By Michael Karadjis
On the evening of June 29, I went up against Dr. Tim Anderson, Australia’s most well-known and prolific propagandist for the murderous Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, at the Gaelic Club’s Politics of the Pub evening. A packed house, and, as might be expected at a drinking gathering, stormy enough, the evening highlighted the severity of the challenge of reconstructing a viable, credible, emancipatory political left able to confront today’s neo-liberal capitalist disaster.
Some may well say the issue is “only Syria” and we shouldn’t generalize about the bad politics that some people have on only one issue. That is a valid enough point. Nevertheless, confronted with close to the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our era – not just “any issue” – a dogged section of the western left has thrown overboard the politics of elementary human solidarity, without which, the bigger task I outlined above would appear to be a very long way away.
As usual, I had too much to say and didn’t get round to making a number of important points, particularly about the role of US imperialism, though I did get to it a little at the end, and in discussion. Some might say that is the most important issue, but given that the US has had very little to do with the dynamics of the Syrian revolution and counterrevolution, it quite simply is not – therefore I believe I was correct to focus more on the actual dynamics of what is going on in Syria rather than abstract geopolitical schemas and prejudices beloved by many western “analysts” who often couldn’t care less about what happens to real people.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh: Syria’s “internal First World” v the “black Syrians”
Before going on, I will first produce the lines I opened with, quoting Syrian Communist dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh (who spent 16 years in Assadist torture chambers for holding an opinion), because he so eloquently sums up the political method I support on this issue:
“That Syrians have been subject to extreme Palestinization by a brutal, internal Israel, and that they are susceptible to political and physical annihilation, just like Palestinians, in fact lies outside the clueless, tasteless geopolitical approach of those detached anti-imperialists, who ignorantly bracket off politics, economics, culture, the social reality of the masses and the actual history of Syria.”
“This way of linking our conflict to one major global struggle, which is supposedly the only real one in the world, denies the autonomy of any other social and political struggle taking place in the world.
“The anti-imperialist comrade is with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt for the same reason that led him to “resist” alongside the Syrian regime. Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, or Syria, people are invisible, and their lives do not matter. We remain marginal to some other issue, the only one that matters: the struggle against imperialism (a struggle that, ironically, is also not being fought by these anti-imperialists, as I will argue below).
“The response to this discourse need not be to point out the truth, that the Assadist state is not against imperialism in any way whatsoever. First and foremost, the autonomy of our social and political struggles for democracy and social justice must be highlighted and separated out from this grand, abstract scheme.
“A better starting point would be to look at actual conflicts and actual relationships between conflicting parties. This could involve, for example, thinking about how the structure of a globally dominating Western first world has been re-enacted in our own countries, including Syria. We have an “internal first world” that is the Assadist political and economic elites, and a vulnerable internal third world, which the state is free to discipline, humiliate, and exterminate. The relationship between the first world of Assad and the third world of “black Syrians” perfectly explains Syria’s Palestinization.
“Only then would it be meaningful to state that there is nothing within the Assadist state that is truly anti-imperialist, even if we define imperialism as an essence nestled in the West. Nor is there anything popular, liberatory, nationalist, or third-worldly in the Syrian regime. There is only a fascist dynastic rule, whose history, which goes back to the 1970s, can be summed up as the formation of an obscenely wealthy and atrociously brutal neo-bourgeoisie, which has proved itself ready to destroy the country in order to remain in power forever.”
Support Assad?? Why not Pol Pot, the Taliban or ISIS?
As I then explained, this is what the Syrian revolution is about: the struggle against this “obscenely wealthy and atrociously brutal neo-bourgeoisie, which has reacted by destroying its country to remain in power forever.” By contrast, this ivory-tower anti-imperialism, which supports this monstrously repressive dictatorship as it bombs its entire to country to bits for six years, is the same kind that would support Pol Pot, or ISIS, or the Taliban, on the basis of alleged “anti-imperialism,” regardless of what they do to their own peoples.
However, I also pointed out the difference: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did actually fight US imperialism for half a decade before coming to power (1970-75); the Taliban has actually been fighting US imperialism in Afghanistan for the last 17 years; and ISIS is also actually at war with US imperialism in Syria and Iraq. So while all this support the apologists are providing one of the most savage right-wing dictatorships on Earth is predicated upon this mythical “anti-imperialism”, as Saleh points out, not only is this method wrong, but in the specific case the rationale itself is false: the Assad regime has never resisted imperialism, and the US has never bombed Assad (until a few pinprick, militarily insignificant strikes recently, a needle in a haystack among the 9000 US strikes on non-Assadist forces in Syria).
Thus, on Assad, the ivory-tower anti-imperialists have got it wrong at both ends: to be really consistent in the mechanical, binary, amoeboid “anti-imperialism” they espouse, they should be supporting ISIS, not Assad.
Now, I said above that I focused on the actual dynamics in Syria, and didn’t get round to some of the things I wanted to say on the role of US imperialism; nevertheless, I did get to a number of aspects of the US role – the open support given to Assad by State Secretary Hillary Clinton at the onset of the Syrian uprising, when she called Assad a “reformer” and explained how this was different from the situation in Libya; the similar statements coming from the main Gulf states; the fact that Assad had never fought imperialism, and in particular in the last phase before 2011, Syria’s role as the favoured place for the US to send Islamist suspects for the best torture; the fact that the later call by Obama (after months of slaughter that was tearing the entire region apart) for Assad to “stand aside” had nothing to do with “regime change”, but rather was about regime preservation, with plenty of evidence provided; the fact that the main role of the US in relation to the Free Syrian Army and other rebels since 2012 has been to place spooks on the borders to prevent deliveries, by others, of ant-aircraft weapons to the rebels (in a war that has been overwhelmingly one of aerial slaughter since 2012); and the well-known fact for anyone who reads the news that that the US bombing war on Syria since mid-2014 has been overwhelmingly against ISIS, secondarily against Jabhat al-Nusra, and to some extent against other mainstream Islamist or even FSA rebels at times, not against Assad.
All of these points were ignored by Anderson and by all those supporting him either in question time or from the rowdy floor when I was speaking. Facts do not matter; when you have a semi-religious devotion to some bloodthirsty tyrant, facts and evidence are irrelevant.
On that note, to summarise the main thing I saw wrong with Anderson’s talk: he began by claiming I had largely ignored “the big picture”, and so he proceeded to give his version of what that was. The big picture included many points about the role of US imperialism in the world, the right of nations to run their own affairs and so on, issues that no-one in the room would necessarily disagree with in the abstract. As I pointed out privately to him later, all this “big picture” has little meaning without the “meat” of the “little picture” – in other words, if you cannot demonstrate that US imperialism has driven the entire Syrian movement against Assad from Day One, if you cannot demonstrate that there has been an active US intervention against Assad – then all the “big picture” is just a bunch of platitudes, with only the implication deliberately left hovering over the audience that the global role of US imperialism necessarily means it played a role in Syria that Anderson was not able to demonstrate it had.
As neither Anderson nor I were able to sum up due to time restraints (the chair understandably wanted to give more time to discussion from the audience), I was unable to respond to a number of issues he raised in his talk, so I will take the opportunity to do that now. Here were a number of points that stood out:
Fisk: New master of embedded journalism
Anderson brought up the issue of the gigantic Assadist massacre of hundreds of people in the FSA-controlled outer Damascus suburb of Darayya in 2012, noting that journalist Robert Fisk visited Darayya, interviewed locals, and found out that the FSA had committed this massacre of their own supporters and their own families (one wonders why then the regime had to endlessly barrel bomb Darayya for four years afterwards if the local people really saw the FSA as the enemy). Let’s get to the issue here: why did someone with an academic background cite Fisk, who rode into Darayya in a Syrian regime tank, and then went out “interviewing” the traumatized, terrorized locals in the presence of his regime handlers; yes, no doubt many of them knew what was good for their health and said the FSA did it (hell, so would you, especially if you had children). Fisk is someone who once upon a time rightly earned accolades for his progressive and often fearless journalism; that he now exemplifies “embedded journalism” to such an extraordinary degree is not something to be celebrated, still less to be used in argument by anyone who really wanted to know the facts. For the testimony of a real journalist, who managed to slip into Darayya without regime handlers, much better to read the account by Janine di Giovani.
The famous “DIA document”
Anderson also brought up the famous “US Defence Intelligence Agency document” that allegedly shows the US was openly supporting a “Salafist” rebellion against Assad in 2012 and that this paved the way for ISIS. Except that, once again, one would expect better from someone with his academic credentials. This scrappy document (http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf), brought out into the open by Trump’s first National Security Advisor, the right-wing spook Michael Flynn, tells us among other things that “THE POPULATION LIVING ON THE BORDER [ie, the Iraqi-Syrian border – MK] HAS A SOCIAL-TRIBAL STYLE, WHICH IS BOUND BY STRONG TRIBAL AND FAMILIAL MARITAL TIES.” Now, already this rather banal style, as Professor Gilbert Achcar has noted, “reads as if the report is based on loose talk by an “informant” and written by a novice.” To this we can add the other grammatical and spelling mistakes scattered throughout the document, which does not help the case that it is a DIA document. It even gets the name Jabhat al-Nusra wrong – calling it “Jaish al Nusra” – and wrongly translates it as “Victorious Army” – given the US intelligence focus on al-Qaida since 2001, these kinds of mistakes would be pretty embarrassing.
It is clear from reading the document that it is written by a source close to the Iraqi regime, which bridges being a US satellite derived from the US invasion, and being an Iranian satellite allied to the Assad regime. Therefore, it tends to talk with the same story as Assadists do, such as the vague assertions/accusations in the document about unnamed “western countries” supporting the opposition to Assad, supporting “Salafists” etc; but we can also see that this source does not think this is a good thing – the fact that the FSA had taken over parts of the Syrian-Iraqi border is presented as “a dangerous and serious threat” since the border is “not guarded by official elements” (ie, the Assad regime). And in the context of “the situation unravelling” the informant raises the “possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria,” clearly seen as part of this “dangerous and serious threat,” with “dire consequences” including the possibility of AQI declaring an Islamic state across Syria and Iraq which would create a “grave danger” to Iraq’s unity! As Achcar states, this “NOT FINALLY EVALUATED INTELLIGENCE” is “actually just worthless rubbish of the kind the files of the “intelligence” services are full of.”
Where does ISIS get its US arms from again?
Anderson also claims that the fact US weapons have been found with ISIS is evidence that the microscopic amount of mostly small arms the US has sent the FSA (to try to tame them) have made their way to ISIS. He even dismissed suggestions that the US arms came from Iraq. Now that is a really tall order. Most people know that by far the worst ever leakage of arms to ISIS came from the US/Iran-backed Iraqi army. When ISIS seized Mosul in mid-2014 and the Iraqi army ran away, ISIS seized “large quantities of US-supplied humvees, tanks and armoured personnel carriers, and various small arms and light weapons and ammunition – enough to supply approximately three divisions in a conventional army (10,000 to 20,000 soldiers per division),” as well as $480 million. Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi admitted to the loss of 2300 humvees! Masses of similar equipment was seized from Tikrit and a number of other Iraqi towns and military depots, and in particular in Ramadi in May 2015, when the Iraqi army abandoned “a half dozen tanks, a similar number of artillery pieces, a larger number of armored personnel carriers and about 100 wheeled vehicles like Humvees.” Actually, the Assad regime has also lost a significant amount of equipment to ISIS. When ISIS drove the regime from an airbase in al-Raqqa, Ayn Essa, along with the Tabqa air base in August 2014, ISIS captured MiG-21B fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, artillery (including SA-16 shoulder-fired anti- aircraft systems and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles) and ammunition. Similar losses occurred at the Tadmur base in Palmyra. Whatever odd gun ISIS may have seized form the FSA is certainly irrelevant compared to all these windfalls!
Mass exodus from Aleppo
Regarding the fall of rebel-held eastern Aleppo after months and months of the most savage bombardment in the war in late 2016, Anderson claimed there were only 100,000 people left there, while most of the population lived in Assad-controlled western Aleppo. This was true by that time, but what he didn’t say was how many people used to live in eastern Aleppo. Still, he would probably claim they ran away from the rebels (or “al-Qaida groups” as he dishonestly calls everyone opposing Assad). If so, it is strange that 500,000 people fled eastern Aleppo in just the two months to mid-February 2014, from when Assad launched his new more massive barrel-bombing campaign there. Just by coincidence, Anderson was there in Syria shaking hands with Assad in his presidential palace as this was beginning in December 2013. The new groundswell of refugees from Aleppo, “emptying whole neighborhoods and creating what aid workers say is one of the largest refugee flows of the entire civil war … flooded the countryside, swelling populations in war-battered communities that are already short on space and food and pushing a new wave of refugees into Turkey,” many arriving in Kilkis, “this once-quiet border town, where Syrians now nearly outnumber the original 90,000 Turkish inhabitants.” Even more dramatically, some 200,000 people fled Aleppo in just one 48-hour period in mid-2012 as the regime escalated its bombing of the city.
Schoolgirls in Niqab: How still-life photography aids still-life analysis
Anderson is also very good with photographic “evidence”. For example, he showed a photo of schoolgirls in Idlib with their faces fully covered, showing what control of the city by Nusra meant for local women. Without being able to check the photo, I am unable to determine when and where it is, but I am prepared to take his word for it. Even then, I do not know if it is from Idlib city, where Nusra plays a prominent role but shares control with others, or from some town in a part of the province under full Nusra control (it obviously is not from the parts of Idlib where FSA and other anti-Nusra forces hold full control). But again, let’s say it is Idlib city.
Despite Anderson’s slanders against all Syrian rebels as “al-Qaida”, in fact while it plays a prominent role in Idlib, Nusra/JFS has hardly gone unchallenged: a number of brilliant articles recently have explored the resistance to Nusra/JFS in parts of Idlib province by civil, pro-revolution resistance and by the FSA and other rebels (see for example here, here and here). But perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the underlying emancipatory dynamic of the revolution – which may temporarily accept Nusra rules as the lesser evil to the regime due to the crisis military situation, but is in sharp conflict with Nusra’s repressive goals – has come out and undermined Nusra/JFS even where it previously held major sway, including in Idlib city and in the area of women’s clothing:
“When Nusra took control here in March 2015, Idlib entered a dark tunnel of deprivation. Public education deteriorated, the university was closed, and public debate was stifled. But since Nusra broke with Qaeda and changed its name, the city has become a lot more liveable.
“When Nusra first came to power, it had the upper hand, because it was the biggest group in the Fatah Army. People saw no choice but to accept its rules. They saw it as less dangerous than the regime and the lesser evil.
“But the rulers have adapted. They thought they could rule with the “iron and fire” of the age of the Prophet Muhammad. But no one wanted Nusra’s dress code, which required women to wear ankle-length cloaks and to give up makeup. …
“Now the authorities have concluded they cannot oppress the people of the whole city. So they cut back the restrictions. The process began when Nusra disengaged from Al Qaeda, and it continues. Early in November, the Fatah Army leadership met with the city’s elders. Nusra hard-liners wanted to reinstate the tough measures, but the elders opposed it and won. However, there was no public statement.
“The liberation extends to primary schools. Last year, schoolgirls had to dress Sharia-style starting in the fifth grade, with black niqabs covering the face, a long black cloak, and a hijab or veil. Last month I visited a local school and saw girls in colorful mantos (a short jacket reaching to the knees) and hijabs colored with embroidery. Some even had makeup.
“The women’s police used to patrol the streets in black cloaks and a niqab, an identity card on their breasts, a rifle on their backs. They would take names of women wearing colored dresses or makeup and order them to the city administration building for a course in Sharia-style dress. They would go to a woman’s home and warn the man of the house to keep her in line, implicitly threatening arrest if he didn’t. Now the women’s police are off the streets. I see women driving cars, which would have been impossible early in the summer. Shopkeepers no longer have to close their shops at prayer time. They don’t have to hire a woman to sell clothes to female customers.
“The easing extends even to the security sector. There are fewer checkpoints and fewer searches. Meanwhile, respect for the authorities has sunk. The Islamic police, in their black pants and white shirt with a police badge, operate the checkpoints on the highways and inside the city, on the public squares and at security headquarters. They were once a feared security force, but now they are weak, powerless, and simple men, most of whom joined Nusra to earn a salary.”
It is also worth noting that Jaish al-Fateh, the military coalition (which includes Nusra/JFS but also seven other brigades) which had governed Idlib city since its capture in March 2015, handed over power to an elected local council in early 2017. The head of the election commission, Muhammad Salim Khoder, said this occurred “after efforts by the people of the city to persuade Jaish al-Fateh to deliver the city’s administration for the people to elect a local council manages its affairs”.
Now despite the mindless slanders that will inevitably come my way for writing the above about Idlib, neither the successful resistance to Nusra in other Idlib towns, nor the handover to the elected council in Idlib city, nor the sharp softening of JFS restrictions on personal issues, mean that JFS has become “nice” or anything similar. Rather, they show that, unlike under the savage dictatorships of Assad and ISIS, struggle goes on in the revolution-controlled areas, even those where the presence of Nusra is relatively strong as in Idlib. The situation remains in flux; the above is no guarantee it won’t swing back the other way at some time. But thousands of people did not come into the streets, brave bullets and tanks and warplanes in order to create more repression, but just the opposite; they will put up with Nusra’s reactionary rules for a little time perhaps due precisely to the war situation, but the pressure, including from many of Nusra’s own rank and file, is to throw them off as soon as they can.
That is, if we want to look at dynamic processes in all their complexity; for some, however, an orientalist photo of schoolgirls in niqab at one moment in time might suffice to justify “left” Islamophobic and “war on terror” discourses.
Further on the question of Islamophobic images, at an earlier confrontation between myself and Anderson organized by the Northside Forum on June 10, Anderson showed the audience an image of half a dozen severed heads, which he claimed were not severed by ISIS but by “moderate rebels.” He did not specify which rebel group was allegedly responsible for each head, nor what the source of such an allegation was (almost certainly it was his usual source, the Assad regime). In fact his more general accusation here is simply false – while no-one denies that crimes have been committed by all sides in such a merciless conflict, the FSA and mainstream Islamist groups have simply not engaged in decapitation; in fact not even Nusra/JFS does – it is indeed an ISIS specialty. The reason the single case of (horrific) decapitation by some rogue members of an increasingly roguish rebel group in 2016 (al-Zinki) became known to everyone in the world was precisely because it was so unique. Actually, there are plentiful examples of decapitation by regime forces – usually the propaganda pics claim the severed heads are only of “ISIS” troops – something only the most extraordinarily naiive would take at face value. I’d wager that was probably the origin of the regime propaganda pics in Anderson’s presentation.
In 2017, some believe “free elections” occur in fascist dictatorships
Anderson also claimed that Assad had been “elected” at an “election” held in 2014, and from memory one of the questioners even asked why we shouldn’t accept the results of a free election. This is indeed a unique occasion in leftist history when people who have rejected oppression and repression all their lives, and made great efforts at understanding how even our own bourgeois democracy is deeply flawed, uphold an “election” farce run by a murderous dictatorship. Aside from the fact that the only candidates allowed to stand against Assad were two nobodies, allowed precisely because they were Assad clones (to be allowed to stand, the first condition was that a candidate must have the support of at least 35 members of the existing Baathist-dominated parliament, and so 21 of 23 were rejected); aside from the fact that “voters” had to bloody their thumb to stamp the electoral roll, and thus could be spotted at workplaces the following day if the evidence was absent (a possible death or disappearance certificate); aside from large parts of the country being outside regime control; aside from 5 million Syrians being in exile; aside from all of this and more, why would anyone assume that the figures released by the State Ministry of Truth (ie, the 73.4 percent participation rate and the 88.7 percent vote for Assad) mean anything at all? Is anyone able to check?
If we assume these figures are “true” (even taking into account the manipulation and other factors), then do we also accept that in every other “election” that Assad has called since 1971, he has received 99 percent of the vote? Why would anyone with a brain accept that? And if so, do you also accept that Zairean tyrant Mobutu received 99 percent in his 1970 election? That Saddam Hussein got 99 percent and 100 percent in his last two elections? That Mubarak always got 97 percent? That Enver Hoxha usually got around 100 percent?
Anderson claimed large numbers of Syrian refugees voted in Lebanon, though outside Assad state control, thus proving that participation was genuine. However, every media report referred to “tens of thousands” rushing the embassy in Lebanon to vote. Yes, that is a great many. But there are 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, so do the maths – the “tens of thousands” probably do represent the actual level of support for Assad among Syrians in Lebanon. But in any case, the great majority were barred from voting even if they had wanted to: a law was passed that refugees who had fled Syria at checkpoints not controlled by the regime were not eligible to vote. I wonder which groups of refugees fled at regime-controlled checkpoints?
What a sad day for the left that it is even necessary for me to explain this.
The discussion and the noise
I will also note some highlights of the discussion.
On the whole, while the majority of the audience listened to both speakers and avoided too much interference, a small group of noisy Assadists near the front continually interrupted my talk and my responses to questions. But it was less the fact of these interjections than the content of them that was the problem. “You support ISIS”, for example, was a fairly typical piece of “discussion” from this group. “Al-Qaida and ISIS are funded/armed by the US” was another good one. Now, aside from the logical problem of how the US is “supporting” ISIS by bombing it for years (indeed slaughtering thousands of civilians in the process, which none of the Assadists were concerned about), while not bombing Assad, indeed often collaborating with Assad in joint bombing of ISIS, the other problem with this inane rubbish is – even if it were true, what does that have to do with anything? Since neither I nor any of my supporters in the room support either the US or ISIS, the intended target of the silly slogan is obscure.
One questioner asked why I said I “supported al-Qaida.” Of course, for anyone with ears and brains, it was fairly obvious that I said nothing of the sort. It didn’t matter – he was sure I must have meant it. What a waste of space.
When I claimed well over 90 percent of killing had been committed by the Assad regime and the Assad cheer squad made exasperated noises, I asked them – while my slides showed the Guernica that every town and city in Syria had been reduced to – “who has an airforce”? Of course my question meant, which side in Syria, the regime or the rebels. Who in other words has destroyed the entire country, and with it, been able to carry out truly large-scale slaughter (even leaving aside the regime’s industrial scale torture-to-death archipelago). The response from the peanut gallery? “Israel”. “The US.” So, “are you saying it was Israel that bombed all these cities in Syria to rubble?”, I asked. “Yes”, came the answer. Clearly a mob interested in discussion.
Anderson himself used some unusual expressions during discussion. For example, apparently it is now OK for leftists to refer to civilians massacred by aerial bombing as “collateral damage,” since such bombing, as always with the US, Israel, Russia etc, is allegedly aimed at “terrorists.” In Assad’s case, a rather gigantic amount of this “collateral damage” was thereby swept under the carpet. We’ve come a long way it seems. I also learnt that evening that the Arab Spring uprisings were a “western construction.”
One of the most sensible questions came from a Syrian refugee. He pointed to the photos Anderson had shown of Syrian people demonstrating in support of their great leader, and noted that anyone who lives in Syria is well aware of these staged farces – as a schoolkid he had been forced onto buses to go to such “spontaneous demonstrations” for example. Confronted by this piece of elementary knowledge (as with “election” circuses, most knowledgeable people know that dictatorships are good at staging “demonstrations” that support them), Anderson could not reject it; instead he said that as a kid in Australia, he was put on a bus to see the Queen of England when she visited. Even if we leave aside the differences – for example, in a dictatorship it is not only schoolkids but also workers from workplaces force-marched to these farces – it would be difficult to miss the irony of this response: I do not remember leftists, progressives or even remotely critical thinkers ever claiming that these staged circuses to greet the English queen were evidence of mass support for the monarchy.
The Syrian in question comes from Darayya, one of the outer Damascus suburbs controlled by the most democratic part of the revolutionary movement, bombed, besieged and starved by Assad for years until its forced surrender and the deportation of its people in 2016. A refugee in Australia who has abundant connections to people, including relatives, slaughtered by the Assad regime, a person profoundly opposed to all anti-democratic currents in Syria, he was slandered by Anderson as a “former jihadist fighter” in a subsequent facebook discussion about the evening.
Some discussion points about the end of the politics of solidarity
The first questioner referred to the message to Assad from the US government that week that it suspected he was preparing another chemical attack, and not to do it or he would again be punished, like after Assad’s horrific sarin attack on the village of Khan Sheiktoun in early April. He asked if this was a signal from the US to “al-Qaida” to “attack Assad.” While it was legitimate to ask what one made of the obscure US government statement, the way the question was asked allowed little in the way of a response. The facts as I presented them and which were never denied by Anderson are that the US has been bombing “al-Qaida”, or rather its former components, both Nusra/JFS and ISIS, for years now, essentially in alliance with Assad. The singular US credibility strike on Assad after Khan Sheikhtoun was surrounded both before and after by far more massive US bombing (than at any time in the war) of both Nusra/JFS and ISIS, and also by endless assurances by all wings of the Trump regime that the strike was a one-off only concerned with the use of sarin and nothing else; just why the Trump regime would want to deliberately fake an Assad sarin attack in order to strike it again is anybody’s guess -and the fact that nothing remotely of the sort has occurred (indeed US/Russia/Assad collaboration has increased in the weeks since) is evidence enough to me that the US warned Assad to not make another sarin attack precisely because it did suspect one and did not want to have to bomb him again!
But of course my assumption here is only based on this little thing called the facts. For the quite religious-like devotees of Assad that evening, such facts are irrelevant because they had all been working on the assumption that “everyone knows”, like they “know”, that Assad did not massacre children with sarin at Khan Sheikhtoun in April, just as he did not massacre hundreds of children in East Ghouta in 2013; they assume everyone “knows” that these were “false flags.” This is not the place to go into any of the massive quantities of evidence that Assad did indeed use sarin on both occasions.
But the fact that the questioner did not express any sympathy for the actual victims – disproportionately children – who suffered the particularly horrific death caused by sarin at the hands of their fascistic idol, but was only concerned with his grotesque conspiracies, is a clear enough example of the complete collapse of the politics of solidarity among this section of the left.
Another Assadist, one Elizabeth Tory, wanted to know our views on the “sanctions” imposed on the Assad regime by western countries such as Australia, which she claimed were causing suffering. She certainly has form to be talking about suffering. One was immediately reminded of Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s distinction between the internal first world in Syria and the world of the “black Syrians” who “the state is free to discipline, humiliate, and exterminate.” While her favourite oligarchic tyrant has besieged hundreds of thousands of people, pouring millions of tons of TNT into small towns while blocking exits and entrances and imposing a regime of mass starvation on these “black Syrians”, the appropriately named Tory is concerned with some alleged deprivation allegedly caused by some mild sanctions.
Once again, further evidence of the basic politics of solidarity down the toilet. One may as well be complaining about the sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s causing some deprivation among the white internal first world there, while the state massacred the downtrodden, hungry and disenfranchised black majority. And indeed I support BDS against Israel precisely because I would like to see our hypocritical western governments punish Israel and its internal first world for its ongoing occupation, slaughter and dispossession of the Palestinian people.
A third similar example, with a difference, was the discussion point raised by one Ruby Hamad, of Lebanese Alawite background. Her first point was that, as an Alawite, she objected to “all opposition to Salafism being called Islamophobia.” Since no-one had said anything so absurd, I asked her who she was referring to. She answered that I had said it, when I said Anderson’s ritual terming of everyone fighting Assad as “al-Qaida groups” was Islamophobic. In other words, her point was yet another example of people deciding to not learn anything from facts presented that evening, or at least to refer to them in order to refute them with evidence. The fact that “al-Qaida groups” (ie Nusra/JFS) make up an absolute minority of the anti-Assad rebellion, and that even “Salafists” in general are only one part of it, and that even among so-called “Salafists” there is enormous variation, is all irrelevant to those who have decided it is either “Assad or al-Qaida”.
Where she had a better point was in expressing the genuine fears of the Alawite part of the Syrian population about the outcome of the war. The fears of the Alawites are an extremely valid issue, which I will discuss in my final point below. For now though, I will risk censure by stating openly that I considered her contribution the third example of the end of solidarity. After years and years of slaughter, of hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelmingly Syrian Sunni, by a regime which is stuffed from the top, especially of the military-security apparatus which carries out this slaughter, by Alawites (often relatives of Assad), one thing Hamad could have done would have been to express some elementary solidarity with those actually being slaughtered like flies today, and for so many years. Not a word of sympathy or solidarity (though she did at least say she doesn’t support Assad “or any oppressive governments”), in a contribution aimed at garnering sympathy for possible future victims if the tables were to turn.
Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, how is this different to Israeli Jews fretting about how if they stopped endlessly slaughtering the Palestinians, one day the tables might turn and the Arabs would come and drive them “into the sea”?
That said, and I make no apologies for it, it is important to return to the issue of the fears of Alawites (or other religious minorities) and to the broader question of peace.
The final question of the evening: How to achieve peace
And that was the last question from the audience – from a Syrian who said he didn’t like any of the forces fighting on any side, and he would like to hear discussion of how to bring about peace. It was unfortunate that this question was right at the end of the night and there was no time for this at all – now that Assad has indeed “burnt the country” as his supporters promised to do in 2011, how to end the war is indeed the most crucial issue.
In fact, despite my time limitations, I made a point in my talk of stressing there is “no military solution” to the Syrian conflict, by which I meant both that it is militarily impossible for one side to totally prevail over the other, and that even if possible such a “solution” would not be democratic. I will just clarify both points.
Of course, the fact that the vastly outgunned rebels can never achieve full military victory over the regime is rather obvious (and I also made the point in my talk that fears some Syrians hold about certain rebel formations “taking power” in Damascus are as unreal as fears of Hamas militarily emerging from Gaza to rule in Tel Aviv). So let’s drop the “who is going to take over if Assad falls” talk (how about Syrians decide that rather than “anti-imperialist” westerners thinking it is their decision, with no apparent irony?); let’s drop the “there is no-one to replace Assad” (because just what Syrians need is another tyrannical dictator to rule them if Assad goes). On the other hand, it may be argued that the opposite – total Assadist victory – is possible given its overwhelming military superiority, but if so, it would be a pyrrhic victory, with the most brutally dispossessed part of the Sunni population potentially turning to jihadism and/or guerrilla struggle, millions of refugees (a quarter of the population) stranded in exile, while the regime continues to lose all semblance of independence to the various powers keeping it afloat.
As for why it would not be democratic, that goes without saying for an Assadist victory. However, as a rebel supporter, I have always believed that the rebels “seizing power” in a purely military victory, if it were even remotely possible, would not bring a very democratic outcome either (though it would be vastly superior to the regime). This is due to the sharp divisions among Syrians, in particular the alienation of many people among the religious minorities, and the majority of Alawites, along with many of the middle classes in the big cities, from the plebeian-based revolution. If a military advance on regime areas provoked a popular uprising against Assad among Alawites and others, that would be a different thing, and it would cut the ground from under the sectarian currents among the opposition; but the political limitations of the rebel leaderships have always made this unlikely, even in better times. By that, I do not mean all rebel leaderships are crazed Sunni sectarians – far from it, I gave a number of examples in my talk of anti-sectarian declarations from the FSA in various parts of the country and could give many more – but simply they have not prioritised this issue enough, or have not been able to, giving the pressing military needs of bare survival.
Moreover, Assad’s endless drive for full-scale military solution benefits the “uncompromising” jihadist fringes, especially the very sectarian Nusra/JFS. But my assessment does not depend only on the strength or otherwise of those like Nusra/JFS – civil war and massive bloodshed itself intensifies sectarian dynamics, and full-scale military victory would likely encourage a degree of sectarian “revenge” on the ground even if politically non-sectarian forces vastly prevail over the likes of Nusra. Just as there is no military solution in Israel/Palestine; just as Mandela understood the need for a transitional political arrangement to calm fears among white South Africans; so likewise, every political and military opposition formation in Syria, except Nusra/JFS, has long ago signed onto the concept of a transitional political arrangement, following a genuine ceasefire, involving delegates from both the opposition and from the regime (but not Assad’s immediate circle) to pave the way for elections.
Some examples of this include the 100 oppositionist delegates from a variety of political and military opposition groups (including the Syrian National Coalition, the National Coordination Committee, various FSA and Islamist rebel groups covering pretty much everyone except Nusra/JFS, and civil opposition groups, including a number of Alawites, Druze, Christians and Kurds), who met in the Saudi capital Riyadh in December 2015, who released their negotiating platform; the opposition’s Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) Executive Framework for a Political Solution Based on the Geneva Communiqué, released in September 2016; and the Free Syrian Army Southern Front’s Statement on ‘The Transitional Phase’, released in December 2014. All these declarations and plans call for a civil state and a democratic, pluralistic society with full and equal rights for all religious and ethnic communities.
The fact that even those Islamist groups usually considered more hard-line (eg Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam) have supported these transition plans gives a better indication of the relationship of political forces, when able to calmly discuss political outcomes, than some of their more heated rhetoric, and their relative weight as long as the military struggle remains paramount, would superficially suggest.
Such a political process could only begin following a genuine ceasefire. Over the last year and a half, the opposition has agreed, a number of times, to negotiated ceasefires; in every case, the regime actively violates them, using some excuse of having to bomb “Nusra/JFS”, while in fact bombing all rebels and usually focusing on one particular place each time to crush while the “ceasefire” holds. It does this because it can, and the fact that these US-Russia “ceasefires” have always left Nusra/JFS out of them has given the regime the pretext; the FSA/rebels have attempted to respect these ceasefires for the sake of the long-suffering civilian population.
Yet despite these “ceasefires” only producing a relative lull in the regime bombing, it has been enough for the masses return to the streets around the country with the flag and slogans of the 2011 revolution. What this indicates is that a genuine ceasefire would aid the democratic revolutionary forces; a revival of the civil movement would provide a chance to overcome the sectarian atmosphere; massive slaughter is not conducive to rebuilding harmony. In contrast, jihadists like Nusra/JFS thrive on military struggle, and because the regime never truly abides by the ceasefires, the jihadists are able to present themselves as the only true ongoing resistance, presenting a genuine dilemma for the FSA and allied rebels.
However, until a genuine ceasefire leading to a political process can be achieved, the military balance on the ground remains a decisive factor: in other words, desiring peace is not simply a matter of one side unilaterally giving up to be jailed, disappeared, tortured and slaughtered by the dictatorship. If the opposition had been able to achieve a better military balance on the ground (eg, if they had been able to receive some more useful military aid than the crumbs thrown them by their “friends”), then they would be able to push for a ceasefire and political arrangement including the release of the tens of thousands of political prisoners, the end of regime sieges, the right of the FSA to keep their weapons and to provide security and democratic governance in the areas they control, as well as actually being able to keep control of more of the areas that are their natural support base. In contrast, a ceasefire in which the military balance gives the regime the upper hand would be able to deny these basics.
Note that I have used the term “political process” rather than the more popular “political solution.” There is no more of a “political solution” with the regime than there is a military solution; the only solution is revolutionary. But revolution is not only military struggle, especially such an exhausted and catastrophic one. The opposite kinds of ceasefire and political arrangement I have just outlined, based on different military balances, represent the difference between a ceasefire that leaves the door open to a renewal of the civil mass struggle and thus to non-military revolutionary possibilities, and one that slams the door fully shut.