John Rees on the lessons to be learnt from a lost revolution
The bloody end of the siege of Aleppo has given rise to much heart-searching across the political spectrum. British MPs are once again talking of increased military intervention. And the left is divided over whether or not it should support such calls. What is at a premium is serious analysis. Here are a few basic points from which we should begin.
The Syrian revolution was in its opening phase in 2011 a genuine popular revolt born of the same process that gave us the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.
But without exception the second round of Arab revolutions in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria were very different from those in Egypt and Tunisia. Crucially the regimes against which they rose were better prepared and more willing to immediately use overwhelming military force against their people. Moreover, in the Syrian, Yemen and Bahraini cases they were willing to call on their international backers to support them.
Saudi forces rolled into Bahrain to crush the rising at the Pearl roundabout. Saudi manufactured a transition in Yemen and has latterly fought a brutal war to enforce its goals in the most poverty stricken country in Arabia.
Little or nothing was said about this by the Western governments. They just keep selling the Saudis the guns. In Libya the Gulf states, and then Nato, actively overthrew Gadaffi, reducing the country to ruins in the process and turning it into a regional arms supermarket.
The Western powers and the Saudis, having been active in crushing the rising in Bahrain, rushed to declare their support for the risings in Libya and Syria simply and only because they thought they could use it for the purposes of regime change.
Syria differed only in this: it was one of the few Russian allies in the Middle East and the Russian’s defended their regional asset.
The blame for the Syria debacle lies primarily at the doors of the Assad regime and the rival imperial powers and local states who have attempted to realise their own ends at the expense of the Syrian people: the Russians, the US, the Saudis and Qatar, Iran, and Turkey.
But the Syrian opposition made the understandable but nevertheless fatal error of trying to play with the imperial powers. The Free Syrian Army sucked up to the US, the UK, the Turks and the Saudis. The most recent opposition gathering to decide its positions in the peace talks was hosted by the Saudis and they decided who attended and who did not. The sight of the FSA representatives with every western leader from Hillary Clinton to Boris Johnson shows how completely they put their faith in the Western powers.
Thus they became part of a proxy war fought by the imperial powers at the expense of the Syrian people. The last popular control over the direction of the revolution was buried here.
The Syrian opposition were inevitably, predictably, betrayed. And this, in combination with the after-effects of the disaster in Iraq, has allowed the jihadists to emerge more fully as the dominant armed force in the rebel camp.
The lessons are not hard to find: never trust the imperial powers to deliver a revolution. They will always crush it, subvert it, and betray it. For the left the lesson is even clearer: the main enemy is at home. Solidarity with movements in other countries can never work if it involves resiling from this principle. The revolutions cannot win this way, but the left can end up compromising with its own rulers this way.
For the analysis on which this article is based see: Syria: Empire and Revolution.
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.