reacties op Syria, imperialism and the Left (3)

  1. NoalCalcioModerno zegt:

    Bedankt voor dit zeer uitgebreide artikel. Het geeft toch flink wat meer inzicht op dit thema

  2. Brian. S zegt:

    I’ve made my main response over on Part I,so just a few local points here.
    1. There is plenty of evidence that the core of the Syrian rebellion are the popular classes.
    2. If there is so much “intervention” into the Syrian struggle how come some FSA units are running out of ammunition?; why are they dependent on machine guns to try and counter MIGs? Why do they have to depend on home-made explosive devices to deal with tanks?
    3. You suggest that the FSA is controlled by Turkey, but the source you link to says ” Inside the camp, the FSA commanders and soldiers are confined by the Turks and have only limited contact with the FSA inside Syria.” Doesn’t that sound like Turkey holdling the FSA back ? (By the way, Apaydin is a refugee camp)
    The problems of sectarianism and brutalisation of the rebel forces are very real: but what exacerbates them is not an excess of foreign intervention but the dearth of it. Give the Syrian rebels (the largest group of whom are former civilian oppositionists) the weapons they need to counter Assad’s armour and planes and the sectarian elements in the opposition would be marginalised.

  3. peterstorm zegt:

    “Give the Syrian rebels (the largest group of whom are former civilian oppositionists) the weapons they need to counter Assad’s armour and planes and the sectarian elements in the opposition would be marginalised.”That depends on who will be doing the giving. If Western states like Qatar and Saudi rabia are the donors, the weapons will strengthen their friends. if the US gives the weapons, these will strengthen pro-US forces, and makes them more dependent on the US – and more friendly when they are in charge.

    I am not saying that Turkey contrls the FSA; I even say explicitly that the FSA would survive the dismantling of their Turkish base. But is DO sy that the Turkish based facilities are a form of intervention in the event; trying tio hold back the FSA is also a form of intervention; it shows that Turkey is trying to be in charge, even if it does not fully succeed.

    Finally, I know that the backbone of the revolt is formed by the popular classes. I say as much above: ” The rebellion has deep social roots, and resistance was and still is fully justified. ” That is not the point a that our opinions differ. My point is that Western aid/ interference would lessen, ot deepen, the aspects of popular revolt that are at play. It would strengthen reaction, and imperialism.

    • Brian. S zegt:

      Apart from a few small groups, The Syrian fighters aren’t divided into pro-US, pro-Qatari, pro-Saudi forces – they are all first and foremost pro-Syrian: but with different programs for Syria , and dependent on different patrons because of the military imbalance. End that imbalance and you end the influence of the patrons Sure, serious western assistance would be intended to secure western influence – and for a time it might. But concurrent with any rise in such “influence” would be another process – increase in the capacity and initiative of the FSA. How would that “strengthen reaction” – why would properly armed fighters be more prone to external influence than poorly armed fighters?
      There might be some initial gratitude to whoever helps out, but once the strengthened rebel forces have secured the downfall of the regime and the “deep social roots,” of the revolt begin to express themselves, your “influence factor” would have the the life expectancy of a snowball in July. I accept there is a danger that foreign backers will try to promote factional divisions and create longer-term dependencies, but the risk of that is strictly proportional to how drawn-out the struggle is. The only way forward for Syria from this perilous situation is through the victory of the revolution – and the quicker and more cleanly that happens the better, even if it means taking out a short-term lease with the devil.

  4. peterstorm zegt:

    I agree that the quicker the regime falls, the less the distortions, the less the damage sectarianism is doing, the more chance that things work out not too bad. But even there, I think more aid has counter-effects, in the wrong direction – effects you recognize as well although we disagree about the impact. And I do not even think that (more) military aid is necessary for the FSA fighters to win, and to win rather quickly.

    Your question:”how would properly armed fighters be more prine to external influence that poorly armed fighters?” Simple. With proper arms comes the need for replacement equipment and abova all, training to use them. That means advisors, from the arms-delivering countries. That means quite concrete lines of dependency and influence (“do as we say, or our advisors go away”). It also means selection: “who gets the arms, whom do the advisors advise, and in what direction?” Do we want the CIA in that position?

    There is a deeper thing. I do not think that the victory of the revolt depends on more arms from the outside. I think it depends on politically breaking support away from Assad, for instance, stop any signs of anti-Alawite bigotry from parts of the FSA, so that Alawis can stop supporting Assad without the fear of being slaughtered by the other side if Assad loses. This fear is one of Assad’s strongest weapons, and the FSA could do MUCH more to take that weapon away. Unfortunately, the aid they get and seeek from Saudi and Qatari sides exactly works the other way: it encourages Sunni jihade – i.e. anti-Alawi – dynamics. Outside support – most likely CIA in coordination with Saudi and Qatari regimes – again, is not helpful here.

    Another political weapon of the opposition: encouraging mutiny and defection – a way forward that already brought the rebels more and more – and more sophisticated – arms as well. More arms from the outside makes this process less important – why seek dangerous defections to get arms, when Qatar delivers? And it plays in the hands of pro-Assad voices who say “look who ’s arming these guys! Obviously an imperialist plot!” THis is helping Assad, even if that is not the a intention.

    To summarize. Outside help is dangerous and counterproductive, if you want something liberatory to arise ut of the ashes, as we both obviously do. It is also unnecessary for the revolt’s victory. As I see it, the regime is beyond repair, and the end may not be that far off. – because of the inner rottenness of the regime itself.

  5. Brian. S zegt:

    As you say we agree on the risks involved but not their relative weight. You ask “Do we want the CIA in that position(of controlling arms supplies)” I think this reflects the confused thinking of the left – we have turned the CIA into a bogeymen who we are expected to run away from at first sight. But in reality the CIA spends as much time in the dark as it does in the driving seat: We should ask how effectively will the CIA be able to use control of arms supplies to influence the struggle. I think the answer is “not much”. The Qataris and Saudis have been able to build up patron-client relations with particular groups, reinforced by religious ties. The US has no such linkages. And what we are talking about primarily are not the supply of small arms, which is not the main problem for the rebels, but the availability of anti-aircraft weapons. I’m not a specialist so I don’t know the details of how much training these require – but early on in the Libya revolt the rebels managed to pick up a discount SAM of some sort (probably in an Egyptian bazaar) and promptly shot down a jet (unfortunately one of their own). So they need a bit more training than that – but it doesn’t seem to be that complicated. You’re right about the fragility of the regime: but currently its able to hide behind its monopoly of airpower and armour and avoid being forced to face reality . Take that away and I think there’s a fair chance it might crack open. But then the conflict would move towards a relatively quick resolution and your anxieties about US influence would not have time to develop.
    Have you read the ICG report?
    http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/128-syrias-mutating-conflict.pdf
    Something for both our arguments here.

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