U.S. Hands Off Syria! Victory to the Uprising!
For revolutionaries in the United States, there is no question that our primary responsibility in regard to solidarity with the workers and peasants of Syria is the need to organize against U.S. intervention. No other task is so crucial to ensure self-determination so that Syrians can win their battle for democracy, social justice, and genuine independence. It is only within that context that revolutionaries can take the next step and present to radicalizing workers in this country an analysis of the roots and prospects of the Syrian uprising.
The Marxist method is predicated on what Marx liked to call the “all-sidedness” of phenomena, the way in which all factors bearing on a situation need to be taken into account, both in and of themselves and in their interaction with each other. Nowhere is this method more needed than in the current case of Syria. Even after clearing away the lies of regime supporters and of the imperialists, the complex class structure of the country, the maneuvers of the regime at home and abroad, the diverse array of political forces on both sides of the dispute (as well as straddling the fence) makes facile sloganeering even more useless than normally.
We start from three basic premises in relation to the uprising:
1. The economic exploitation of Syria’s workers and peasants by its ruling class, a class subservient to global capital, and the horrific oppression and murderous policies of the Syrian regime to enforce that exploitation, mean that we stand with the Syrian masses in their uprising against the regime. We take note of their heroic steadfastness, repeatedly mobilizing tens, often hundreds-of-thousands, despite the sure knowledge that dozens will be shot dead each time they rally.
2. Syria today is ruled by a heinous dictatorship. The defense of the Syrian people against that dictatorship must begin with supporting their right to self-determination. This means that we oppose any and all imperialist threats of intervention, blockades, embargoes, and sanctions, not to mention the imposition of “no fly zones” or “humanitarian corridors.” The U.S. has no interest in the rights of the Syrian people, and the results of any intervention can be foretold by looking at the horrific misery now seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Haiti, and other countries where “humanitarian” interventions have occurred. Our support for self-determination gives us the standing to damn the Syrian dictatorship while pointing to the only forces that can truly free Syria—the Syrian masses themselves—forces organized independently of imperialism and its native supporters inside Syria.
3. We support the self-organization of the Syrian masses and encourage the revolutionary elements of the mass movement to build and strengthen organs of mass mobilization and decision-making. We encourage the formation of a revolutionary party to provide leadership and develop a program that can reflect the wishes and needs of the masses, a program that channels their potential to lead a successful revolution, and opposes both outside intervention and the derailing or betrayal of the revolution by homegrown bourgeois forces.
Revolutionary socialists support the right of the masses and revolutionary groups to mobilize, and indeed, to arm themselves against every dictatorship and especially against the well-armed Bashar al-Assad regime of torture, detention, and murder. We encourage the mass organizations to turn individual or small group defection into a consciously organized splitting of the army, with radicalizing rank-and-file soldiers and lower-rank officers joining neighborhood and workplace-based committees to form self-defense squads for the revolution. These squads would unite not only to oppose the regime but also to prevent the consolidation of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) as a tool of imperialism, a goal being earnestly pursued by traitorous high-ranking officers in cahoots with the U.S. government.
We also note that a central motivation of Washington’s desire to manage Assad’s ouster either by diplomacy or by arms is to prevent the anti-Zionist policy that would surely result from regime change resulting from a popular uprising. For all of its rhetoric denouncing Assad’s supposed anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism, and complaints about his links to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, Washington knows that he (and his father) could be trusted not to mount a serious challenge to the key U.S. ally in the region, Israel. The Syrian regime even refused to try to reclaim the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.
Revolutionary socialists also stand for the right of self-determination for Syria’s Kurds, as we do in every country where this oppressed nation is denied its rights. Our support for the right of self-determination means that we leave it to the Kurdish nation to decide whether they wish to remain within the state of Syria (and Turkey, Iraq, Iran), or to set up a separate state.
In Syria, the Assad regime has repressed the Kurds and engaged in ethnic cleansing in Kurdish areas. Tiny concessions by the regime in the area of citizenship rights have not stopped Kurds from taking part in the mass demonstrations.
And as in other countries with Kurdish minorities, we note the danger of imperialist manipulation of their justifiable hatred of the regime that oppresses them, and note that this is an opportunity for the opposition to win the Kurds over politically by supporting the right of the Kurds to self-determination—up to and including separation. In that sense, the situation in Syria bears some resemblance to that of the Spanish Civil War when the Republic had an opportunity—one unfortunately neglected, given its bourgeois leadership—to paralyze the fascist forces by granting Moroccans the right to self-determination.
The Syrian uprising originated in the same interaction of resentment at economic suffering, and at tyranny imposed brutally to prevent revolt against such exploitation and inequity, as has been seen throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the economic policies of the U.S. and European ruling classes, and their enforcement of IMF-dictated poverty and austerity programs around the world, would realize that Assad’s neoliberal economic policies are perfectly fine with the West—as is the dictatorship used to enforce it. Yet Washington and its allies obviously consider that there would be advantages in putting an end to the Assad regime. As in Libya, what the imperialists desire is not jobs or justice for the masses but an opportunity to get more “boots on the ground” in a region rife with revolution since the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt broke out. In this they are wholeheartedly supported by their favorite client regimes in the Gulf Cooperation Council—i.e., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, etc.
Imperialism also gains some advantage by the fall of a regime in Syria, which, like other right-wing populist regimes in the region, has specialized in anti-imperialist and Zionist rhetoric, and even occasionally provided material support to carefully selected resistance groups. Such aid has been given with strings attached, of course, to ensure that resistance groups limit themselves to isolated attacks divorced from the kind of mass mobilization that would not only threaten imperialist and Zionist interests but those of the Syrian and similar regimes as well. Such “resistance” credentials, which have fooled all too many middle-class and Stalinist observers from afar, are but a cruelly duplicitous vestige of mass upheavals from the 1950s and 1960s, upheavals prevented from reaching consummation in full-blown revolutions by the seizure of power of such tyrants as Assad’s father.
Nor do Russia and China, which fund and supply Assad and are providing his main diplomatic cover, have any more interest in the rights and needs of the Syrian masses than Washington and its allies. They too are simply maneuvering for power, influence, and resources.
The danger of open, full-scale military intervention, as manifested in threats from Washington and its allies and puppets, has grown sharply in recent weeks, so much so that most observers expected the result of the February 24 conference of “Friends of Syria” to be a bloodthirsty threat of armed force against the regime. These “Friends” include all the major imperialist powers, one of whom, France, has been pushing for weeks for the creation of “humanitarian corridors,” i.e., areas of Syria to be conquered by troops from imperialist countries and/or from client regimes in the Gulf, ostensibly to allow free passage of food and medicine, but obviously designed to allow an imperialist army with a thin cover of “Free Syria Army” officership to roll into Damascus.
The traitorous heads of the Syrian National Council and the FSA went to Tunis to try to convince U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her ilk to invade and to recognize them as the “legitimate” leaders of the country. In these maneuvers, the “Friends” and their quisling allies have been greatly aided on the diplomatic front by the Arab League, the council for region regime heads.
But in the event, Washington was resigned to a final declaration from Tunis simply repeating its demand that Assad stop firing on his citizens and allow aid and medical relief into the country. In both an editorial and a news article the day after the conference, The New York Times claimed that both Washington and its allies “have ruled out military intervention.”
A post-conference analysis by Egyptian Nasserist politician Abdelhalim Qandil claimed that the U.S. “may even prefer the situation as it is: the Arab Syrian army worn out in a bloody war against the people. And the Syrian regime challenged and undermined, but not overthrown, because the West does not know exactly where Syria would be going after Bashar.” Qandil noted correctly that “the first to benefit from the demand for a foreign intervention is Bashar’s regime itself. An intervention harms the cause of the revolution and stains the reputation of its supporters.”
It’s not yet clear whether Washington’s relative rhetorical restraint in Tunis was simply cover for an inevitable military assault, or instead a genuine reflection of the strategic difficulties it faces given Russian and Chinese opposition and its own difficulties in ongoing wars elsewhere, current or pending. Naturally, opponents of war against Syria cannot afford to count on the latter.
Certainly, the U.S. government would love to have its hands free for an armed intervention—especially as the uprising is beginning to secure a permanent presence in the city’s major cities. The weekend before the Tunis conference, hundreds of thousands mobilized in Damascus for the funeral of a man killed by the regime. It is just this type of mobilization, which if prolonged will mean the certain death of the regime at the hands of the masses, that Washington hopes to forestall in favor of a “controlled” change of regime that securely places its puppets in power.
The need for intervention in Washington’s eyes is heightened by the fragmented and undependable state of the FSA. Rather than a coherent, disciplined fighting force, The Wall Street Journal noted, “Syria’s armed rebels appear to have only nominal unity under the umbrella of the so-called Free Syrian Army. Last year in Libya, by contrast, rebel fighters appeared to answer more directly to that country’s National Transitional Council.
“Though the FSA says it represents a mushrooming group of defected soldiers, opposition activists concede that several armed fighters—including local militias—are aligning with the dissident army by name only.” An SNC spokesperson admitted to The Journal that it needed help “to focus on reining in armed factions under the umbrella of the FSA. The responsibility of the SNC is to ensure that the groups on the ground are connected with each other and come under an integrated command.”
In a similar vein, on the eve of the Tunis conference, The New York Times ended an article on divisions in the opposition by noting that “exiled Syrian Army officers who formed the Free Syrian Army, based in Turkey, have stayed aloof from the council, and even they do not really control the many local militias that adopt the army’s name alone.”
And in Al Jazeera, Nir Rosen, who has interviewed armed anti-Assad forces, noted in mid-February that there is “no central or unified leadership for the armed revolution.” The FSA, he claims, is a name endorsed by “diverse armed opposition actors throughout the country, who each operate in a similar manner and towards a similar goal, but each with local leadership. Local armed groups have only limited communication with those in neighboring towns or provinces—and, moreover, they were operating long before the summer” when the mainstream media began to claim that the FSA was becoming a significant force and that defections from Assad’s army were swelling.
Rosen claims that the armed fighters are not Salafis or members of the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qaeda. They are devout, he says, but are fighting to defend their friends, their neighborhoods, villages or province. “Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood ideologies are not important in Syria and do not play a significant role in the revolution,” he claims.
Conflicting reports about the respective armed strengths and presence on the ground of the military forces of the regime, the opposition, and of external powers can be seen in a February 9 report by Voice of Russia radio examining claims by the Israel-based Debka Report. Debka had claimed that Qatari and British special forces were already aiding Syrian rebels. The VR account detailed claims, counterclaims, rebuttals and denials by all parties to the conflict about the presence of such forces, and noted the possibility that the claims were misinformation spread by the regime to excuse its poor military performance, or alternatively, were perhaps spread by the imperialist powers to justify more massive intervention.
Debka had even upped the ante by claiming that the presence of foreign special forces in Syria—and not just from Qatar and the UK, but from Israel, the U.S., and France as well—is an “open secret” and that they’ve been there since August of last year.
The political constellation of the opposition
The diversity of the FSA is a reflection of an even more diverse array of forces in the opposition, both internal and in exile. While the mainstream media’s claims that the internal opposition is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood seem unfounded (especially as it has had little organizational presence inside the country since the 1982 Massacre in Hama), the Brotherhood does seem to be the largest force in the mostly-expatriate Syrian National Council.
But it must also be kept in mind that just as claims of “Islamist” domination of Egypt’s revolution were designed to oppose its progress, in Syria such claims (including allegations that al-Qaeda has a presence) are used to justify outside intervention. What’s more, such claims parrot those of Assad, who has stepped up the policies initiated by his father of divide and conquer, pitting all the country’s sects and religions against each other—policies which led the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) from the start to stress their nonsectarian character. Of course, the longer the conflict drags on, the greater the danger of real sectarian divisions appearing (which, as in Iraq, would suit Washington just fine).
Inside Syria the repeated mobilizations, and material, medical, and self-defense support for them, are still in the hands of the LCCs, which, while they are in informal contact with each other, have yet to produce a national structure, much less speak with one political voice.
In a November 2 statement the LCCs stated their opposition to outside intervention, a policy that apparently has not been dropped. (In contrast, at a talk on February 22 at Columbia University, a representative of the Network of Arab-American Professionals claimed—in language eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric before the invasion of Libya—that grassroots forces inside Syria were clamoring for the SNC to secure imperialist intervention. The NAAP rep further justified such calls by denouncing the alleged presence of Russian and Iranian forces in Syria and their material aid to the regime and its military.)
There is also some presence of the revolutionary left inside the country, including Trotskyists as well as ex-Maoists, but it is unclear how big or influential such revolutionary forces are. One group from this milieu, the Syrian Revolutionary Left Tendency, whose declared purpose is to unite such forces, issued a statement in December 2011 hailing the call for a general strike. The Tendency called for the strike to be the occasion for unifying all opposition forces in action committees and noted: “The future of our people and of its country can only be decided on by the masses of our country. The mass general strike will lead there.”
The Tendency also counterposed such unified organizing to outside intervention, ending its appeal with the slogan, “Long live the Arab permanent popular revolutions!”—the very thing that Washington and its allies and clients fear most.
Can one be against intervention and for the uprising?
Repeating their stance vis-à-vis Iran, Iraq and Libya, some on the left in the U.S. have claimed that opposition to Washington’s war drive against Syria requires silence about, or even denial of, the crimes of Assad. This stance has been eloquently refuted by progressive Arab authors and activists and by the Arab masses themselves in pro-uprising rallies throughout the region.
Bassam Haddad, in his jadaliyya.com column, “An Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship in Syria while Opposing Military Intervention,” wrote that claims that opposition to the regime reflects “outside interests” are “empty and an insult to our intelligence.” He noted that calls for intervention came mostly from outside forces such as the SNC, not those inside Syria. Haddad recounted the presence of Syrian flags in Egypt’s Tahrir Square during the one-year anniversary rallies on January 25—flown to indicate support for the uprising.
In an interview with International Viewpoint, radical economist and activist Adam Hanieh stated that “in the case of Syria, it is clear that the Western states, Israel, and the Gulf countries want to see a more pliant regime, and this is partially motivated by a desire to undermine Iran’s regional influence (connected of course to Hizbullah in Lebanon).”
But he added, “The overall anti-imperialist sentiment remains strong among the Syrian population and the attempts by parts of the Left to smear the entire uprising as a stand-in for imperialism belies a Manichean worldview that badly misunderstands the country’s history. I don’t see any contradiction in opposing intervention and simultaneously being against the Assad regime—which, we need to remember, has embraced neoliberalism and consistently used a rhetoric of ‘anti-imperialism’ to obfuscate a practice of accommodation with both the U.S. and Israel.”
Another eloquent voice against such Manichean (or what we today call “campist”) worldviews is Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad, who in his Al Jazeera column, “Imperialism, despotism, and democracy in Syria,” wrote:
“Like Saddam, the Assad dynastic regime has been an ally of the Saudi theocracy and its junior Gulf partners, and an agent of U.S. imperialism in the region, especially in its major intervention in Lebanon in 1976 at the invitation of the Christian fascist forces who called the Syrians in to help them crush the leftist revolutionary movement in the country, including the PLO. … Moreover, the Assad regime again proved most helpful to its U.S. and Saudi sponsors when it joined the imperial coalition to invade the Gulf in 1990-91 under the U.S. flag. On the Zionist front, the Syrian regime proved as pliant as the Jordanian one, ensuring the security of Israel’s ‘borders,’ which Israel conquered and established inside Syria’s and Jordan’s own territories.”
Socialist Action could not agree more with those who, while mobilizing in broad united coalitions against imperialist intervention, look eagerly toward a revolution by Syria’s workers, peasants, students, and women. Without a revolution that puts political and economic power firmly within the hands of Syria’s working people, building a genuinely anti-imperialist, pro-social justice society is impossible.
—Socialist Action, February 25, 2012