John Rees looks at the balance of forces in the Syrian revolution and the role of the imperial powers.

Hillary Clinton

Imperialism wants regime change in Syria

‘We think Assad must go. The sooner the better for everyone concerned’, Hillary Clinton told ABC news at the recent Friends of Syria Conference in Istanbul.[i] This has been the consistent aim of the major powers since beginning of their attempts to intervene in the Syrian uprising. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, said that there is ‘no limit on what resources we can provide’ to help overthrow the Assad regime.ii And Hague is now using the continued systematic repression of the Syrian revolution as an excuse to increase aid to those sections of the opposition that are calling for Western intervention.

The West would have liked to have intervened directly and militarily in Syria, as they did in Libya. But so far they have been unable to do so. Why? Firstly, the Assad regime has proved to have a stronger social base than the Gadaffi regime. Secondly, the danger of igniting a long war in a state which borders Israel and Lebanon carries risks of creating a regional conflict which the Libya campaign did not. Thirdly, the Libya conflict took longer and resulted in a less stable settlement than the major powers imagined it would. Fourthly, anti-war sentiment in the US and Britain was opposed to the Libya intervention and remains opposed to a Syria intervention making military deployment risky in domestic politics. Finally, the major powers themselves are divided after the Libya intervention with China and Russia unwilling to see their influence undermined in a state with which they traditionally have strong ties.

So after the initial attempt to secure a UN resolution which would have paved the way for military intervention last February the US and its allies have increasingly turned to methods short of direct military deployment of their own troops to achieve regime change. These measures now amount to a covert war on Syria:


The US designated Syria a ‘state sponsor of terror’ in 1979 and imposed a series of sanctions at the same time. The Bush administration added to these in 2004. In the current conflict Barack Obama signed a new executive order, imposing sanctions on Syria’s energy sector and freezing all Syrian government assets in the US. But the US is not alone. The European Union, Britain, Turkey, Canada, Australia and the Arab League have all imposed sanctions on Syria. These have hurt the Syrian people more than the regime and are designed to prepare public opinion for more direct forms of intervention.

Military aid

Direct assistance to the Free Syrian Army is now significant. At the Istanbul conference representatives of 60 countries pledged financial assistance to the main Syrian opposition group. Hillary Clinton said the US has agreed to pledge an additional $12 million for a total of $25 million and to provide communications equipment to help the Free Syrian Army. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, who have become the organising centre for counter-revolution in the region since they led the crushing of the Bahraini revolution, are now promising to pay the wages of the Free Syrian Army. ‘A lot of officers are willing to defect’ a Saudi official who asked not to be identified told ABC news. ‘We’re saying you can keep your current post. If you’re a general now you’ll remain a general.’ [iii]

The Gulf States want to move immediately to directly arm the FSA but the US is cautious. The Syrian National Council says weapons supplies to the opposition are not ‘our preferred option’ because of the risk they could escalate the killing of civilians, but it appealed for technical equipment to help rebels coordinate their campaign.[iv]

Covert operations

US Republicans, like Newt Gingrich, are calling for the US to commit itself to covert operations in Syria. The Obama administration has refused to do so, but it is likely that such operations are in any case already underway. Wikileaks revealed a conversation between a member of the Strategic Forecasts (Stratfor) think-tank and high ranking US military officers in the Pentagon which they implied that ‘SOF (Special Operations Forces) teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce missions and training opposition forces.’[v]

Do the pro-intervention forces represent the Syrian revolution?

The forces among the Syrian opposition calling for Western intervention are not by any means the whole of the forces fighting the Assad regime. The Assad regime, despite its hostile relations with the US and Israel, is a brutal, dynastic dictatorship. The rising against it had the same roots as the risings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. All these revolutions demanded democracy and were a reaction to neo-liberal economic policies which have enriched the political and economic elites.

On the ground there are many Local Co-ordinating Committees that are run by genuine democratic fighters, some of them socialists, who want to pull down the regime but who also reject western intervention. Even the Free Syrian Army is not a monolithic grouping with one national leadership but a patchwork of local militias combined with elements that have defected from the Syrian Army.

The problem is that these forces do not have a powerful, single voice or an organisation which can stand up to the elements that are calling for intervention. The intervention of the imperial powers is constantly boosting the conservative forces at the expense of their rivals. The political prestige of the émigré elements that dominate the Syrian National Council was massively augmented by the Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul where 60 nations used all their power and diplomatic influence to magnify the pro-intervention message. The US and its allies, including Saudi Arabia, are using direct funding running to millions of dollars, including direct funding of the FSA, to buy influence among the opposition.

This is a particular example of a more general problem that arises in all revolutions: the dislocation between the popular forces that do the fighting and the political organisations that come to ‘represent’ them. Of course the German revolution of 1919 was not adequately represented by the Social Democrats that became the dominant political force and who then led the counter-revolution. And Khomeini’s supporters did not accurately ‘represent’ the forces that made the Iranian revolution in 1979, but they dominated it anyway. The same is happening in Syria, and the imperial powers are playing a direct role in making sure that it happens. There has only ever been one answer to this problem historically: the creation of genuine democratic institutions which represent the deepest and most committed forces of the revolution, the poor and the workers. This means popular councils, united into a national structure, and political parties representing an anti-regime and anti-imperialist programme. In the absence of this development activists in the West have one main priority: to weaken the imperial powers who are pushing the revolution in reactionary direction by increasing domestic opposition to their plans.

Why we say ‘the main enemy is at home’

If one is a militant in Syria then one’s main enemy is the Syrian regime. The second most important force that one has to fight against in Syria are those among the opposition who want to sell the revolution to the Western powers, the SNC and those in the FSA taking Saudi money. The militants taking this position deserve the full support of every socialist and democrat in the West, even if they are not the dominant voice of the Syrian opposition.

But if socialists and anti-war campaigners in the West limit themselves to expressions of solidarity with these forces they neglect to do the one thing which can practically help these militants. They neglect the one thing that no Syrian can do. They neglect dealing with the imperial government of their own country, the government which is expending all its effort to undermine, bribe and coerce the Syrian revolution into becoming a tool of the West.

Not only this. They would also be abandoning opposition to their own government. General calls of ‘Support the Syrian revolution’ are easily taken on board by the establishment in the US and the UK. They too, they say, want the Syrian revolution to win. It is only by demanding the end to the covert war in Syria that we turn support for the Syrian revolution into a genuinely radical slogan which is aimed at the heart of our own government’s policy as well as at giving what support we can to the genuine revolutionaries among Syria’s opposition.

In following this course we are learning from the great anti-war, German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht who coined the term ‘the main enemy is at home’ during the First World War. He refused to be swayed by those who told him that the Russian Tsar was worse than the German Kaiser, or that the British Empire was worse than the German Empire (although a fair case could be made for both propositions). He refused to accept this argument because he knew it would end up with German revolutionaries backing the German government’s war policy. This is exactly what is happening to those who demonstrate ‘for the Syrian revolution’ with banners supporting Western intervention.

But, if we compare our own situation with Liebknecht’s, how much less justified is backing the greatest tyrants of the earth against the petty tyrant in Damascus? No, we support all those fighting for real change against the tyrant in Damascus, but we will not wish on them the rule of the greater tyrants of Washington and London. And we will not do this because, if the imperial powers get their way in Syria, even by proxy, it will not be just Syrians who pay the price. Palestinians will pay if the imperialist powers get their way. Iranians will pay as the likelihood of an attack on their country becomes greater. Indeed, wherever revolutions occur in the region they will be weakened if the imperial powers get their way in Syria.


It is still possible that the stalemate that has prevented direct military intervention in Syria will allow the genuine forces of the Syrian revolution to regain the initiative and to defeat Assad without being corrupted by Western influence. We must all work to maximise this possibility, not least by combating the arguments for Western intervention. But this possibility is at the moment receding.

It is possible that the imperialists will use the failure, if it turns out to be such, of the Kofi Annan ceasefire and the continued brutality of the regime to return to the issue of direct military intervention. This is still a possible outcome.

It is also possible, perhaps likely, that there could be a transition to a regime which retains much of the old elite’s power but dumps Assad himself. Sections of the opposition, some of whom were part of the regime until recently, may accept this, as may Russia and China. This would mirror developments in Yemen where the US and Saudi Arabia engineered the stepping down of their puppet, President Salah, in favour of one of his henchmen.

What is vital under these circumstances is that those who want a thorough-going revolution regroup under the banner ‘the revolution continues’ and use the opportunity to rid themselves of the forces which are inviting the imperial powers to determine the future of Syria.











John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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