How Sections of the Left Came to Abandon Syria

by Martin Pravda, International Socialist Network, UK

On the same day as it was announced that the ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak will be released from prison following the massacres of hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, reports circulated that the Syrian regime under the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad had embarked on a chemical attack on its population. Disturbing footage quickly emerged of hundreds of dead and dying people in the opposition-controlled area of Ghouta just outside of Damascus. Images of some of the bodies showed skin turning yellow with visible white foaming at the mouth, proving the reports to be accurate. As the hours went on it emerged that over a thousand people had died as a result of being gassed. This was immediately broadcast across Western media outlets as international pressure once again built up against the regime.

These two abhorrent attacks in neighboring Arab nations may appear to have different geopolitical significance if you focus on the relationship the perpetrating regimes have with the West, particularly the US. While both massacres have been internationally condemned by world leaders, the situation in Syria has provoked further discussions about the possibility for Western intervention, whereas the Egyptian massacres have seen no such calls. Behind this contradiction is a hypocrisy inherent in any Western strategic move in the region: it is easy to envisage Western regimes making future political deals with the military in Egypt (underlined by the Obama administration's initial reaction to the bloodshed when they stated that "they don’t take sides"), while their relations with the Assad regime are historically much more inconsistent, and many governments such as the British have already publicly cut all ties. This contradiction also sheds light on why in the past Western governments have sometimes found themselves turning a blind eye to chemical attacks, but are now using it as a justification to potentially intervene.

For Syria, the prospect of further intervention is something they are very used to. The Assad regime could well have been toppled by the mass popular uprising long ago had it not been propped up by Russian arms. Last year it was revealed that Russia had arms deals worth around $1.5 billion with Syria, and in recent months the assistance from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah has turned the balance of forces strongly in favor of the Assad regime. This is backed up with unconditional political support, and it was no surprise when immediately after the attack a Russian official was quoted as saying the massacre in Ghouta was a "planned provocation" by the opposition.

With the clear political support that the Obama administration along with its Western allies have offered to the opposition, and the ever increasing prospect of greater military support in the future (with both Britain and France now threatening a "serious move" if Assad is proven to have used chemical weapons), it is clear that Syria is being used as a political football by competing global powers. There is no need to explain to a generation that has lived through the appalling destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade why these Western governments should not be trusted near any humanitarian crisis. More subtle perhaps was their attempt to curb the revolutionary wave in the Middle East and North Africa with their "humanitarian intervention" in Libya in 2011. What was initially proposed to the world as a relatively peaceful "no-fly zone" against Gaddafi forces ended in a full bombardment which resulted in strong accusations of NATO war crimes against civilian targets. 

As with the destruction we have already seen, the ramifications of global superpowers throwing further fuel onto the fires of the current humanitarian tragedy in Syria are likely to be disastrous. The tragedy of Syria has been spawned out of decades of colonial rule, followed by competing imperialist powers arming and funding both an oppressive and undemocratic regime and regional powers that are hostile to it. The only truly peaceful solution for Syria is one where such intervention and exploitation from forces outside are removed entirely. In this context it would seem that there is a very clear and obvious position for the left internationally to take, and this has not really changed since the initial uprisings against the regime: we should stand against all global powers that wish to intervene, escalate or benefit from this crisis, including those that are already intervening by propping up the current regime. This of course should go hand in hand with offering solidarity with those who are seeking real democracy, who are opposed to and are under attack by their callous dictatorship. On the surface this seems to be a principled perspective which the left should have no problem finding agreement on, yet sadly this is where a lot have got it so abominably wrong.

This was seen to be the case early on in the uprising for some influential figures in the anti-war movement. Often politically astute commentators such as Tariq Ali and Seumas Milne started writing off the opposition movement as ultimately hijacked by imperialism; this was well before the conflict fully descended into the armed civil war that exists today. Neither thought it was important to focus on the already ongoing imperialist intervention from Russia and others in support of the regime. Responding to this in a thorough analysis of the balance of forces on the ground last year, Richard Seymour highlighted how absurd it was that sections of the left were branding a relatively unprofessional and poorly armed opposition born out of a genuine popular revolt as merely forces for imperialism, while well-trained and heavily armed regime forces were slaughtering them in any confrontation. This essentially led to a bleak situation where leading figures on the left simply wouldn’t comment on Syria except when there was a perceived threat of Western intervention. A heavily armed and funded dictator went on massacring a popular revolt, and all the horrors which attach themselves to armed conflict mounted, and many on the left simply remained silent.

Leading figures in the Stop the War Coalition at times attempted to justify this silence by talking about the situation as if it were merely a war between the dominant US empire and anti-imperialist forces. They dismissed the significance of other global powers and their differing interests, and even more problematically the mass popular protests against the regime which were of course the initial catalyst for the conflict. John Rees, for instance, suggested that the central dominant power in the region is US imperialism alone, particularly through the power held by its allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey. He suggested that as a result, movements on the ground—which he accepted were popular and rooted from below—are essentially limited in what they could achieve; they can either be against Western intervention or in support of Western intervention, and this is how we should judge them. In making this point he placed a purist demand on those struggling against Assad: "Make it clear that [you] are opposed to Assad but also opposed to Western intervention and…also oppose those within the Syrian revolution who are calling for and taking arms from Western imperialism."

These demands were flawed for a number of clear reasons, and behind them lay a dubious and perhaps pernicious regard for the people of Syria. Firstly on the issue of the overarching dominance of the US empire, I have already discussed how this is not the only imperialist interest in the region: in the case of Syria, in terms of directl material contributions to the current conflict, US, British and French involvement is clearly far less than the economic and military support provided to the regime by Russia. It is of course true that the US has a strong grip over the region as a whole, particularly through its economic ties with the Gulf States, and notably Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime has been able to play a reactionary role throughout the Arab Spring, especially in Bahrain, where it used its military and economic weight to crush the uprising, and along with the US it has taken a position of support for the opposition in Syria. However, to suggest that Saudi support signifies complete dominance is to ignore important complexities in the geopolitics of the region. As Richard Seymour argued in a response to Rees, "these sub-imperialisms have interests of their own which, while tendentially confluent with the strategy of the US, follow their own internal dynamics." To give evidence of this he highlights how the Saudi regime initially backed Assad against the opposition but later switched sides as their direct interests changed. To argue that Saudi Arabia is merely a US bastion in the Middle East would therefore appear to be contradicted by their sometimes different approaches. The fact that the Saudi regime has close ties with sections of the opposition far from signifies US control over the opposition as a whole.

Of course it is right to be wary of US and allied global power, but it is also important to consider how uncoordinated they have at times been in their approach, and how this highlights possible weaknesses. Over the past two years the US has at several stages appeared to build up momentum towards some form of military intervention, but they have as yet not been able to move onto the next stage and turn it into anything materially substantial. This may be changing given the current pressure being waged, but their continual hesitance is potentially quite significant. Unlike in Libya, where the initial popular uprising was notably smaller and more regionally isolated, in Syria there were several protests of up to a million across the nation. The opposition to the regime—while now mostly fronted by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), ever since the conflict turned into an armed struggle early on—is a lot more diverse than Rees makes out, and the ideologies amongst it are difficult to epitomize. The FSA appear to have close ties with the West, as they unsurprisingly look to gain as much international support as possible, but the small number that Western governments are negotiating with far from encompass the entirety of those who have at some stage played a part in the opposition against the regime. These are of course harder to track down, as they are the mass of ordinary people who are rooted in communities which are now under an intense and sustained bombardment. They are an ideologically unknown entity, hoping to have their say in a post Assad Syria. This is I think one of the main reasons behind the West’s previous hesitance to fully involve itself; its control over the opposition is not absolute. This was underlined by a statement made last week by the Obama administration's chief military adviser, General Martin Dempsey, who argued strongly against intervention, claiming that the opposition does not necessarily support US interests.

John Rees is right to point out that most Syrians who are against the regime are also for some form of intervention. Who wouldn't honestly call for assistance when faced with the powerful and well-funded regime forces, the ruthless Shabiha torture squads, and the militia of Hezbollah? The one-sided "anti-imperialist" demands Rees places on the opposition are therefore knowingly abstract and unachievable. It also tangentially leaves him in a position which essentially sees a victory for the Assad regime as a lesser of two evils. In occupying this stance he of course chooses to neglect the matter of where this would leave ordinary Syrians. He does not consider the prospects of the millions who have shown public opposition to the regime, or those who are fighting it or under attack now. Nor does he take into account that the friends, neighbors or families of the hundreds of thousands already slaughtered are unlikely to settle for anything other than the removal of the blood-stained regime. He also neglects to consider how Syrians are actually supposed to improve their material conditions and move to greater democracy if Assad is to regain control. Given that his demands on the opposition are essentially impossible while Russia continues to support the regime, how are Syrians supposed to ever resist in the future? The gas attacks on Ghouta and the massacres which came before this have given us a glimpse of Assad's strategy to assert his control. I don’t see how any serious analysis can claim that Assad's crushing of the opposition would be beneficial for Syrians in either the present or the future, and the assertion that his overthrow would simply signify a strengthening of imperialism is a crude dismissal of the complexities which exist within and around Syria.

It is indeed important also to recognize that human rights abuses are being committed by some in the name of the opposition to the regime as well. As soon as the uprising turned into a civil war, there were always likely to be atrocities committed by those who claim to represent both sides. There have been brutal murders and several sectarian attacks against Alawites and Christians by some of the FSA and other groups opposed to the Assad regime, which of course the left needs to condemn. This sectarianism is born out of a regime which for decades has divided people against one another depending on ethnicity or religion, and before that French colonial rule which did the same, so it is sadly unsurprising that this has become a feature of the conflict. Importantly though, unlike the violence conducted by the regime, this sectarianism is not at all a consistent feature amongst all those who have stood in opposition. One of the most uplifting scenes from footage of the early protests was of banners and chants calling for unification between Christians and Muslims against the regime. It has also brought together marginalized groups that have been targeted by the regime, such as Palestinian refugees. This suggests that sectarianism is not at all inherent amongst the opposition, and this diversity suggests it can be potentially overcome. This of course is not something which can be said of the sectarian slaughter conducted by the Shabiha thugs under the control of the regime.

Given the severity of the damage that has already been inflicted on Syria, and the prospect of more to come as the threat of military intervention builds up, it will be far from an easy path to democracy even if Assad is overthrown. This will especially be the case if it is done under NATO bombs, as was the case in Libya. There is also a dangerous threat from violent sectarian groups who have sought to take advantage of the anger and despair. There are also undoubtedly reactionary elements within more powerful opposition bodies such as the FSA, as some of the human rights abuses have made clear. However, the fact that the opposition was born out of a mass popular revolt involving millions of ordinary Syrians demanding democracy is still significant. Their involvement at an early stage in this conflict will mean that many will feel in some way a part of an eventual overthrow of Assad, however detached they currently seem to be. For this reason, while Syria will be left devastated whatever happens in the coming months and years, and there will be severe dangers whatever the outcome, the prospects of a post-Assad nation is potentially far less bleak than one in which the current regime is able to fully assert its control.

Two years on, the anti-anti-Assad position continues to be pushed by large sections of the anti-war left. On the outbreak of the attacks on Ghouta, John Rees’s organization Counterfire published an article which aimed to discredit the opposition by showing links between British lobbyists and the Syrian National Council. There was no mention of the horrendous crimes which have been conducted by the regime. To anyone drawn to socialist politics through a desire to challenge inhumanity, one can only imagine what effect this abandonment of solidarity—for those forced to experience the atrocities in Ghouta—is going to have. It is a lamentable disgrace that sections of the left have abandoned Syria and those seeking democracy to a deadly dictatorship which they deem to be a lesser evil. Ironically, you can see the influence of an age where the ideologies of imperialism have seeped into everyday thinking  in those "anti-war" activists who think Syrians do not have the right to overthrow their own regime. 

The response to this article from those who continue to attack the anti-anti-Assad position will no doubt stress that there is now a very real threat of Western intervention, and that in this context to criticize the regime for human rights abuses is unhelpful. To this I respond that it is possible to be against further intervention, and at the same time not be against those who desperately seek a Syria without this deadly dictatorship. An "anti-war" position that does not condemn the massacres in Ghouta neither makes sense nor is credible.


This story first appeared Aug. 26 on the UK-based International Socialist Network.

From our Daily Report:

Syria chemical attack: rush to judgement
World War 4 Report, Aug. 21, 2013

'Anti-war' movement betrays Syrian people
World War 4 Report, June 13, 2012

See also:

Lessons from the Fight against Fascism
by Talal Alyan, +972 Magazine
World War 4 Report, April 2013

Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Aug. 27, 2013