Uprising in Syria ― an ugly stalemate

Cartoon by Carlos Latuff.

Angered by the non-stop, one-sided propaganda on CNN and BBC World, usually a prelude to NATO bombing campaigns (including the six-month onslaught on Libya, the casualties of which are still hidden from the public) or direct occupations, I was asked to explain my views on RTV.

I did so, denouncing the promotion of the Syrian National Council by Western media networks and pointing out that some of the armed-struggle opposition were perfectly capable of carrying out their own massacres and blaming them on the regime.

There were doubts at the time about who was responsible for the massacre in Houla in May. No longer. It’s now clear that the regime was responsible.

That in no way invalidates my general point, but has led to a lot of confusion regarding my views, worried and sometimes angry e-mails from Syrian friends and outright slander (accusations of being an “Assad apologist”, just like pro-war idiots called us “Saddam apologists” during the run-up to the occupation of Iraq).

How can a six-minute TV interview be anything else but short and incomplete and given its context, too rhetorical to be of much weight? In fact, it was little more than a response to the news of the past few days. So it might be worth make a few points clear so critics have something to argue against.

From the start, I have openly and publicly supported the popular uprising against the family-run Baathist outfit that rules Damascus. I have been opposed to this regime ever since the Assad military coup that toppled its much more enlightened predecessor ― whose leaders and activists I met after the 1967 Six-Day war and who numbered in their ranks some of the finest intellectuals of the Arab world.

To be honest, I did not imagine Syria would erupt like Egypt, but was delighted when it happened. I hoped that the scale of the uprising, its evident popularity, would force the regime into negotiations and a jointly agreed plan to elect an Assembly that would decide on a new constitution.

There is some evidence to suggest that few within the regime did favour such a course, but very few. It was not to be. Stupidity and brutality, the two principal characteristics of the regime, could not be swept aside. They were institutionalised and Bashar Assad was convinced that any concessions would be fatal.

For many months the popular uprising was peaceful and its strength grew and grew, not unlike the first Palestinian intifada against their Israeli overlords. My views were clear: Total solidarity with the people. Down with the dictatorship. This remains my position.

There is nothing even vaguely progressive about this regime. But who will overthrow it and how? Not an unimportant question.

In Egypt, the mass movement conquered all because the military leaders had decided that they could no longer back Mubarak and there were fears that soldiers and junior officers might not obey orders. In major cities, the masses chased away the security apparatuses of the falling regime.

Once the US withdrew its support for the dictator, it was only a matter of time.

In Syria during the first period, the military high command held firm, built as it is on sectarian lines. Despite this there were some defections to the side of the people.

Once state repression was unleashed on a national scale, some within the country decided the peaceful nature of the struggle was no longer sufficient. The military and civilians close to the Western intelligence agencies were pulled out, just like in Libya.

The West began to prepare its government-in-exile, using Turkey as its principle relay and Saudi Arabia and Qatar as subsidiaries. The opportunity to weaken the Iranians was too good to be resisted and as a special bonus, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the only force in the Arab world to have politically defeated Israel twice, would be gravely weakened.

(Here one could argue that if a new census ― the last was in 1936 ― was demanded it would change the political map of Lebanon overnight. But in the interests of “democracy”, the “international community” will not allow a genuine democracy to work on this coastal strip in the Middle East that they tore apart from Syria to maintain an imperial presence.)

Opposing Assad should not lead to backing a Western intervention and an imposed regime on the Libyan model with a quick-fix election as a PR fig-leaf. And yet many important voices within the opposition at home feel that an intervention is now the only answer.

“Where is the ‘international community’?” they ask in plaintive tones. Others remain staunchly opposed to a Western intervention.

The exact balance of forces inside the country is not easy to judge from the outside and a mass movement with a common goal necessarily requires that differences among themselves are not highlighted.

But, as in Egypt, once the euphoria of the uprising and its success in getting rid of a hated despot evaporates, politics emerge. What is the strongest political force in Syrian politics today? Who would be the largest party in parliament when free elections take place?

Probably the Muslim Brothers. In that case, the experience will be educative since neoliberalism and the US alliance are the corner-stone of the “Turkish model” that Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi seeks to emulate.

For half of the last century, Arab nationalists, socialists, communists and others were locked in a battle with the Muslim Brothers for hegemony in the Arab world. We may not like it (and I certainly don’t), but that battle has been won by the Brotherhood.

Their future will depend on their ability to deliver social change. The Egyptian and Syrian working class have played a huge part in both uprisings. Will they tolerate neoliberal secularism or Islamism for too long?

The Palestinians who demonstrate for social justice against the Palestinian Liberation Organisation puppet regime and are beaten by uniformed security thugs of the PLO and the Israeli Defense Force are a sign that the turbulence might not be easily contained.

A NATO intervention would install a semi-puppet government. As I argued in the case of Libya, once NATO entered the fray: whoever wins the people will lose. It would be the same in Syria.

On this I am in total accord with the statement of the Syrian Local Coordinating Committees published on August 29 last year.

What will happen if the present situation continues? An ugly stalemate. The model that comes to mind is Algeria after the military, backed strongly by France and its Western allies, intervened to stop the second round of an election in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) were going to win.

This resulted in an attritional civil war with mass atrocities carried out by both sides, while the masses retreated to an embittered passivity.

This is why I continue to insist that even at this late stage a negotiated solution is the best possible way to get rid of Assad and his henchmen. Pressure from Tehran, Moscow and Beijing might help achieve this sooner than the military posturing of Turkey, its Saudi allies and their surrogates in Syria.

[Abridged from Counter Punch.]


Tariq Ali’s article on Syria (GLW 19 Sept) illustrates the irrelevance of most western Trotskyists to the dreadful conflict in that country. ‘A plague on both your houses’ is his message. In the grand tradition of claiming the high moral ground from the sidelines, Tariq neither supports the Syrian government nor imperial intervention. This equanimity is reinforced by the cartoon, which suggests a moral equivalence between Presidents Obama and Assad: one the imperial leader with the largest armies on earth, the other the leader of a small former colony. “There is nothing even vaguely progressive about this regime” Tariq proclaims, dismissing the most multicultural and religiously tolerant nation in the region, with universal free education and health. Nothing to defend, they can all go to hell. Intervention is a disaster and the insurgents are ‘perfectly capable of carrying out their own massacres and blaming them on the regime’. This is ultra-leftism without an ethical compass. The article is really an apologia by Tariq to those who complained about his earlier doubts about the Houla massacre. Now, apparently on the basis of UN statements, he asserts: “the regime was responsible”. Well, no. Anyone interested in Houla can see my article (Google: ‘Syria’s ‘false flag’ terrorism, Houla and the United Nations’). Tariq’s line of reasoning is backed by a classical ultra-left assumption: post-colonial nation-states are worth nothing. Being a compromised project, the Syrian nation-state can be swept away. No matter if an imperial puppet or Iraq-style sectarian chaos takes over, because some abstract popular movement or working class will, later on, have its day. There is a veneer of democratic sensibility, which recycles some Syrian National Council myths: “I hoped the scale of the uprising”, Tariq says, “would force the regime into negotiations and a jointly agreed plan to elect an Assembly that would decide on a new constitution ... It was not to be”. In fact, Syria did hold a referendum in February this year (57% participation) which adopted a new constitution, removing the Baath Party monopoly and introducing a multi-party system. The FSA tried to enforce a boycott; they have never had any interest in negotiations. Never mind the new constitution, never mind defending the secular state, Tariq’s lines are the same as those from Hilary Clinton: “Get rid of Assad and his henchmen”. But this war is not about the survival of Bashar al-Assad, it is about the survival of a multicultural and independent Syrian nation. How different is the Latin American reaction. All the left states back the sovereignty of the Syrian people, a political process led by the Syrian government and the territorial integrity of the Syrian nation. They have linked their analysis to some ethical principles. Tim Anderson