Syria, imperialism and the left (3)

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.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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.


steve y
Aug 12 2012 08:53

Peter - your 3 piece article is a breath of fresh-air in a world of revolutionary confusion. I had the same approach to the Libyan events, and anyone who says Libya is now a bourgeois democratic state that is better than Gadaffi's dictatorship is dreaming. But like Iraq, in Libya the oil is now flowing freely via Western, mostly US companies, protected by oil/western paid mercenaries - and both countries are in a total shambles of infighting, the masses unable to demand their oil resources.

In 2006 two weeks after Israel invaded Lebanon with massive forces, I wrote 'Lebanon, Syria, Iran and the Coming Imperialist Re-Division of the World.'

It expands on what you write about above in terms of Libya and Syria being proxy-wars - and despite 6 years of conflict has proven to be a useful projection of what has happened and is going to happen. With one proviso - I, and no one else, couldn't foresee the victory of the Hezbollah in the following two months, which put back US-led global plans for quite some years - it scared the shit out of the US and allies. The rest of the article is quite prophetic really.

At the time I was an anarchist at heart, and didn't realise my other research was already anarchistish. So in the conclusion I went for a broad left anti-sectarian Marxist line, which didn't and couldn't hold water.

solidarity - stevey

Aug 12 2012 17:49

Yes this text is a useful contribution to our understanding and seems to draw some sensible conclusions, but I wondered about the framework that was chosen to get there - that is by a critical reference to the different 'positions' adopted by the various, mainly trotskyist/social democratic influenced political groups.

All these groups start from an aspiratrion (however delusional in practice) to become the leadership of the working class and a future national government (or at least a significant influence upon government). In competition with their rivals for influence they seem to think that they must have a 'position' on every conflict and issue of the day. It's not as though the actual parties in conflict seek their support in the first place perhaps because in practice such 'support' rarely amounts to anything more than cheering from the sidelines. In terms of influencing current government policies for or against 'intervention', military or non-military, such groups are powerless.

In the rare situation of such a trotskyist influenced group being in any position of power they of course act just like all the other capitalist governmentrs they criticise (eg Ceylon as was).

PS: On a matter of presentation I think the text would have been better posted in one go as it seems any relevant discussion will now be split up accross all three posts.

Aug 13 2012 17:10

Excellent 3 part report first of all with some very useful references. I agree with the overall thrust of an inter-imperialist free-for-all spreading through the region with Iran a pivotal concern. I agree with the origins of the strength of the social revolt as part of the dynamic of uprisings against oppression, unemployment, prices, etc. But these elements have been and are, what remains of them, largely overwhelmed by the various, sometimes centrifugal imperialist tendencies. At the same time the FSA and other opposition forces are being more tightly integrated into those same imperialist tendencies. I also agree that while there are economic interests - the oil line and Turkey for example, the overall rational, if you can call it that, is geo-strategic placing the interests of Syrian imperialism with those of its "allies" (from Hamas to Russia and China) against those of loca land wider imperialisms - putting the UK, France and elements of the EU on the side of the US.

I support this position as a clear example going towards of the defence of working class internationalism.

Groups like the SWP in Britain perform a useful role for their own state in being a "critical" voice supposedly putting forward a working class perspective. It further muddies the waters for any workers seeing the role of their "own" imperialism. The idea that "mass strikes" are taking place in Syria now is part of the process of leftist confusion of what is the class struggle. As Spikey says, these leftist groups aspire to some form of national power in their own countries and the SWP's particularly slippery position is an example of this.

Aug 13 2012 22:42

Thanks for the feedback, steve y and Spikeymike. On the last point: posting it as one piece would have meant that it would be a very long piece, a bit much to read in one go. So I took pity on my poor and tired readers, so I split it up in three...; ) But I understand that that decision has its downside.

On Syria being a proxy war: yes, it is - but only partly. My objection to any form of pro-revolt intervention lies there: it strengthesn this proxy war dynamic, it smothers the remaining elements of seriious revolt from below that are still there. There is a proxy war going on - but not just a proxy war.

On the framework of my presentation. There is a personal side to this. I come from a Trotskyist background, before (re-)turning to anarchism. In pieces like this, I polemicize to make clear what is wrong with that kind of policies - policies I held dear for a long time. It helps me clarify the mind, and hopefully, it helps a few others, too.

Besides, these ideas are influential in circles where libcom kind of people - anarchists and so on - are active. Better to take these ideas seriously and tackle them as such. Come the next bigger war (Syria-annex-Iran-annex-Lebanon?), there will be protest and resistance, and Trotskyism will be at the forefront of this struggle. Our role, then, is, taking part in struggle as well where and how this makes sense, and at the same time exposing and criticizing Trotskyist ideas that push struggle the wrong way. Therefore, I thing this polemical framework that I used makes sense.

Aug 13 2012 22:48

And thanks Baboon as well, I only saw your comment after I posted mine. Question: I think I see what is wrong wirt th the SWP position: it creates illusions, it hypes struggles as more than what they are. What I am less clear about is how the SWP position is helpful for the British state (and by implication, the general IS tendency position is helpful for the particular states a particular IS group is active in). Can anybody clarify?

Aug 14 2012 21:18

I haven't followed it much for some time but the main use of the SWP to the British state has been its unwavering support for democracy as part of the mobilisation to get workers into the polling booths - "critically" of course. Its other major use to the British state has been its support for trade unions, particularly at a time, in the 70s and 80s, when many workers were raising serious questions about whose side the unions were on.

In relation to imperialism, then the positions of IS would have to be examined locally.

"The best hope for who want to see the imperial powers brought down lies in the masses fighting their dictators in the streets of the Arab world" - so said Socialist Worker recently. And again, it sees the "rev olution" now spreading to Damascus and Aleppo. There's no revolution in Damascus and Aleppo now but imperialist war. This is typical of how the SWP used to approach long, isolated strikes with 'fight right on to the end', ''keep going, some fight is better than none" and the like. And they'd walk away from the exhausted, beaten and demoralised workers and go onto the next "struggle" that they could latch on to. Not that anyone much in Syria is going to listen to the SWP, but the working class here is being crushed by two major imperialist factions, lesser local powers and a whole gamut of nationalist or religious interests. This is no revolution.

Imperialist war has always been "class struggle" or "revolution" for the SWP for decades. And they obscure the position of their own bourgeoisie. They criticise "sections of the Tory right" for wanting intervention yet ignore the intervention of the British which began last year in relation to the various oppositions in Syria. They ignore the position of the Labour Party ("vote for them without illusions" at every election) which is identical to the Tories and that of the British state - undermine the Assad regime as part of a move against Iran.