Sami Ramadani speaks to Samuel Grove about the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, arguing that democratic resistance to Assad's brutal regime has been eclipsed by reactionary forces, backed by Western and Gulf states
The upheaval in Syria is an enormously difficult subject for Western outsiders to get a handle on. One of the reasons for this is the sheer number of different interests jostling for position and power, from both within and outside the country. Let us start with the regime itself. Can you give us a brief history of where the Al-Assad family came from and the direction they have taken the country since they came to power in 1970?
Following the magnificent peoples’ uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, toppling two entrenched dictators, there developed a tendency not to closely examine the nature of the various forces competing for political power both within the opposition movements and the Arab regimes. Events in Libya and NATO’s intervention there have alerted most people to the dangers of hijacking the peoples’ struggle for freedom by reactionary forces. A brief look at the nature of the Syrian regime and its changing role in the region is crucial in trying to understand the current conflict and the reactionary forces’ success in hijacking the people’s struggle for radical change.
Syria has been run by a ruthless, corrupt regime. Syrian left activists have been on the receiving end of severe repression since Hafiz Assad’s coup in 1970. It was after that coup that Henry Kissinger described Syria as “a factor for stability,” despite Soviet military backing for the regime. Hafiz Assad’s regime, funded by the Saudi medieval dictators, played a leading role in the 1970’s and early 80’s in weakening the Palestinian resistance. During the 1975-6 civil war in Lebanon Syrian troops sided with pro-Israeli Phalange and other extreme right wing forces. The regime, in return for US promises over the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights and Saudi petro-dollars, also backed the 1991 US-led war over Kuwait.
The Syrian forces’ presence in Lebanon had the full support of the US and Saudi rulers and the tacit support of Israel. It was only after Syria’s gradual foreign policy shift and reversal of roles from enemies to allies of the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements that the US and Saudi rulers shifted their stance. They pursued an aggressive campaign to force a Syrian withdrawal (1985) from Lebanon, particularly after the 2003 occupation of Iraq. US forces even killed some Syrian soldiers on the Iraqi-Syrian borders.
In relation to the media coverage today, it is important to note that, before Syria’s shift the media were silent about the repressive nature of the regime. This is similar to the their silence towards repression by a variety of ruthless dictatorial allies. Today they talk of Sunni Saudi rulers opposed to Alawite-Shia in Syria, but back then, the media did not bother highlighting the fact that the Wahabi-Sunni Saudi rulers were bankrolling the Syrian regime nor did they push their sectarian poison. A similar sectarian coverage unfolded in relation to Saudi-Iranian relations after the 1979 Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the Shah, a favourite US ally.
The opposition to the Syrian regime was not confined to the left, but included the Muslim Brotherhood, who led a popular revolt in 1982 in their stronghold of Hama. The regime crushed the uprising by bombarding the City and killing thousands of people. Nevertheless, Arab nationalism has for a century or more been Syria’s main ideological current, developed in the struggle against Ottoman rule and, much more deeply, against French colonial rule. Syria won its independence from France in 1946.
The Brotherhood today are backed by the Qatari and Saudi dictators, but the media rarely dwell on the irony of these dictators championing democracy in Syria while crushing any opposition to their rule and sending their troops to help crush the people’s uprising in Bahrain.
In 1967 Syria was invaded and a strategic part of its territory, the Golan Heights, was occupied by Israel. Since then, successive regimes legitimised their rule partly by working for or at least appearing to be actively trying to liberate Syria from occupation. However, US promises of rewarding Syria by forcing Israel to pull out of the occupied lands came to nothing despite Syria’s compliant policies.
Concurrently with the failure of the US to deliver on its promises, a number of factors changed Syria’s role. These include the rise of Iran as a formidable anti-US anti–Israeli power, the Palestinian uprisings, the unstoppable rise of the Lebanese resistance, led by Hizbullah, leading to the liberation of southern Lebanon from occupation and defeat of Israeli-Saudi-US backed forces, the arrival of hostile US forces along Syria’s borders with Iraq, and the rise of Iraqi resistance and defeat of US forces in Iraq.
The Syrian armed forces and security apparatus, with its multi-layer pyramids of informers, form the backbone of the regime’s control over Syrian society. Much is made of the sectarian nature of the Syrian regime and its reliance on the Alawite communities. I think this is highly exaggerated and ignores the much wider circles of support that the regime has acquired, whether this support is active, passive or of the ‘better devil you know’ type.
The powerful, mostly Sunni, merchant classes of Syria, particularly in Damascus and Aleppo, have close links with the regime. Indeed, the US-led economic sanctions are partly directed at this merchant class to force it to shift its stance. Sections of the middle and upper middle classes also tacitly support the regime. Syria’s religious minorities, including Christians who form 10% of the population, are fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood’s social and cultural agenda for Syria. They too would rather have the secular regime than a state dominated by a Saud-Qatari backed Brotherhood. Importantly, the Kurdish minority are also fearful of the influence of Turkey on the Muslim Brotherhood and the fact that the Syrian Free Army is headquartered in Turkey, which has a horrific record of killing over 20,000 Kurdish people in Turkey. Millions of women also fear the social programme of the Brotherhood.
In the context of the current conflict, the poor, the unemployed and students who were supportive of the initial, largely spontaneous protest movement are now much more reticent, partly due to regime repression but primarily because of their opposition to the NATO-Saudi-Qatari meddling and the militarisation of the sections of the opposition, particularly the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army which are dominated by the Brotherhood.
You describe the recent protest movement as 'largely spontaneous'. This doesn't mean obviously that grievances weren't building up over a long period of time, however it does suggest a lack of strong long term organisations of resistance—as was the case in countries like Egypt and Tunisia for example.
Left and progressive opposition to the Syrian regime has been going on for decades, particularly after the 1970 Hafiz Assad coup, which ousted the ‘left’ faction led by Salah Jedid. That faction backed the Palestinian resistance movements based in Jordan against the military onslaught launched by King Hussein’s armed forces in September 1970. Hafiz Assad, who was minister of Defence before the coup, instantly appeased the US and Saudi rulers by siding with King Hussein and starting a crack-down on all left forces in the country.
The left in Syria was for much of the 20th century mostly organised by the Syrian Communist Party. Founded in 1924, the party was subjected to varying degrees of state repression. Since the 1970's the more militant factions within the party and other left organisations and figures have suffered imprisonment, torture and exile. However, the party leadership’s docile stance towards more militant forms of struggle within Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, and servile support for the Soviet Union’s Middle East policies gradually turned it into a party of sections of the intelligentsia rather than a genuine working class party. Perhaps the latter would have appealed to wider society with a socialist programme that also reflected Syria’s neo-colonial status and being part of the wider struggle in the area against imperialism and Zionism. As it happened the political vacuum was filled by the Islamic and nationalist movements, including the Baath party, who champion the Syrian, Palestinian and wider Arab nationalist causes. A similar process happened in Algeria where Marxists initially advocated the line of the French CP declaring that Algeria would be free once France became socialist!
In the context of the current conflict, all the left forces in Syria supported the initial protest marches that followed the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The marches, which started in Deraa on the border with Jordan, were also supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. The demands of the protest marches were focused on issues relating to corruption, unemployment and democratic rights. Though large scale marches were held across many cities it was significant that no such marches took place in Syria’s largest two cities, Damascus and Aleppo, where more than half of Syria’s population reside.
It was also noticeable that the more NATO intervened and militarised the protest movement in Libya the smaller mass peaceful protests became in Syria. The marchers shrunk from hundreds to tens of thousands and to thousands and less. Obviously, regime brutality was a factor, but I don’t think that fear played the biggest role. I think the main reason is that most of the democratic opposition in Syria is also staunchly anti-imperialist and naturally fearful of NATO and Israeli plans for Syria. Events in Libya and, above all, the bloodbaths in and destruction of neighbouring Iraq by the US-led forces and the terrorist gangs, played the leading role in making most of the Syrian democratic secular opposition fearful of the consequences of the escalating conflict. They could not fail to notice that while Iraq burned Syria itself became home to a million Iraqi refugees.
On the other hand, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition leaders based in Istanbul, Paris and London have effectively utilised the publicity they enjoyed on all Arab state-controlled media, particularly the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera. Events have also shown that years of planning had gone into the funding and arming of parts of the Syrian opposition.
Having lost Bin Ali and Mubarak in quick succession, US, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish attention turned to Syria. The massive uprising in Bahrain, headquarters of the US fifth fleet, also sharpened their sense of danger and fear of the people’s uprisings. Saudi and other Gulf sheikdoms sent in their forces to help King Hamad crush the uprising, which is still active.
Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and areas in Iraq became the centres of the counterrevolution in Syria. Arms were smuggled into Syria and the US-created Iraqi militia al-Sahwa backed the armed ‘rebels’ and Libyan fighters were smuggled into the battle zones. Terrorists operating in Iraq also joined the “jihad” against the Syrian regime.
On the other hand, years of repression rendered the Syrian democratic opposition too weak to lead the struggle in the country. As organised forces, they are no match for the counterrevolution’s vast resources. Their only hope was to keep the protests peaceful and sustained. Like in Libya, counter-revolution had other plans.
The left here has to also recognise that the regime does have the support of most of the affluent middle classes, particularly in Damascus and Allepo. The numerous ethnic and religious minorities and large sectors of the female population are also fearful of the socially reactionary nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and the type of regime that they might impose on Syria. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahir’s call for armed Jihad to overthrow Assad’s regime has also further frightened the population of a sectarian conflict.
This puts us in a difficult situation. As left wing activists we support the rights of people to freedom, equality and self-determination. As activists based in the imperial centres we are opposed to the actions of our governments to deny people these rights. So our support for freedom and equality and our opposition to imperialism tend to go hand in hand. However the picture you are depicting in Syria is tied to the implication that we cannot do both these. Is it possible to support Syria's democratic struggle AND oppose foreign intervention? Or is this a luxury we cannot afford?
You raise a very important question. Let me make it crystal clear: it is vital for the left to always oppose both imperialism and regimes that repress the masses. This is a matter of principle that should never be abandoned. Movements that abandoned one or other of these inseparable objectives have committed serious and sometimes fatal errors.
The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) is a good example in this context. Within three decades, it shrunk from being a formidable party of the working class, enjoying the support of the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people in 1958-9, to a pathetic grouping that probably received funds from Saudi Arabia in 1991 in return for siding with US-led 1991 Gulf war, and protection-at-a-price from Barzani’s KDP from 1978-9 onwards. In practice, it betrayed brave chapters of struggle against imperialism and domestic reaction with a chapter of shame by serving the US-led occupation authority in 2003. It abandoned the struggle for democratic socialism in 1959 in the name of opposing imperialism and abandoned the fight against imperialism from 1990 onwards in the name of fighting for democracy.
Which of the twin objectives becomes the main focus of the struggle is always in a state of flux. However, within the context of an era of accelerated imperialist aggression and wars, exposing imperialism and its exploitation of the peoples of the world is always at the heart of the work of the left. Imperialism is a manifestation of monopoly capitalism that exploits the masses at home and abroad. The left in the “imperial centres” has the added internationalist duty of firmly upholding this task: to always side with the oppressed peoples’ struggle against imperialism and for self-determination. However, siding with the oppressed masses also means backing them when they rise up against domestic oppressors. These uprisings and struggle for democracy are part and parcel of the struggle against imperialism.
For me the complexity of the problem resolves itself in determining whether the people’s struggle for civil rights and social emancipation are clearly directed against both domestic reaction/repression and imperialism. In Iraq and Libya yesterday and Syria today, imperialism has succeeded in exploiting the struggle for democracy and eclipsing the progressive opposition forces. The left has to face the facts and not sweep inconvenient developments under the carpet. Syria today has NATO-backed armed groups, led by Saudi/Qatari-funded reactionaries. Syria is a major target of US-led imperialism to install a client regime or, failing that objective, to plunge the country into a sectarian blood bath. The duty of the left in Britain is to firmly uphold and raise the banners high: “Hands off Syria”, “Don’t Iraq Syria”, “Don’t Iraq Iran”, “It is for the Syrian people to determine their future”…
Al-Jazeera is a news station that has developed a reputation on the left for covering the Middle East (some would say the news in general) with more sophistication and seriousness than the mainstream media in this country. And yet you say that in relation to Syria and Libya their role has been very insidious. Can you explain how? Can you append to this your impression of the British media’s coverage of Syria?
With very few and notable exceptions, it really doesn’t take much to provide a more serious and reliable coverage of the Middle East than the mainstream media here. With significant exceptions, the media here echo the line adopted by the Foreign Office on any particular event or country. A complex array of ideological, political, social, economic and commercial factors are at play in the way the media reports on the Middle East and world affairs in general. “British national interests” are perceived by media owners and editors as being expressed by the Foreign Office, which is seen as the neutral depository and slide-rule of the “national interest”. No distinction is made between the genuine interests of the British people and those of the arms manufacturers and oil companies.
Coverage of Israeli policies, Palestinian people’s rights, Mussadaq’s Iran (1953), Nasser’s Egypt (1952-1970), Qassem’s Iraq (1958-1963), the murderous sanctions policies on Iraq, the Iraq War, NATO bombing of Libya and the current covert NATO intervention in Syria are examples of how the mainstream media towed the line advocated by the government of the day. Similarly, the ruthless and socially repressive nature of the Saudi regime is glossed over, because the Saudi medieval rulers are seen as important allies.
As it happens, Al-Jazeera had its own historical link with the media here! The satellite broadcaster was launched in 1996 following the sudden collapse of the BBC Arabic station, which was a joint venture with a leading Saudi prince. The collapse followed Saudi insistence on monitoring all broadcast material, forcing the BBC to pull out. The Qatari rulers seized the moment and launched Al-Jazeera, with scores of the BBC Arabic service staff on board, and with the Qatari ruling family as the owners and political custodians.
The dead hand of the assorted dictatorships in the Arab world made all Arab TV stations be perceived, to varying degrees, as purveyors of state lies, half-truths and, at best, safe-reporting. The advent of satellite stations and the Internet opened the doors for the Al-Jazeera to project itself as the antidote to state censorship.
The more cosmopolitan and less vulnerable Qatari rulers, who were at odds with the Saudi rulers, saw in Al-Jazeera a vehicle for spreading their political influence. They gave Al-Jazeera a free hand to report on the Arab and Muslim world, while maintaining tight control on the Qatari state TV station. But it was of course not allowed to report negatively on the Qatari dictators or to investigate how the current Qatari ruler deposed his father with US blessing. Qatar became the headquarters of US military operations throughout the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
One aspect of Al-Jazeera that does not attract much scrutiny is the station’s tendency to negatively report on the Saudi royal family and Saudi princes’ widespread financial and property interests, which are hindering Qatari investments and influence in the Middle East. The friction between the Qatari and Saudi royal families became much more intense after the Qatari rulers started showing keen interest in widening their influence in the Middle East. Occasionally, however, Al-Jazeera’s intrepid reporters on the ground upset US military planners in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In response to Al-Jazeera, the Saudi rulers funded al-Arabiya and other satellite stations.
The uprisings in the Arab world, especially in neighbouring Bahrain, however, threatened all the ruling families of the Gulf region. This prompted the Qatari and Saudi rulers to make common cause in suppressing the uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen while backing NATO intervention in Libya and bankrolling sections of the Syrian opposition and working for militarising the conflict in Syria. For they are aware that militarising the conflict will not only facilitate covert and possibly overt NATO intervention but will thwart the progressive anti-imperialist forces’ efforts to lead the people’s struggle for democracy and radical social and economic change.
Al-Jazeera English targets a different audience but still has to compete with other stations, particularly Iranian and Russian satellite stations. But both Al-Jazeera Arabic and English, along with nearly all Arab TV stations, target Iran in a barrage of negative reporting, with a racist and sectarian undertones against “Persian” and “Shia influence” in the region. This aspect of Al-Jazeera’s reporting is becoming increasingly important in the context of possible Israeli or US attacks on Iran.
Permit me here to quote from an article I wrote last year in which I referred to the role of Al-Jazeera within the Arab uprisings:
“Though Al-Jazeera has now become the most influential political tool of counter-revolution in the Arab world, its role in Libya and the impact of the sectarian nature of its coverage of the Bahrain uprising would have been much less lethal had it not been for the massive prestige and authority it had gained at the height of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. [...] This [has given it] a unique position to influence events and perceptions, particularly in relation to Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. [...]Although Al-Jazeera has always had a sectarian undertone at an editorial level, a marked shift in direction came when the Qatari ruling family [...] buried their longstanding conflict with the Saudi ruling family in the wake of the revolutionary tidal wave reaching Bahrain [...] The channel’s silence towards the violent suppression of the protesters in Bahrain, headquarters of the US fifth fleet, was backed up by live interviews with Sheikh Qaradhawi, a very influential Egyptian cleric and a guest of the Qatari ruling family.”
Doing serious damage to the democratic forces in Syria, Al-Jazeera has been trumpeting the Qatari and Saudi rulers’ calls for the militarisation of the conflict. It has given voice to the pro-NATO intervention forces in the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, who do not represent a majority of the Syrian people and are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps more damagingly is the way they suppressed the anti-intervention democratic opposition voices in Syria.
How do you see this conflict playing out? Do you see a victory for the reactionary forces as moving us closer to a war with Iran? Is there still a potential for revolutionary change in Syria?
Yes, I think that a victory for the Saudi and Qatari ruling classes, backed by the US, will be a major setback for the people in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and the entire region. It will plunge Syria and the entire region into a sectarian bloodbath, and will strengthen plans to attack Iran.
In an alarming move pointing to future developments, a major US-led military exercise is taking place in Jordan. 12,000 multinational forces from 20 NATO members and Arab states are taking part in Operation Eager Lion 2012, the first of its type in the region. US military sources do not hide the fact that the simulation of amphibious landings and other war manoeuvres were intended to be “noticed” by Syria and Iran.
Syria is of pivotal importance not only due to its historic role and strategic location but also because it is Iran’s only ally in the region. Installing a pro US regime in Damascus, or crippling Syria through severe sanctions, terrorist attacks and sectarian civil war will apply further pressure on Iran to either concede to US demands or be attacked.
I think that Iran’s nuclear energy programme is not the major US concern, especially given that the CIA itself has admitted that there was no evidence that Iran was working on producing nuclear weapons. Iran is a formidable regional power, and one of the world’s largest oil producers, which happens to be implacably opposed to US and Israeli policies. Its policies run counter to US plans and have created problems for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq and for Israeli policies in Palestine and Lebanon.
Following the uprisings, the Saudi and Qatari rulers are being encouraged by Washington to strengthen their influence in the Middle East by restoring their lost influence in Syria and Lebanon. In the latter, defeating Hizbullah (and its Christian and left and nationalist allies) is the main objective. They are trying to drag Hizbullah into another Lebanese civil war. Al-Jazeera and Arab states’ media have been conducting a prolonged and intense racist and sectarian campaign against Iran, portraying it as the main enemy and accusing Syria and Hizbullah of being stooges of Iran.
This is not to argue that the counterrevolutionary onslaught will be successful. The people of Syria are overwhelmingly opposed to political and social change in their country that is funded and backed by the dictatorships of Riyadh and Doha. Women, most of whom enjoy vast social rights compared to Saudi women, ethnic and religious minorities and the democratic left in Syria are a formidable force against Saudi-Qatari-funded forces and are opposed to calls for NATO intervention. Militarisation of the conflict and resorting to terrorist attacks are signs of failure of the reactionary forces to gain mass support for their line. However, the struggle of the anti-imperialist left and other democratic forces in Syria, as in Iraq, remain difficult and very complex, due to the brutality of and corruption-ridden regime on the one hand and the intervention of NATO and Saudi-Qatari rulers on the other.
Years of repression by the dictatorships, backed by colonial and imperialist powers for so many decades, has organisationally weakened the left and other democratic forces. It is obvious that with Saudi-Qatari backing, the leaderships of the Brotherhood and Salafi forces are, in the short term, reaping the fruits of the uprisings. These forces have always played a dual role amongst the poorest sections of the population, giving voice for their demands while acting as a lid on the more politically and socially radical demands of the people. At critical times, as in Egypt, Iraq and Syria today, they have played a counter-revolutionary role and were accommodated by imperialist powers.
However, the uprisings in the region have unleashed massive popular energies that bode well for the future.
In the short term I am quite pessimistic about radical democratic transformation in Syria. I think that is no longer possible in the current phase of the struggle, because of the weakness of the left organisations and the foothold gained by the reactionary forces in the country. But longer term the uprisings across the Arab world are laying new foundations for the left to organise and prepare for the protracted battles to come. The masses have flexed their muscles in an unprecedented way. I think their triumphs and setbacks are massive schools for the new generations to develop more effective means and organisations to lead the struggle forward.
Sami Ramadani is a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University and has been an active participant in campaigns against Saddam's regime and anti-imperialist struggles for many years.
Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist.
This interview first appeared on the New Left Project website.
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