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Syria: neo-anti-imperialism vs reality

October 18 2012




Much leftist analysis of Syrian events is trapped by a dogmatic outlook that combines a warped view of geopolitics with inattention to local realities, says Vicken Cheterian.

Why are there no demonstrations in Paris against the violence in Syria? A friend who knows the French anti-war movement went on to supply an answer: because the French left is deeply divided between those who support the popular revolt and many others who see in the Syrian regime the last anti-imperialist Arab regime.

This confusion is not limited to France. The same can be said about the anti-war movements in Britain or Australia (where in Sydney, as Syria’s air-force and artillery was pounding the poor neighbourhoods of Aleppo, demonstratorsdemanded: “hands off Syria!”). This internal divide has little to do with what is happening in Syria or the region itself, and more to do with the left’s own deep crisis of vision and theoretical clarity.

When the “Arab spring” gained momentum in early 2011, there was rejoicing among leftist intellectuals, third-worldists, and self-declared anti-imperialists of various shades. A popular movement had overthrown two dictatorships (inTunisia and Egypt) which for decades – in the name of fighting against Islamist extremism – collaborated with western states and repressed their own populations. Over Bahrain, it now became easy to condemn a western-blessed Saudi intervention that helped suppress a popular movement calling for equal rights and democratic freedoms. But things got complicated in Libya, when the threatening approach towards and into Benghazi by Muammar Gaddafi’s military forces led to urgent calls for protection of civilians; this opened the way to Nato’s aerial power, with the Arab League and the United Nations providing the necessary justification.

The Nato campaign in Libya provoked a deep debate within the left. For a decade and more, the left had focused its efforts on opposing successive United States military interventions in the middle east. The protests against the Iraq war in 2003 were especially huge, with broad public opinion as well as the left disbelieving the official version that Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and alleged links with al-Qaida posed a danger, and (when these two arguments were discredited) that the war was all about bringing democracy to Iraq. For a large part of the western public, and even more beyond, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were triggered by efforts to maintain global domination, and in the case of Iraq to plunder the rich (oil) resources of the Arab and Muslim world.

In Libya, much of the left (if no longer of the western public) had the same attitude: this was an imperialist intervention that sought to control the country’s oil. Even those leftists (like Gilbert Achcar) who defended the right of Libyans to ask for outside protection in the face of the danger of immediate massacre, while remaining critical of Nato action beyond this criteria, were strongly attacked.

War vs revolution

Syria deepened the divisions of an already divided left. There is little agreement on how to describe events there “in the final analysis”. Perhaps it is a revolution already stolen by imperialist forces and their local agents (as Tariq Ali suggests), or could it still be a popular revolution by those demanding political freedoms who are being heavily repressed by a dictatorial regime?

The more sceptical attitudes towards the uprising in Syria are informed by a deep suspicion towards the west’s official policies in the middle east that draws on the experience of the last decade. This suspicion informs the reporting of some leading western journalists. Rainer Hermann, the correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote two articles on the Houla massacre of 108 civilians in May 2012, half of them women and children, that not only questioned the dominant narration but actually suggested that the killings were perpetrated by rebel fighters themselves.

Hermann relied on interviews with one or two “witnesses” in Damascus, and quotes the infamous Sister Agnes to support his argument about rebel violence, rather than doing any in-depth research himself; even the detailed United Nations investigation, based on dozens of interviews with eye-witnesses, was not enough to convince him to revise his exculpation of the Syrian authorities.

Such reporting leads Tariq Ali to accuse the rebels of committing massacres in order to provoke Nato intervention. Ali later qualified this, saying now there was now more doubt about which side caused the Houla bloodbath, without abandoning his overall analytical framework. Robert Fisk, the well-knownIndependent writer, similarly suggested after visiting the town of Daraya in late August 2012 that the massacre there (where some 500 people, mostly civilians or unarmed militants, were killed) was the responsibility of opposition fighters (see Yassin Al Haj Saleh & Rime Allaf, “Syria dispatches: Robert Fisk’s independence“, 14 September 2012).

Rebels vs Islamists-jihadis

A United Nations commission presented its findings on human-rights violations inside Syria in September 2012. More than twenty journalists attended a press conference in Geneva to discuss the report. But the discussion did not focus on the over 100 pages that charted abuses, violations, torture and summary killings; nor was a single question was asked about the Daraya massacre. More than half the questions asked were about a few paragraph in the report about the presence of foreign “jihadi” fighters in Syria. How many, where were they from, and were there a record of their human-rights abuses? (The answer to the last question was no, but questions about jihadis continued nevertheless). I was reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s remark that “a journalist is somebody who can’t distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation”.

It may be time to read, even re-read, Edward Said’s Covering Islam. Critical intellectuals did not believe US propaganda about al-Qaida’s links to the Iraqi regime prior to the 2003 invasion. Shouldn’t the same criteria be used in the case of Syria? The regime there has also justified its repression of the popular movement from spring 2011 by depicting it as the work of”Salafis” and “foreign agents” funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France, Britain and America. A similar scepticism about the Syrian authorities and their claims would be welcome.


The classical leftist thinkers were always conscious of the interrelation between local struggles and the international balance of forces. Their modern successors tend to separate the two levels. So the Arab revolutions are read in isolation from what is going on the global level, as if the enduring crisis of capitalism that erupted in 2008 (or even globally-relevant factors such as food and water crises) has no connection to events. The result is to neglect the possibility of seeing the Arab revolutions as representing a new “weakest chain” in a fracturing system. Today, there is an urgent need for critical views that link local struggles to global politics and aid understanding of the dialectical relations between them.

Tho left-leaning intellectuals who see the problem in Syria in terms of US-supported “Islamists”, or through categories of inter-confessional regional struggle between Sunnis and Shi’a – but not the regime of Bashar al-Assad – have abandoned analysis of the local dimension of the events to keep only its international one. They lack any understanding of the Syrian events in terms of class or as a revolt against injustice, repression, and censorship. Instead, their self-satisfying geopolitical reading sees only a struggle between a US-led effort to impose imperialistic order and a last-ditch Arab resistance supported by Russia and China.

An illustration of this attitude is the French Communist Party newspaperL’Humanité’s interview with the Lebanese scholar George Corm, where his response to a question on the Arab spring is socio-economic (referring to youth unemployment and demands for political opening) but to one on Syria isconcerned only with regional and global power struggles.

This “anti-imperialist” reading of Syrian developments has clear limitations. It finds hard to explain why after eighteen months, Nato airplanes have not intervened, even after Syrian air-defences shot down a Turkish F-4 fighter-bomber on 22 June 2012 (which might be thought a perfect pretext for direct action); why, if there is a “universal conspiracy” to overthrow al-Assad’s regime, this would be deterred by a Russian veto; or why the conspirators don’t supply opposition fighters with missiles such as portable anti-aircraft Stingers (as the then US administration gave to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s).

Gilbert Achcar’s criticism of the Syrian National Council and its hopes for Nato aerial support is more to the point than simplistic views that see intervention as the essence of the conflict. The details of the struggle inside Syria are the best antidote to such views, which can only be sustained by adopting rhetoric that abstracts from the reality on the ground – and thus makes it easy to attribute massacres like those at Houla or Daraya to opposition forces without close inquiry.

Class vs anti-imperialism

The gradual abandoning of analysis of internal social developments as the engine of major political events such as revolutions has deeper roots. For most of the past century the Soviet experience, and Marxist perspectives on class, was dominant among leftist intellectuals. The collapse of the Soviet Union shattered their certainties and undermined the analytical foundations of their alternative world-vision. But even more fatal was their failure to engage with the consequences of the Soviet collapse, and to ask pertinent questions. How to explain the collapse of such a state without apparent internal or external pressure; what does its end reveal about the past Soviet experience; why didn’t the Soviet working class mobilise itself to defend its social rights when a political opening permitted this; why didn’t the Russian working class resist on more than individual factory levels against the massive privatisation under Boris Yeltsin?

The collapse of the Soviet Union should also have led to a questioning of the model of progress that the Soviets established, with its basis in the capture of the state by a small vanguard as the foundation of socio-economic development; and of “progressive” regimes in the “third-world”, including those such as in Libya and Syria that would inflict a bloodbath rather than leave.

The legacy of the silent rusting of older instruments of analysis (including class struggle, and workers as a revolutionary class) is to leave the geopolitical dimension as the sole usable framework. The world is again imagined in quasi-cold-war terms, with a mindset that echoes the outlook of some of Washington’s hawks. The US invasion of Iraq and US policy in Syria seen in the same indiscriminate terms. This anti-imperialist view also has the problem of being unable to find a worthy opponent to western imperialism: Vladimir Putin’s Russia can be considered “progressive” as little as Syria or Iran (the grisly record of Syrian Ba’athism includes invading Lebanon in 1976 to support the right-wing Phalangists and repress Palestinian guerrillas and the Lebaneseleft, one example among so many others).

The Syrian conflict is evolving in an international context, understanding of which requires going beyond a dogmatic, simplistic geopolitical reading by those whose Godot-like “waiting for the imperialist invasion” would be black comedy were it so tragic. Meanwhile, the massacres continue.

Originally published by Open Democracy

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