Alex Snowdon analyses the development of Syria’s popular movement and its relationship with the West, addressing a number of current arguments on the left
To understand Syria it is necessary to consider both the ‘war on terror’ (which can be traced to 2001) and the Arab revolutions (a more recent phenomenon, emerging first in Tunisia in December 2010). One of those contexts without the other leads to a one-sided, inadequate understanding of events and their political meaning.
Those on the left (a small minority) who have been in some sense sympathetic to the Gaddafi and Assad regimes – seeing them as a progressive bulwark against Western imperialism – may be consistent opponents of the US-led ‘war on terror’, but they don’t understand the immensely positive and liberating role of the Arab revolutions. They, at least to an extent, have looked to repressive Arab regimes like those in Libya (prior to Gaddafi’s fall) and Syria for resistance to US imperialism. In fact those regimes have, at best, only ever provided equivocal opposition to US geopolitical aspirations, while imposing neoliberal policies at home and being as brutal towards their own people as the regimes of Mubarak and other US allies.
There are others on the left who have it the other way around. They grasp the potential and significance of the Arab revolutions, but push the ongoing ‘war on terror’ out of the picture, seeing the role of US imperialism as more diminished in the region than it actually is. The danger is that they under-estimate the capacity of Western intervention to play an important role in the region, while over-estimating the strengths of the popular movement in Syria. They fail to fully locate developments inside Syria in a larger political context.
Syria’s ongoing anti-Assad movement is rooted in a popular uprising, driven by the same factors as elsewhere in the Arab world: opposition to state repression, neo-liberal policies, high youth unemployment and a lack of democracy. The Syrian people have – ever since the revolt began in early 2011 – been entirely justified in attempting to overthrow the regime. But the roots of something don’t entirely dictate where it will end up. We have to grapple with how events have developed, especially with the implications of the radically different geopolitical location of Syria (as with Libya) compared to pro-US regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
Imperialism and counter-revolution
Syria has to be understood in the context of the imperialist counter-revolutionary response to the Arab revolutions. March 2011 was the critical moment here. Two things happened simultaneously.
Firstly, the US-backed Saudi regime sent troops into neighbouring Bahrain – also a US ally – to crush the popular movement. This was one way for imperialism to play a counter-revolutionary role: support for direct and bloody repression.
The other approach was less obvious and more contradictory. At the same time as turning a blind eye to Saudi-Bahraini repression, NATO countries launched an attack on Libya. This was not motivated by humanitarian concern or support for democracy. Intervention reflected a recognition in Washington, London and Paris that the Gaddafi regime was profoundly unstable and discredited, and that a speedy intervention – having been caught napping by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt – to engineer a post-Gaddafi regime sympathetic to Western interests was the wisest course.
The Libya intervention and Bahraini repression were accompanied by two other trends, which have continued since. One has been the inevitable adoption of the rhetoric and imagery of the Arab revolutions by the US and its allies, who have promoted themselves as champions of ‘democracy’ and freedom’. This has served the purpose of framing the Arab world’s revolts as driven purely by a yearning for Western-style democracy, in the process excluding both economic and geopolitical elements from the picture.
The other element is the West’s sustained effort to develop closer links with moderate forces like Egypt’s Muslim Bortherhood, seeking leverage in the changed political landscape of north Africa and Middle East. The ‘transition’ in Yemen, with the old figurehead sacrificed to save the regime, is a similar example of the US pushing for the most modest change possible in situations where they can’t directly intervene through force.
Libya should serve as a cautionary tale when we examine Syria. It illustrates how Western powers can actively intervene to divide, partially co-opt and politically weaken a movement, thus tilting the balance of forces in their own direction. The result has been disastrous.
The toll of casualties rose dramatically after NATO intervention, from 2000-3000 fatalities before intervention up to an estimated 30,000 by the time of the regime’s fall in August 2011. Libya today is acutely unstable, poisoned by sectarian conflicts, and politically and economically in thrall to Western governments and business interests.
The turn to armed struggle
While history never repeats itself exactly, it’s in some ways true that Libya yesterday is now Syria today – and Libya today threatens to be Syria tomorrow (though this is far from inevitable). It isn’t simply the case that Libya provides ample evidence of why direct military intervention would be a disaster in Syria. The point is that Syria has developed a dynamic – even without direct intervention – in which much of the opposition has close ties with Western powers and increasingly depends upon them.
The nature and character of the Syrian opposition has been substantially altered because of the relationship with external forces. It is divided in myriad ways, but the most prominent elements have come to see their role as liaising with Western politicians over a ‘transition’ to a post-Assad Syria that is at least reasonably sympathetic to Western interests.
This evolution has been linked to the contradictory process of militarisation of the struggle. What does it mean when a movement like those in Libya and Syria is militarised, when armed struggle becomes the dominant mode of resistance? It risks leading to fragmentation of the struggle – isolated and disparate fighting – rather than mass mobilisations. The movement becomes much less inclusive, with young men involved in the fighting increasingly taken the dominant role.
The privileging of armed struggle over demonstrations, occupations and strikes also involves over-reliance on elements of the old regime which have broken from that regime – often opportunistic rather than principled - as they tend to have the greatest military expertise. Without a strong political leadership, or grounding in a strong political mass movement, it comes to involve sectarian attacks alongside the more well-directed attacks on the regime.
What all this adds up to – and in combination with the growing relations with external forces – is something radically different to the revolutionary movements which toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak. The turn to armed struggle was no doubt a response to the higher levels of state violence than we witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt - and to the failure to make a decisive breakthrough. Some were eager for such a turn, precisely because they always envisaged a greater orientation on Western military ‘support’, but for many others it was born of necessity.
It has also been a contested process, with the Local Coordinating Committees – backbone of the movement on the ground - placing greater emphasis on other forms of mobilisation. The LCCs have also been more resistant to foreign intervention than leading figures in the Syrian National Council (who predominantly live in exile). Armed resistance has, however, become the dominant form of struggle – in response to huge state violence, due to the political weaknesses of pro-Western elements in the opposition, and the lack of a coherent and organised political alternative to such a turn.
Armed insurrection is most effective when a popular movement is at its strongest and the state is at its weakest. It has to be part of a wider strategic offensive by a mass movement. If that movement isn’t sustained successfully – with democratic, popular forms of organisation directing actions both politically and practically – the armed struggle is liable to be much less politically effective (and more vulnerable to external pressures). The Syrian movement has often been courageous and determined, but it has always had unfortunate political weaknesses compared to Tunisia and Egypt: a weaker Left, a comparatively lower level of industrial struggle, a lack of political cohesion.
A battleground for imperialists
Some on the left suggest that direct military intervention in Syria is extremely unlikely. This could turn out to be a naive judgement. But even if such direct intervention doesn’t ever happen, adopting this line is dangerous.
Major Western powers clearly want to remove the Assad regime – and they’d like to be able to ‘do a Libya’ to Syria – but they have so far been prevented from pursuing this. The obstacles in their way have included Russian and Chinese opposition within the United Nations, the fact that the geopolitical stakes are so much higher than in Libya, and the problem of still facing severe difficulties elsewhere (notably Libya and Afghanistan).
It is the means they lack, not the desire. That may still change. And in the meantime they are intervening covertly: through sanctions, through ‘special forces’ on the ground, through Saudi and Qatar reportedly providing arms to some of the ‘rebels’. This whole process of covert intervention divides and distorts the revolutionary movement, while increasing external influence in a country that has considerable significance for Western strategic planning.
Syria is also of concern to Russia and China. Russia in particular has remained supportive (if not always uncritical) of the Assad regime – and both countries have political and economic links with the existing Syrian regime. Socialists should have no sympathy for those states, or see them as a welcome counterweight to the US.
However, treating those minor imperialist powers as a comparable problem to the US
(or by extension NATO) would be to lose any sense of perspective. It is not Russia or China who threaten external military intervention; they, also, are not the dominant geopolitical powers in the region. Our main focus has to be resisting Western intervention in Syria, both the covert forms they are already engaging in and the threat of an escalated military intervention. Lenin’s argument at the time of World War One remains relevant: for those of us living inside imperialist countries, the main enemy is at home and not the regime of a foreign country.
This opposition to imperialist intervention is, in turn, a practical means of offering support and solidarity to those genuinely radical movements inside Syria, and across the Arab world, struggling to overthrow the old order and create a future free from domestic tyranny and foreign interference.
It is impossible to consider Syria’s regional importance without reference to Iran. At one level, the various forms of foreign intervention in Syria can be interpreted as a proxy for Iran. Syria’s alliance with Iran and its traditions of (admittedly contradictory) opposition to Israel and the US are a factor in Western efforts to direct the course of an enviasged post-Assad Syria.
The major Western powers want to replace the Assad dynasty with something more Western-friendly. The fact that the Syrian regime has never, in practice, been much of a challenge to either Israel or US power does not negate this.
It would therefore clearly be mistaken to view anti-imperialism as a mere secondary consideration. This can have important practical implications for us, inside the Western powers, when adopting slogans and tactics. Those who insist that ‘Solidarity with the Arab Revolutions’ is our primary orientation, with ‘No to Western Intervention’ as a secondary and less important stance, don’t account for how the nature of the Arab revolutions has been dramatically altered by the geo-political context and the role of imperialism.
Our central task is to oppose Western covert and overt intervention. This is the only meaningful way in which we can deliver solidarity to those struggling inside the Arab world.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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