John Rees responds to recent discussions on Syria, imperialism and the Arab revolutions

Bashar Assad burns

Public debate has begun on whether imperial intervention has any significance in determining the course of the Syrian revolution and, by extension, the Arab revolutions as a whole.

Most informed commentators associated with the anti-war movement hold that while of course events in Syria have their own domestic dynamic there has developed a significant imperial dimension which is a threat to the continued progressive nature of the uprising. There are naturally differences of emphasis, some of them important, among this group but on this major issue the Marxist writer and activist Tariq Ali, Guardian columnist Seumus Milne, MP George Galloway, Iraqi exiles and analysts Sami Ramadani and Sabah Jawad, the Deputy President of the Stop the War Coalition Andrew Murray, the convenor of Stop the War Lindsey German and supporters of Counterfire are in broad agreement.

The opposite point of view has been expressed by Richard Seymour in a piece critical of Sami Ramadani (in the Guardian online), Simon Assaf in a debate with Sami Ramadani, and Alex Callinicos in an attack on Tariq Ali (the last two appeared in Socialist Worker).

This response to the debate does not of course claim to represent the views of those attacked: they are well able to respond, or ignore, the articles as they see fit. This is simply an attempt to reassert the centrality of imperialism to developments in the Middle East and to provide a framework for understanding the dynamics of the Arab revolutions.

Why the imperial structure of the world remains important for understanding the Arab revolutions

No part of the globe escapes the global ordering of power that exists in the international capitalist system. The concentrations of wealth and power, including military power, in the heartlands of the system are the key determinants of the overall patterns of exploitation and oppression in the world. Of course national peculiarities exist, of course no society is a direct emanation of the world system, of course revolts against this system rooted in local conditions occur. But to imagine that any of this happens without the accumulated structural limits and continued presence of imperial power is to take the wrong starting point.

There is a dialectical interaction between locality and system, but this relationship cannot begin to be investigated if the influence of the world system is reduced to nothing, or close to nothing. A number of contentions in the current debate tend to minimise the contemporary relevance of imperialism. Let’s look at them in series.

Richard Seymour believes that there is a ‘general weakening of US imperialism’.1 Simon Assaf thinks those who attach importance to the ‘manoeuvres of imperialism’ are working with outdated ideologies that have not caught up with the modern realities of the Middle East.2 The view of US imperialism as in decline is a dangerously partial view. It is true that economically the US is being challenged by rivals, most obviously China. But it is absolutely dominant militarily, far outstripping any possible combination of enemies including Russia and China.

Military spending by countryThis paradox – relative economic decline and overwhelming military superiority – is precisely what has made the US uniquely belligerent in the post-Cold War world. It has fought a series of conflicts designed to re-establish its global leadership by using its military strength to compensate for its economic decline. The wars are designed not only to defeat foes but to discipline allies – and in some cases to get allies who are weaker militarily to pay for US wars and thus rebalance the economic deficit from which the US suffers. The outcome of the Iraq war has been a geopolitical reverse for the US, but it has resulted in a neoliberal bonanza for US corporations often at the expense of European and other rivals.3

The idea that US imperialism is no longer interested in the Middle East, or no longer able to intervene there, is almost perverse. Let us leave aside the rather obvious fact that the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and the Libya air war have all been fought in this region and look at the US economic interests and growing military deployment in the area.

The Middle East remains central in geopolitical terms and economically. It has borders with Asia, Russia and Europe and has the vital Suez Canal and Straits of Hormuz at its heart. It should not need repeating that the world’s largest producer of oil is Saudi Arabia and that two more of the world’s 6 largest producers of oil are in the Middle East. This is also the easiest oil in the world to extract and therefore the most profitable.

Nothing about these facts had been altered by the Arab revolutions. Fuel exports for the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) economies amounts to 58% of their total exports. Manufactured goods represent just 17% of their exports. But the same countries import 50% of manufactured goods. MENA countries’ biggest trading partners for both imports and exports are the European Union, Japan, the US, South Korea and China. These are countries caught in the web of imperial economic structures. Their working classes may be growing, but they are growing in economies that have not escaped the global imperial power structure.

Neither have the countries of the Middle East escaped the military power of the US and its allies. We live in a more multi-polar world than during the Cold War, but it is not an evenly multi-polar world. The US is overwhelmingly dominant in general and in the Middle East. No other power can boast a regional ally like either Israel or Saudi Arabia. The US has both.

US power is under threat but it has not yet been eroded. Between 1950 and 2006 Saudi Arabia purchased $63 billion worth of weapons and equipment through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales programme. In 2010 it announced a similar amount of military purchases – but in just 15 years not half a century.

There are new or upgraded US bases being built across the entire region. In Kuwait 15,000 troops are stationed in Camp Arifjan alone. In Bahrain, home of the US 6th Fleet, a new $580 million port and barracks complex is under construction. In Oman the island of Marsirah, an old RAF base from the 1930s, has been taken over by the USAF. In Qatar US forces began to operate out of the $1 billion Al Udeid air base in 2001, then in 2003 the US regional air combat HQ was moved to the country. In 2010 Obama agreed $62 million for upgrades in facilities in Qatar. In Jordan the US is operating from the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre, built in part under a US Army Corps of Engineers contract worth $70 million.

This is a far from complete list of the massive expansion of US military activity in the Middle East. Perhaps Tariq Ali was being provocative when he used the word ‘recolonisation’, but he has a great deal more of the truth than those who minimise the continued impact of US imperialism in the region.

American military bases in the Gulf

And what does this mean for Syria? Is Alex Callinicos correct when he writes that ‘there is no evidence’ of a ‘long standing Western priority to remove the Assad regime’? This is actually completely untrue. The US designated Syria a ‘state sponsor of terror’ in 1979 and imposed a series of sanctions at the same time. The Bush administration designated Syria part of the Axis of Evil and added its own sanctions 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 sanctions have hurt the Syrian people more than they have hurt the regime and are designed, as they were in the case of Iraq, to prepare public opinion for more direct forms of intervention.

Confusingly, one of the best accounts of the ‘long standing Western priority to remove the Assad regime’ is provided by Alex Callinicos in his 2003 book ‘The New Mandarins of American Power’. Here Callinicos explains that in the wake of the Iraq war US neo-cons were keen to move on to regime change in Syria:

‘[They] proposed that Washington respond with “regime change” through a political campaign that would start with targeting Syrian dominance of Lebanon but would encourage popular risings in Syria and Iran and thereby “unleash democratic revolution on the terror masters in Damascus and Iran’.4

Syria was indeed forced out of Lebanon in 2005. Although the neo-cons had no capacity to conjure democratic revolutions out of thin air, it was obvious that they would work to exploit the genuine article when it did occur. Alex Callinicos concluded this 2003 analysis with the thought that there were ‘good reasons for not ruling out the possibility of the US attacking Syria or even Iran’. Why Callinicos should now be reversing this judgement when it is becoming confirmed by events is a mystery. Perhaps it might be argued that the Arab Revolutions are the intervening event that makes the difference. But since these are precisely the kind of events that are predicted in the analysis it is difficult to see why this should be the case.

None of this implies that the Assad regime is opposed to imperialism out of principle, despite the tangible support it has sometimes, but only sometimes, given to the Palestinians and to Hezbollah. These acts were self-interested and calculated acts of state policy designed to secure the Assad regime in power and to increase its influence in the region. The Syrian regime’s very presence in Lebanon was a result of a US sanctioned attack on the left and the Palestinians in the mid-1970s which assured the victory of the Christian Maronite fascist militias.

But proving that Assad is not a consistent opponent of imperialism does not prove that imperialism is not opposed to Assad. Even an inconsistent opponent is too much for the US to stomach, as the fates of Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and Colonel Gaddafi all testify. Assad’s crime in the eyes of the US is not his brutality – the supporters of the Gulf States have no problem with that. The problem that the US has with Assad is that he is an obstacle on the road to an attack on Iran. Attacking him is also a convenient way to refurbish the doctrine of humanitarian intervention by seeming to act in solidarity with the Arab revolutions.

The Western powers want regime change in Syria, as they constantly proclaim. What has prevented them from getting it is that the Libya debacle alerted Russia and China to the fact that they would be taken for a ride if they authorised action at the UN, losing influence in one of only two allied states in the Middle East and opening up the path for an attack on the other: Iran.

But the more the US and its allies have been prevented from direct military intervention the more they have relied on indirect intervention, and the more they have sought to buy a stake in the government of a post-Assad Syria. Some of the critics of the anti-war movement talk as if all this is simply the imaginings of conspiracy theorists or as if indirect intervention has no real effect. Many in the Middle East know different. Syrians will recall the CIA coup that ended the country’s brief post war democratic experiment in 1949. Iranians recall the CIA backed coup that deposed elected nationalist leader Mossedegh in 1953. We all now know how much effort the US spent on backing the Afghan Muhajadhin against the Russians. Further afield covert operations from the early days of Vietnam, to the overthrow of Allende, to Iran-Contra come readily to the mind of many.

These are not fantasies. They are one way in which imperial power is exercised. It is being exercised this way in Syria now with the help, as it nearly always is, of some domestic forces.

The impact of the Arab revolutions on imperialism

The notion that the Arab revolutions have produced a post-imperial Middle East, in which only the domestic dynamics of the struggle in the various countries is of real significance, is false. But it would be equally false to maintain that the Arab revolutions have not begun to alter the imperial architecture of the region.

The Egyptian revolution, not the Syrian, is the central factor here. Even in its current configuration – where the degree to which the revolution will complete its democratic tasks is still in the balance – the Egyptian revolution is already altering imperial calculations. Critically it has disabled the ‘separate peace’ that Presidents Sadat and Mubarak made with Israel and it has broken the automatic link between US policy and Egyptian foreign policy.

The current Egyptian regime is unlikely to end the treaty with Israel, but it has opened the Gaza crossings and played a role in the discussions about Palestinian unity. This has further isolated the Israeli state. Iranian warships are now moving through the Suez Canal. The bi-annual Bright Star joint military exercises between Egyptian and US forces are probably a thing of the past, at least for the foreseeable future.

Over-flight rights and access to the giant Cairo West airbase may also be unavailable in future conflicts. Losing this support would be ‘a strategic disaster’ according to James Philips of the neo-con Heritage Foundation, ‘not only because it would damage our capability to mobilise naval and other forces to help contain Iran, but also because it would weaken our whole defense strategy and network in the Middle East.5

But of course this level of threat to US interests, and particularly the continued threat of the spread of the Arab revolutions, brought an imperial response. Just as the Syrian revolt was gathering strength in March 2011 the West was developing a new strategy towards the Arab revolutions. This strategy came in two parts.

The first part was straight forward repression. This is what happened when the revolution in the small island Kingdom of Bahrain was crushed by a military operation which combined an invasion by Saudi Arabian armed forces and the indigenous military. The operation came just two days after the visit of US Secretary of State Robert Gates to Bahrain.

The second approach was more complex. It involved a military operation in support of the uprising in Libya. This, like the operation in Bahrain, had the support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar but it was led by the US, Britain and France. The aim was not only to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. It was also designed to buy the loyalty of the rebel forces by providing them with decisive military support.

The result was 30,000 dead, a far greater loss of life in a shorter period of time than in any other country swept by the Arab revolutions including Syria. The deployment of an advanced Western military capability massively increased the level of casualties. The Libya air war conducted by the US, France and the UK took a long time to come to fruition but by the end of the summer 2011 it was all over. The West anointed the Libyan government it wanted at a conference in Paris.

This is a critical watershed in the history of the Arab revolutions because it marks the full-blown reappearance of the imperial forces in the history of the revolt. After this, the combination of the Gulf States and Turkey as the forward operating units of US, French and UK imperial strategy is a fact of life.

What kind of revolution?

The critics of the anti-war movement argue that ‘the revolution in Syria is rooted in a popular uprising’. And this is true. But it is not the end of the matter. Where a revolution’s roots lie and where it ends up are not the same thing. It used to be only Marxists who would tell you that revolutions are not just events but processes. Now every second taxi driver in Cairo says the same thing because experience has taught them that individuals, organisations and political currents can radically alter their positions in the course of a revolution. So it is important to concretely analyse what kind of revolution and what development the revolution has gone through since the start of events in Tunisia in late 2010.

Simon Assaf has argued that the region has been transformed by urbanisation so that the old complex class structure has been simplified. The ‘aspirant middle class’ are not longer part of the equation. Today’s revolutions are simply ones in which there is ‘an antagonism between an urban population and a ruling class at ease with (and part of) global capitalism.’

Consequently Tony Cliff’s theory of Deflected Permanent Revolution, which attempted to show how in the absence of the class conscious working class playing the leading role in a revolution other sections of the educated middle class could fill the vacuum, is no longer of any use: ‘The space for deflected permanent revolution has closed, and the Arab revolutions are facing the question of power in its most naked and unashamed form’.6 In other words the Arab revolutions are simply a question of the working class against the neoliberal ruling class, a kind of updated version of the Third Period Comintern theory of class against class.

There is quite a bit wrong with this view. Firstly, although it is true that there has been a very significant process of urbanisation in many countries in the Middle East, including Syria and Egypt, this does not necessarily tell us about the class structure. Urbanisation tells us that people live in towns not it the country; it does not tell us the class to which they belong.

In Egypt there is a growing and combative working class. But it is far from true that it is the only urban class or that its constitution is like that of the working class in, say, an industrialised European country. For instance, the 500,000 who live in the Cairo cemetery, the so-called City of the Dead, are clearly urban dwellers. But they cannot be discussed in the same way as car workers at Elsmere Port. Nor are there any western equivalents of the massive section of the poor in Egypt that exist in tiny workplaces or from causal labour. Even match sellers on the Cairo streets earn more than rural workers, but that doesn’t make them a stable part of the working class (indeed it might be more sensible to see them as self-employed or part of the lumpen proletariat).

Secondly, the traditional middle class that was created by the state capitalist forms of development (that accompanied the Arab nationalist regimes of the post-war period) have been hammered by neoliberal free market policies in the last 30 years. And the wealth has accumulated at the very top of the upper class and has not even trickled down to all sections of the middle class, let alone the working class and the poor. The rural middle class and the urban contractors of the nationalist period have lost their place in the sun. But this has left some of them embittered with the regime, and their sons and daughters are ‘over educated’ and under-employed or unemployed.

A newer middle class of would-be and actual small business people and middle managers, some from new technology businesses, have joined the older professions of doctors, lawyers, teachers, lecturers and shopkeepers. It is not just the working class that is being re-invented but the middle class as well. These are precisely the people who Cliff identified as being able to step into the vacuum created if the working class fails to develop organs of power and political organisation that can hegemonise the revolutionary process.

In Egypt it is the weakness of working class political representation (which is not the same as working class economic struggle, although it is obviously related to it) that is allowing the classically middle class leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood to lever itself into power on the back of popular mobilisations. And the political presence of the middle class can be seen in other ways too – from the high profile Twitterati like Google executive Wael Ghonim to the supporters of El Baradei. Hamdeen Sabhay’s support, which gave him the largest vote in Cairo and Alexandria in the recent Presidential election, comes mainly from workers and the poor but he also had considerable support from middle class, secular and nationalist constituencies. The re-emergence of a new middle class in the neoliberal period with a different profile to the old statist middle class is an international phenomenon.7

An effective strategy for the left will not comprise of just pretending that the working class is in a simplistic relationship with the ruling class, in which no other sections of the poor or the middle class matter. Economic action by the working class, though vitally necessary, is never enough on its own to solve the question of taking political power. This requires a strategy based on developing organs of power that allow the core of the working class to lead all sections of the poor and discontented elements of other classes in a final assault on the capitalist order.

Remember the soviets in Russia in 1917 were Councils of Workers, Soldiers, and Peasants. That is, two out of those three groups were not working class. And even then the Soviets could not have held power without resolving the agrarian and nationalities problems. Simplified schemas are not adequate to these tasks.

In Syria the problem is more acute. As Jonathan Maunder has pointed out, ‘due to the political forces leading it and its relatively small size in comparison to the mass of peasantry, the Syrian working class did not manage to establish itself as the leading force in society’.8 Alex Callinicos agrees that in Syria there is ‘an absence of the independent working class action that has been so important in the Egyptian revolution.’9

This situation does not mean that the working class cannot emerge as a leading force, but it faces greater objective difficulties than do workers in Egypt. Moreover, the appeals for imperialist intervention have divided the revolutionary forces, while the militarisation of the revolution makes it considerably more difficult for left forces to conduct the kind of debates which would allow them to shape future developments.

It is in this context that we can best answer the question Richard Seymour poses: ‘how to support a democratic resistance movement without giving carte blanche to those who want to hijack it?’ To which the straightforward answer would seem to be: make it clear that we are opposed to Assad but also opposed to Western intervention and, this is only logical but seems to be contested, also oppose those within the Syrian revolution who are calling for and taking arms from Western imperialism.

The difficulty with this answer for the critics cited above seems to be that they think i) that most Syrian revolutionaries are anti-intervention and ii) that criticising any current within the revolution undermines the revolution. Let’s look at these objections.

The first is quickly disposed of: no one knows, but let’s assume that most Syrians fighting Assad also reject Western intervention. This is good but it does not solve the question of political representation. After all, if every revolution were politically represented by forces which accurately reflected the views of those doing the fighting there would be a lot more successful revolutions than there have been. Far more frequently, especially in democratic revolutions, the revolutionaries do not get the leadership they deserve. Political forces arise which represent a current of the middle or upper classes which, in the absence of mass democratic institutions (popular councils, workers councils or the like) come to dominate the political direction of the revolution even though they are not representative of the mass of people doing the fighting.

In bourgeois revolutions (and democratic revolutions that have not grown over into socialist revolutions are bourgeois in terms of their political content) the mass of people doing the fighting find that other class forces come to dominate the political direction of the revolution. This has especially been the fate of modern democratic revolutions from those in 1989 in Eastern Europe, through the transition in South Africa, the Indonesia revolution and the Serbian revolution. The danger of an unrepresentative minority arsing within the revolution and coming to dominate it is obviously massively greater where the imperial powers are throwing all their effort into promoting (and arming) quite specifically those that they can rely on to do their bidding. It is a case, as the old adage has it, of a spoonful of tar ruining a barrel of honey.

It is part of the Marxist tradition to sharply criticise such currents. Marx was vociferous in his criticism of the bourgeois currents in the 1848 revolutions. Lenin was an outspoken critic of those he thought were endangering the Russian and, later, international revolution. Criticising those who are not only taking guns but also sharing the politics of the imperialists helps to isolate them and to bolster the left in Syria. Pretending they are good revolutionaries paves Hillary Clinton’s path to a glorious entry to Damascus (like the one Cameron and Sarkozy got in Tripoli).

The main enemy is at home

The best service we in the West can render Syrian revolutionaries is to keep our governments off their back. It is our government that is part of the most powerful imperial bloc on the globe and it is our main political responsibility to deal with it. Some argue that we should be equally critical of the Russian state for arming the Assad regime. But while it is true that Russia is acting in its own imperial interests – and while it is true that if we were socialists in Russia our main enemy would be Putin’s government and its imperial policy – it is not true that socialists in the West should take a ‘plague on both your houses’ approach.

As Lenin realised in the First World War, those socialists who end up partially joining in the chorus of their own imperialists against other imperialists (i.e. the British ruling class were happy to bluster about the horrors of German imperialism in the First World War, just as William Hague and Hillary Clinton daily condemn the Russians over Syria) compromise their own political independence. If we went down this path we might be drawn to join the protests outside the Russian embassy that some Syrians are calling in London. We can imagine how happy the BBC would be to come and interview us so that we can join in the condemnation of Russian imperialism. And this of course would be taken, unavoidably, as support for our own government’s policy.

Moreover, Russian imperialism may be brutal but it is much weaker than the US (let alone the US combined with its NATO allies). Some have recalled the old International Socialists’ slogan of ‘Neither Washington or Moscow’ to justify a middle position of equal condemnation of both the West and Russia. But that slogan was only ever meant to indicate that the old Stalinist system was not socialist. And this at the height of the Cold War when Russia was much more powerful in international affairs than it is now.

This never meant that in concrete struggles socialists in the West should equally condemn both sides. We never condemned Russian support for the MPLA in Angola or Russian support for Cuba in the way that we did US imperialism (even though we had our criticisms of the MPLA and even though we did not share the view that Cuba was socialist). Neither did we support President Carter’s call for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, even though we opposed it. We did not do these things because it would have led to an at least partial compromise with our own ruling class and its propaganda.

For the same reasons we should be careful to distinguish between those that support western imperialism and those that do not in Syria itself. If we treat the Syrian revolution as a monolith, if we say that anyone who fights Assad is a good revolutionary irrespective of their attitude to imperialism, then, reduced to a slogan, our view is ‘victory to the FSA’. This is the real ‘blanket thinking’ that Richard Seymour worries so much about.

It would make what we say indistinguishable from the view of Hillary Clinton and William Hague – except that they are now becoming sensitive to the fact that they have to distinguish between ‘good’ (from their point of view) and ‘bad’ revolutionaries. They promote the former and starve the latter of support and guns. It should not be beyond the wit of Marxists to see that an equal and opposite policy is required of us. Some say we should limit ourselves to combining the slogans ‘Victory to the FSA’ with ‘No Foreign Intervention’ without also criticising those in Syria calling for intervention. But this risks incoherence since the meaning of this position would be: ‘Support the FSA, some of whom are calling for Western intervention, but no to Western intervention.’ Logic and politics decree that this is an unsatisfactory stance.

What next?

It is possible that the blocking (by the Russian veto) of Western plans to intervene directly in Syria will give the revolutionaries the chance to shake off their pro-western leaders and defeat Assad. This would impart new life to the whole revolutionary process across the Middle East. There are some signs that Syrian National Council support is ebbing because they have been unable to deliver the level of Western support that they promised.
But there are already signs that the US and its allies are thinking past this scenario and planning ahead. Firstly the fall of Assad may not end the civil war. And if the war continues the threat of Western military intervention will rise because Russia, having lost the figurehead of its regime, will be more likely to sanction action as a way of getting on the inside track of future discussions over a Syrian government to replace Assad.

Secondly, the US is already planning for a post-Assad regime at a meeting in Germany with 40 representatives of the opposition. It is widening its net beyond the SNC precisely because its sees the limited nature of its support inside Syria. The house journal of the US diplomatic and military establishment, Foreign Policy, reports that the project is called ‘The day after: Supporting a democratic transition in Syria.’

Project leader Steve Heydemann says they are ‘working in a support role with a large group of opposition groups to define a transition process for a post-Assad Syria.’ The opposition leaders involved have been meeting since January and providing updates on their work to the Arab League, the Friends of Syria group, the team of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, and the opposition Syrian National Council.10

Foreign Policy reports: ‘In addition to security-sector reform, the group has come up with plans to reform the justice sector and a framework for the role of the armed opposition in a post-Assad Syria. The idea is to preserve those parts of the Syrian state that can be carried over while preparing to reform the parts that can’t. For example, large parts of the Syrian legal system could be preserved.’

The project has also tried to identify regime personnel who might be able to play an effective role in the immediate phase after Assad falls. ‘There’s a very clear understanding of the Syrians in this project that a transition is not sweeping away of the entire political and judicial framework of Syria,’ Heydemann said. ‘We have learned an enormous amount about the participants so that we can actually begin a very crude vetting process.’

‘We have very purposely stayed away from contributing to the direct overthrow of the Assad regime,’ Heydemann said. ‘Our project is called “the day after.” There are other groups working on the day before.’ The report shows that ‘the project has been funded by the State Department, but also has received funding from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as Dutch and Norwegian NGOs and is partnered with the German Institute of International and Security Affairs, which is why all of the meetings have been held in Berlin.’

Obama administration officials are not attending because ‘This is a situation where too visible a U.S. role would have been deeply counterproductive. It would have given the Assad regime and elements of the opposition an excuse to delegitimize the process,’ Heydemann said. The very focussed provision of arms and aid is part of this strategy. Time magazine reports:

‘…growing frustration along the border among rebel commanders who have been waiting weeks for shipments due “any day now,” “in the next few days,” “soon Inshallah [god willing].” That may be because, says the Damascene [arms] distributor, the main batches from the Gulf came with preconditions: “They are saying that there are weapons in depots here [in Turkey], but they won’t release them to us because we are not pledging allegiance to them. They want us to follow Saudi Arabia or a big organization like the [Muslim] Brotherhood. We are refusing this. That’s why the next batch of weapons has been delayed. Either we follow them and get lots of weapons, or we don’t and die”.’

This is why it is wrong to mechanically separate geo-political concerns (imperialism) from the domestic dynamic of the revolution. There is a domestic current calling for intervention. Existing forms of intervention are bolstering this current at the expense of others.

And who are the defecting figures from the Assad regime that the US is cultivating? General Manaf Tlass, related to a Saudi arms dealer and who immediately called for Saudi intervention, and Nawaf Fares, the Syrian Ambassador in Iraq. These are people who only yesterday were at the heart of the Assad regime. As in Yemen, as in Libya, the US will be looking to recreate a Western leaning regime minus its figurehead, an Assad regime without Assad.

These are the dangers. The best service we can do Syrians is to keep them from being realised by directing our fire at our own rulers – and by extension those who are playing into their hands among the Syrian opposition.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s famous formation ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ should be our guide in these circumstances. This is the approach that the anti-war movement is taking: we are alert to the dangers that face the Syrian revolution but we are, in our meetings and protests, taking what action we can to help avert them.

Our critics have the opposite approach: they are optimistic that everything will turn out all right simply as a result of the internal dynamic of events in Syria. This leaves them with little to do other than cheer from a distance.


[1] ‘The Syrian Revolt enters a new phase’, Lenin’s Tomb, Tuesday 24 July.

[2] S Assaf, ‘A Region Transformed’, Socialist Review, July 2012.

[3] This analysis in presented in full in John Rees, Imperialism and Resistance (Routledge, 2006)

[4] A. T. Callinicos, The New Mandarins of American Power (Polity, 2003) p86-92

[5] David Wood, At Risk in Egypt’s Turmoil: US Access to the Middle East,

[6] S Assaf, A Region Transformed, Socialist Review, July 2012.

[7] I trace the political impact of this development in later sections of The Socialist Revolution and the Democratic Revolution.

[8] J Maunder, The Syrian Crucible, International Socialism 135 (July, 2012)

[9] Socialist Worker, 28 July 2012.

[10] Inside the quiet effort to plan for a post-Assad 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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