With the West determined to get a foothold in the Arab Revolutions the left cannot afford to downplay the serious threat of imperialist intervention in Syria, argues Dan Poulton

The easiest way to rubbish an argument that doesn’t suit your sensibilities is to reduce its various proponents into a homogenous grouping. This was the approach taken by Jamie Allinson in his recent article, ‘Syria: Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but Popular Revolution,’ in which he described those who oppose imperialist intervention in Syria as being ‘anti-anti-dictatorship’.

It was of course George W. Bush who crystallised this trick of ‘false polarity’ when he coined the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us’ in the early days of the War On Terror. So it’s rather distressing when these kinds of arguments are put to us from within the left.

It’s true that some on the left (a very small minority) do actually view the Assad regime as a progressive bulwark against US imperialism, and this is of course inexcusable. But these types are rather easy to identify. They tend to give out leaflets and hold meetings with titles like ‘Victory to Assad‘. And they usually take the opportunity to attack the Stop the War Coalition (STW) in pretty much the same hysterical breath. So it is of course perverse when STW and those who agree with its stance on Syria get lumped in with their opponents as ‘anti-anti-dictatorship’.

Allinson’s caricature of the anti-intervention argument attempts to catch a diverse range of anti-imperialist commentators in its web:

“…the Syrian revolution, whether it has popular roots or not, has now become a purely military endeavour of Sunni supremacists acting as the catspaws of a Saudi-Qatari-U.S. (perhaps also Franco-Zionist) effort to topple Assad, the last redoubt of the anti-imperialist forces in the region. This externally funded rebellion represents an extension of the U.S. imperial project launched after the 9/11 attacks, embracing the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

It is easy to rubbish this ‘conspiracy theory’ version of events, yet it is the lynchpin of most of Allinson’s argument.

Popular revolution

The Syrian uprising began as a popular uprising against a brutal dictator and is part of the Arab Revolutions which began with a revolt in Tunisia in December 2010. This is the position that Counterfire (John Rees, referenced by Allinson, being a leading member) took towards the Libyan uprising of that year. But, like in Libya, the fate of the popular uprising is directly threatened by the extent to which the imperialist powers manage to successfully intervene in the course of the revolutionary process.

In Libya NATO set up a no fly zone with the backing of the Gulf States and a deadly air bombardment followed, killing up to 30,000 (the third war with a Muslim country in a decade). The Libyan popular uprising, like in Syria, was militarised at an early stage and defections of rank and file soldiers took place, followed by defections from increasingly higher ranks of command until generals, and eventually regime officials, began to steadily accumulate on the anti-Gaddafi side.

This process was supported by the West. An internal power struggle within the revolution even led to the assassination of one of its leading figures. Now a pro-imperialist bloc is in power and seems unable to control Libya’s rapid descent into bloody sectarian chaos.

The difference between the imperialist intervention in Syria and that in Libya is one of degree. The West has not been able to intervene directly as it did in Libya primarily because Russia and China, who approved the UN resolution which was used by the US, UK and France to justify military intervention, don’t want to find their remaining allies purged from the region.

Instead the West has had to rely on various groups supplying weapons and aid to the Free Syrian Army. To that end CIA advisors are on the ground actively selecting who should receive weapons and who shouldn’t. This is because the Syrian ‘opposition’ is not a homogenous whole. There are many in its ranks who oppose Western intervention, many who are socialists and anti-imperialists and many, no doubt, whose recent experience tells them to not trust the Western powers.

It would be folly on their own part for the West to arm sections of the revolution who actively oppose its presence in the region. That said, as Libya showed, it is very likely that the brutal and ongoing assault from Assad’s forces (which has far exceeded the pre-intervention death toll of Libya) have convinced many ordinary people to put aside their better judgement and accept Western military support.

This would be folly. It was folly in the case of Libya, but let’s not forget that it was also folly on the part of those in Iraq who welcomed Western intervention because they wanted rid of a brutal dictator. The end result in Iraq was a million dead. The anti-war movement may have had a more complex -and for some, hard to swallow- argument to win but who can really doubt the absolute necessity there was to win that argument at the time?

What’s sad is the short-term memory of some on the left. Many who now attack Stop the War and Counterfire supporters as ‘anti-anti-dictatorship’ (or however they choose to formulate their complaint) were also arguing against the invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam from power in 2003. Others, of course, who made the ‘anti-anti-dictatorship’ argument, were not on the anti-imperialist side at all, Nick Cohen and the late Christopher Hitchens being two high profile examples from recent years.

As such anti-imperialists who take Allinson’s position on Syria find themselves with awkward bedfellows: often arguing on the same side as liberals who refuse to acknowledge that imperialism is even a factor in the War on Terror.

A major difference in the current situation from Iraq is the extra element of a revolution taking place in the very country being eyed-up for intervention by the United States and its allies. This seems to have been enough to send some sections of the left into a state of confusion.

Allinson’s accusation that those on the left who oppose intervention are pro-regime is false.

Anyone who seeks to discredit reports of atrocities committed by the Assad regime in order to simplify their argument, or because they are in fact pro-Assad, should rightly be criticised, just as anyone who attempted to downplay the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime should be criticised. But, for the most part on the anti-imperialist left, this argument is yet another straw man.

It is possible, and necessary, to both acknowledge an oppressive regime and simultaneously object to its replacement by a regime subordinate to the Western powers. This is because, as the Western rulers themselves admit, what really matters is what happens on ‘the day after’ Assad is toppled.

Picking up the power

Opposing the overthrow of a regime by the West can in no way be conflated with opposing the overthrow of a regime by a popular revolution. Although both aim to remove a ruling class figurehead from power, the two processes are completely different. This is because, as John Rees and others have argued, in the early stages of a revolution power falls into the street, so to speak.

At a further stage, a struggle then takes place as to which element of the popular movement picks up the power. The history of modern revolutions since Russia in 1917 shows quite clearly that it is not automatic that those who do the bulk of the fighting in a revolution are its natural beneficiaries.

In many cases, from Iran in 1979 to South Africa (with the election of the ANC in 1994) to Indonesia (when the post-Suharto ‘Reform’ period began in 1999), it is sections of the middle class and the old ruling class order who pick up the power, leaving the most radical elements of the movement isolated and vulnerable to -often bloody- purges.

Ironically, in dismantling his own straw man about conspiracy theorists, Allinson provides an analysis which begins to undermine his central argument, when he acknowledges that:

“It is no secret that the U.S., and its more vociferous junior imperial partner, wants rid of Assad and in this aim they are joined by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the GCC more generally. The Saudis and Qataris are providing money, and in some cases materiel, to those bits of the FSA of which they approve. Nor is it any revelation that Western (and Turkish) agencies are attempting to broker the flow of these resources into the country and thereby exercise influence over the revolutionary situation. In any revolution, anywhere, now or in the future, outside powers will try to do this.”

Here he attempts yet another obfuscation (asserted at a more shrill register by Pham Binh). Because, he argues, attempts to intervene in a revolutionary process are an inevitable part of any uprising the idea that one should be concerned by outside interference in Syria is foolish.

Balance of forces

This assertion rides roughshod over any attempt to assess the balance of forces within any given revolutionary process, instead making sweeping generalisations. There was an overt intervention in the course of the Russian revolution by imperialist Germany. The German rulers helped Lenin get to Russia from his exile in Switzerland because they, rightly, anticipated that he would mount a revolution that would pull Russia out of the First World War.

But then the strength of the Russian movement, organised as it was into militant soviets and backed by the working class and the peasantry, meant that German influence could not penetrate further than it did inside the movement.

The key point here is that the revolutionary process had its expression in the form of a working class revolutionary institution (the Bolshevik Party, linked to workers’ soviets) which was capable of picking up the power after it had fallen into the street.

The lack of such a representative institution in the Syrian movement coupled with the mounting intervention of the West and its regional allies, the reality of civil war and the rise of sectarianism, could well spell disaster for the popular movement.

This is a point that Allinson and his sympathisers refuse to acknowledge, bending over backwards to find evidence to support their theory that imperialist interference is negligible inside Syria’s popular movement despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Allinson asks us to believe that it is ‘very wrong’ to claim that, ‘the Syrian revolution, as a result of these attempts, now consists of ‘sundry’ elements working for Western intelligence agencies and abetting the recolonisation of the country.’

He draws this conclusion because the rebels remain significantly under-armed and only select groups get any real military aid. He would do well to remember that the West provided no arms to the Libyan movement, preferring instead to rain death from above. This is partly because it is not possible to re-use a bomb once it has gone off- there’s no risk of arming ‘the wrong people’.

Quite clearly the West’s preferred strategy would be to rob the uprising of as much self-determination as possible whilst ensuring that pro-Western elements are given as much support as necessary. If Allinson is right to argue the West are unable to locate that many people to actually arm it may perhaps be a testament to the fact that most Syrian’s don’t want Western tutelage.

Or it may be that the West doesn’t trust what compromised rebels might do on ‘the day after’ they receive military backing. Nonetheless there is significant evidence that arms supplies are getting through, presumably to the ‘right sort of people’. As Seamus Milne explained in early August:

“The US, which backed its first Syrian coup in 1949, has long funded opposition groups. But earlier this year Obama gave a secret order authorising covert (as well as overt financial and diplomatic) support to the armed opposition. That includes CIA paramilitaries on the ground, “command and control” and communications assistance, and the funnelling of Gulf arms supplies to favoured Syrian groups across the Turkish border. After Russia and China blocked its last attempt to win UN backing for forced regime change last month, the US administration let it be known it would now step up support for the rebels and co-ordinate “transition” plans for Syria with Israel and Turkey.”

Good arms and bad arms

Allinson belies his own lack of grasp of revolutionary dynamics when examining the question of the procurement of arms by the Syrian resistance:

“Most of the FSA’s light arms seem to come from the Syrian army itself, through defection or purchase [sic] with money from Syrian exile businessmen in the Gulf.”

Both means of procurement are very different. Defections within the army are to be welcomed and actively sought, although high level defections pose a real threat of co-option by elements of the old regime. Revolutions, especially successful ones, have historically got their arms from the process of fracturing the regime’s military forces.

In fact, successful social revolution is dependent on this happening. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the threat of splits in the Egyptian army motivated the Generals’ decision to ditch Mubarak. In such a way revolutions can win serious gains. So for Syrians to get arms from the regime army through defections (as happened in the early stages of the Libyan uprising) is a good thing.

Receiving arms from Gulf ‘businessmen’, however, is fraught with peril. Who are those businessmen and what strings come attached to their military backing? One might argue that it is ok to accept arms from the enemy as long as one doesn’t also accept their political direction. (One could also argue it’s possible to accept protection from the Mafia without doing them any favours in return. Yes it’s possible, but expect big trouble.)

Without the formation of a coherent anti-imperialist organisation within the revolution there is no guarantee that the sections of the movement armed by the West won’t also accept their political instruction. By way of example, Tawakal Karman of Yemen is more than happy to accept Western political influence, as symbolised by her acceptance of the Nobel peace prize and witnessed by her subsequent attempts to condemn elements within Yemen who are not pro-Western enough (by accusing them of being Iranian stooges.)

The formula is really rather simple. Arms from military defections = good. Arms from pro-imperial elements = bad. UNLESS the revolution has built up enough, both material and ideological, strength to offset the corrupting effects of political overtures from imperialist forces. It would take a real Pollyanna to confidently read such strength in Syria’s divided uprising.

Civil war, what civil war?

Allinson is at pains to argue that the Syrian revolution has not simply ‘morphed’ into civil war, as he accuses many on the ‘Western left’ to be arguing.

He is of course essentially correct when he argues that:

“There is no doubt that what Syria is now undergoing is a civil war, albeit one in which the dynamics of a revolutionary process are still present… The Free Syrian Army was formed out of armed detachments protecting demonstrations, only really beginning in earnest last summer.”

Despite Allinson’s attempts to illustrate (using Youtube videos) that demonstrations are still happening in Syria, albeit under constant threat of attack from regime forces, it is quite clear that armed struggle is now the dominant form of resistance. There simply aren’t that many demonstrations left to protect.

Yemen again

Let’s take a look at the ever instructive example of Yemen. The mass demonstrations carried out by the movement were some of the most impressive in the whole Arab Revolutions. What was also incredible is that, for a largely tribal country with nearly three guns to every person, mass mobilisations remained dominant throughout. The role of armed revolutionaries was to protect these demonstrations and tribesmen often laid down their arms to join in the protests. Armed struggle never replaced popular mass action.

The same cannot be said of Syria. One can argue whether this was a subjective error on part of the movement or an objective reality of a weakened left facing an intransigent regime. The point is that we have to deal with the situation we find ourselves in, not some other, more desirable, reality.

Allinson continues:

“The Syrian regime has been ‘militarized’ for decades. If it persists in some form, the solution favoured by some on the left, the Syrian people will continue to suffer its violence. They are not to be condemned for fighting back.”

It’s never made entirely clear who exactly is ‘condemning’ Syrians for shooting at regime forces. But what we can be absolutely certain of is that George Galloway, Tariq Ali and John Rees (all explicitly accused of being ‘anti-anti-dictatorship’ in the article, though only Galloway is quoted) would be the first to uphold the movement’s right to defend itself from a brutal regime. We’re back in straw man territory again.


The real elephant in the room in Allinson’s article is the question of revolutionary strategy. He seems much more comfortable with a crude form of moralism, chastising longstanding Marxists for apparently rubbishing a popular revolution, promoting pacifism and opposing imperialist intervention- an eclectic set of accusations if there ever was one.

It must be noted that it’s not just sections of the so-called ‘Western’ left who oppose imperial intervention in Syria and argue that the popular mobilisations have become secondary to militarised struggle. As Syrian revolutionary and president of the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change, Haytham Manna argued in June this year:

“…the pumping of arms to Syria, supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the phenomenon of the Free Syrian Army, and the entry of more than 200 jihadi foreigners into Syria in the past six months have all led to a decline in the mobilisation of large segments of the population, especially amongst minorities and those living in the big cities, and in the activists’ peaceful civil movement. The political discourse has become sectarian; there has been a Salafisation of religiously conservative sectors.”

Although Manna is wrong to argue for an exclusively non-violent revolution for reasons already stated, it’s hard to write-off his assessment of the negative impact that support from counterrevolutionary actors has had on the popular movement. Daily reports from a wide spectrum of sources seem to reinforce his analysis.

Three main things really need to happen to get the Syrian revolution back on track.

1. The movement must oppose sections of the uprising who take aid from imperial and sub-imperial actors, whilst agitating against intervention

2. All effort must be made to rebuild mass mobilisations and argue for unity instead of sectarianism

3. The movement must strive to organise a central revolutionary institution which can provide leadership to the mass of ordinary Syrians in struggle and challenge attempts by unrepresentative groups like the SNC to gain control of the uprising

In so doing the conflict could move from a deadlocked war of attrition to a situation where a united Syrian movement could force splits in the military, procure the arms needed to defend itself and take its place at the forefront of the Arab Revolutions. It’s hard to see why serious revolutionaries would reject such a strategy.

However, one can make endless prescriptions for the Syrian movement, but it’s impossible to influence the revolution from the outside. It’s up to the Syrians to build a movement which can topple Assad and play a leading role on ‘the day after’ his downfall.

For our part, revolutionaries in the imperial countries can do something that no Syrian -indeed no Arab revolutionary- can achieve: concentrate our fire on opposing any further attempts by the imperial powers (our governments) to intervene in Syria like they did in Libya and Yemen.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.

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