My debate with Tim Anderson on Syria: Reflections on the collapse of solidarity

Assad election
Anderson claimed that Bashar Assad – who inherited his throne from his father – had been voted to power in an “election.”

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.

US enforces its No Fly Zone over Rojava, leading to World War III …

… well, not quite, just the continuation of six years of genocidal war as Assad, Russia and the US pulverize Syria

By Michael Karadjis

US F18 Super Hornet
US F-18 Super Hornets, which shot down Assadist warplane

For the first time in the 6-year Syrian war, the US shot down an Assadist warplane on June 18, in defence of its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed military and political front dominated by the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG). Assadist warplanes had carried out the highly unusual act of bombing the SDF in the town of Ja’Din, near Tabqa in Raqqa Province.

For most of the war, the Assad regime and the YPG/SDF have largely avoided militarily confronting each other. While not allies, neither are they enemies, and have at times collaborated in parts of the country when it suited, including the YPG’s assistance to Assad in the recent siege of rebel Aleppo.

In contrast, the YPG/SDF has become the largest and most strategic US ally in the conflict, as both the US and the SDF are focused entirely on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria. As neither have any interest in supporting the rebellion against the Assad dictatorship, a phenomenon overwhelmingly taking place in the more populated west of the country, they can get on with what is largely a parallel war elsewhere. Thus the US has provided the SDF with wall to wall air cover for all its operations since late 2014, has sent hundreds of US special forces to aid the SDF, and has set up a number of military bases in SDF-controlled territory.

The Obama administration announced its first and only No Fly Zone in Syria in the Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Syria known as ‘Rojava’, controlled by the YPG/SDF, in August 2016, when Assadist jets suddenly decided to do a little bombing of the YPG in Hassakah. Although the YPG had not done anything to provoke this attack, at times the regime likes to remind anyone outside its control who is boss.

While the regime pragmatically allows the SDF to run Rojava so that it can use all its resources to crush the Syrian uprising, it occasionally likes to remind the SDF that it is opposed to either any Kurdish autonomy, or to any ‘democratic confederalist’ project the SDF seeks to run in Rojava, and that as soon as the rest of the rebellion is crushed, it will come for them.

That time, last August, the US warned the Assadist warplanes to keep away or they would get bombed. They ran away fast.

Now they came back to test out the NFZ, so the US knocked a warplane out of the sky.

On the question of “World War III”

Last year during the US elections, Hillary Clinton, confronted with the daily genocidal slaughter carried out by the Assad regime against defenceless civilians throughout the length and breadth of rebel-held Syria, made some comments about examining the possibility of the US military – already involved in bombing enemies of Assad for two years at that point – also helping protect Syrian civilians against Assad’s warplanes through some kind of No Fly Zone.

Donald Trump opposed this idea and instead stressed his support for existing US policy, of only fighting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. In fact, he went further, expressing the view that the US alliance with the Assad regime and Russia against the jihadists should be even more emphatic.

Much of the pro-Assad but allegedly “anti-war” movement, and even many genuine anti-war folk opposed to Assad, claimed that a vote for Clinton would be a vote for “World War III.” Two years of actual US bombing of Syria, which had already killed hundreds of civilians, was seen as no problem, and certainly not a cause for a single demonstration (as it was not directed against Assad); in contrast, imposing a No Fly Zone to protect civilians would mean shooting down Assadist warplanes, which could cause conflict with Assad’s Russian backers, and therefore “World War III.”

Even leftists well aware of how much of a far-right neo-liberal racist Trump was, how hard-wired he was into the entire global far-right, expressed the view that on this issue, Trump was, relatively speaking, the “peace candidate.” They said this despite the fact that Trump openly warned that he intended the sharply step up the bombing of anti-Assad targets in Syria; he was the “peace candidate” in comparison to “World War III” Clinton even though he promised to not just “bomb the shit out of” those he called the “terrorists,” but also to “kill their families.” Promises he has kept.

The soft-on-Trump left had not noticed that the US had already imposed a No Fly Zone over Rojava, which had not caused World War III. US airforce protection the YPG, who identify as leftists, was not considered an issue, but if the US were to protect ordinary Syrian civilians, and their schools, hospitals, markets, refugee camps and so on, living in rebel-controlled zones, from years of relentless massacre, that would have been considered the ultimate evil.

Thus, Old Left “anti-war” views on these issues had no relation one way or another with any principled opposition to US intervention anywhere; whether or not US intervention, bombing, special forces, military bases, slaughter of civilians and so on was a problem or not depended entirely on who the targets and/or the allies of the US intervention were.

It is the same again in this case. When the Assad regime, encouraged after the entire Trump cabinet made clear that even Obama’s tepid “opposition” to Assad was no longer US policy, went a little too far and dropped sarin on the north Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in April, and so the US launched a relatively harmless “credibility strike” against Assad’s Shariyat airbase, angry mobs launched “anti-war” protests throughout American cities. The previous 8000 US airstrikes against non-Assadist targets had gone unnoticed, despite the significant civilian toll; one with a zero civilian toll, against a military airbase, from where chemical weapons had been launched, created a strange anger.

Others declared that Trump had now “changed his policy,” despite the fact that Trump, Mattis, McMaster, Tillerson and every other US leader of note went out of their way to declare that they were “not going into Syria,” that there was no change of policy, that the strike was only about sarin and not about any of Assad’s other weapons of mass destruction that he uses daily on a massive scale, that the only US interest remained the defeat of ISIS, and so on and so forth.

Yet when the US shot down its first Assadist warplane, we get a stunned, and confused, silence. Anti-imperialists are not sure whether to support the “anti-imperialist” Assad regime – which tortured Islamist suspects for the US rendition program, joined the first US Gulf war against Iraq, invaded Lebanon at the behest of the Lebanese counterrevolution and carried out an enormous massacre against the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance at Tel al-Zaatar, kept Israel’s stolen Golan “border” stone cold quiet for 40 years, and regularly massacred Palestinians and tried to extinguish their movement – or to support the “anti-imperialist” YPG/SDF, the strategic partner of the US in Syria.

If, in an alternative universe, the US were for once to knock down an Assadist warplane slaughtering civilians in a rebel-held town, then of course all hell would break loose, we would again have demonstrations, declarations, “anti-war” statements etc. #MilitaryAirfieldsLivesMatter, apparently.

The ongoing slaughter in Daraa and Raqqa

Meanwhile the Assad regime has been pummeling Daraa, the birthplace of the revolution, with literally hundreds of barrel bombs for weeks on end now. According to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and Medicins du Monde already on June 7, “in recent days, the aerial bombardment campaign over Dara’a has intensified. According to reports from the ground, in the first five days of June, there have been approximately 330 direct fire activities, including air raids, explosive barrels, artillery, rockets, explosive cylinders, and explosive charges. These attacks have been carried out by the Syrian government and its allies, and represent a dramatic increase from the 165 aerial attacks which took place last month.”

Yet there is no US gun or bullet landing in the hands of FSA and allied rebels in Daraa defending their people against this genocide, let alone a downed warplane. Daraa, its civilians, its infrastructure, its symbolism as a centre of the most democratic part of the revolution, its unbelievable suffering, and unbelievable heroism, can all go to hell, but obviously the US considers the SDF to be a red line.

The US, in any case, is dong virtually the same thing to the ISIS “capital” Raqqa. As the SDF advances on Raqqa, US airstrikes (and SDF artillery) are creating what UN war crimes investigators described as a “staggering loss of civilian life.” The US is literally carpet bombing Raqqa, “destroying the town to save it.” The death toll from US strikes on Raqqa and neighbouring Deir Ezzor – where the US has been openly bombing in collaboration with the Assad regime since November 2014 – is so high that, for two months in a row, the civilian death toll from US strikes has been higher even than that  of the Assad regime (and even in the previous month, the US toll was already higher than either the Russian or ISIS civilian toll). The monitoring site Airwars estimates the US-led Coalition is responsible for over 3000 civilian deaths in Syria, the vast majority in the last four months under Trump. The US has even used white phosphorus in its war on ISIS in Raqqa.

The anti-ISIS, anti-Assad resistance group ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’ released a statement declaring that Syria as we once knew it is has been “forever changed by the relentless brutality taking place across the country. The horrors happening now in the cities of Raqqa and Daraa are only met with utter silence – both international and local. For months now, the city of Raqqa has been exposed to a campaign of systematic destruction perpetrated by the International coalition and its local allies who are using a scorched earth policy to take control of the city. All violations against civilians receive little to no condemnation, as they are committed under the pretext of fighting ISIS.”

Calling RBSS “ISIS agents’ simply won’t cut it. ISIS hunts down and murders RBSS members, even outside Syria.

Yet this all appears to be a non-issue for the western anti-war movement.

Assad, Russia and Iran now decide YPG/SDF are “terrorists”

The Assad regime has sent out mixed signals about the YPG/SDF recently. One leader called them a branch of the so-called “Syrian Army”, while the recent declaration in the Russian state’s propaganda organ ‘Sputnik’ that the YPG/SDF are “terrorists like ISIS” quoted “Syrian expert” (ie, regime spokesperson) Husma Shaib, who explained that “we regard these forces as unlawful military formations which operate outside of the legal environment. They are the same as terrorist units like the al-Nusra Front and Daesh. The Syrian Democratic Forces do not coordinate their activities with the Syrian Army. We regard them as terrorists.”

Iran’s ambassador to Turkey, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian Fard, also recently clarified to his Turkish counterpart that Tehran “describes the PKK, the PYD and the YPG to be terrorist groups” that Tehran and Ankara needed to jointly work against.

This turn seems to be caused by rivalry over the mopping up operation against ISIS in the east: with the US-backed SDF advancing upon Raqqa, the Assadist army, backed by Hezbollah, recently broke out from southeast Aleppo and began advancing east as well, in a way that was, unusually, threatening towards SDF positions.

US: No quarrel with Assad as long as you’re just bombing civilians

The US Centcom statement on the downing of the warplane emphasised, as usual, that its mission is only to defeat ISIS and that it has no interest whatsoever in fighting Assadist, Russian or pro-regime forces (as is well-known), but that it will defend itself or its “partner forces.”

As the tweeter ‘Northern Stork’ introduced this Centcom statement, this means “Back off you guys, go barrel bomb some civilians elsewhere, we are not here to fight you, leave us alone.”

While the regime claimed it was bombing ISIS – in Taqba, which the SDF had liberated from ISIS months ago – this was rejected by the SDF. SDF spokesperson Brig. Gen. Talal Silo accused regime forces of launching “large-scale attacks using aircraft, artillery, and tanks” on the SDF in the Tabqa area.

The SDF v ISIS and the issue of ethical dilemmas

Given the nature of the Islamic state tyranny – a pale, yet nonetheless horrific, reflection of the Damascus-based tyranny – there can be little doubt that the SDF can only be a vast improvement, regardless of one’s view of the reality of the Rojava revolution. Actually, even if one fully accepted the loftiest claims about Rojava in its heartlands, it is doubtful that such a vision can be brought about via such frightening terror launched by the US airforce; it would be a first in the history of revolutions. Yet still, whatever turns out can hardly not be a vast improvement on ISIS.

And while the hypocrisy and selective solidarity of much of the anti-war movement and sections of the western left are an obvious target here, the decisions of the SDF in a difficult environment are not. That does not mean that seriously incorrect decisions should not be criticized; but gratuitous condemnation of the SDF as “US proxies” merely for accepting any level of US support against the ISIS terror regime should be avoided (notwithstanding the fact that the PYD leaders themselves rarely give the same latitude to the forced tactical decisions of the FSA and Syrian rebels, despite the qualitatively greater pressure they have been under for six years; and their western backers, who include some with a strong streak of left-orientalism, are often considerably worse).

But at a certain point, quantity becomes quality. The massive US/SDF war to liberate Raqqa has turned into such an enormous massacre of the Raqqa citizenry that, no matter how much one hates ISIS and naturally prefers the SDF to win, the severity of the political and ethical dilemma here can no longer be avoided with dishonest platitudes about the SDF “accepting some limited US aid” against ISIS and the like. It is difficult to see that much progressive content can survive this massive “military solution” and relentless, barbaric imperialist bombing. And to the extent that it does in some form, who is there to speak for the thousands killed, and their many thousands more relatives scarred for life as a result, and thousands more maimed?

Finally, as the SDF leaders are no doubt themselves aware, neither the Assad regime, Russia nor the US are ever going to be reliable allies, and so they will need to constantly watch their backs. Yet this means the only real ally of the Syrian Kurdish people are the Syrian Arab people. “Tactical” alliances by either Kurdish or Arab rebel leaderships that lead to significant bloodshed and betrayal between the two peoples have much more than “tactical” consequences. Neither side have been innocent on that score.

 

 

 

Qatar: The strange fall guy for the regional counterrevolution

by Michael Karadjis

Qatar – a tiny piece of fabulously wealthy real estate run by an emir as an absolute monarchy, relying even more than most of the other Gulf states on the large-scale exploitation of migrant labour – an icon of revolution in the Middle East?

Hardly.

Yet that doesn’t alter the fact that it is now the fall guy for the regional counterrevolution. It is an unfortunate reality that, in today’s Middle East, calling a particular state “reactionary” is mere tautology, and within that context, it is possible for some to push ahead here or there in a slightly more progressive direction than others.

The current siege of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and some of their proxies – involving ending diplomatic ties, closing airspace and ports to Qatari flights and ships – has created a great deal of confusion, especially among those who, for years, have fantasised about a joint Saudi-Qatari-jihadist “war on Syria” or even about spurious “Gulf pipelines” being the root of the heroic uprising of the Syrian masses against the genocide-regime of Bashar Assad.

This is not the first such break in relations between the Saudi-led bloc and Qatar; similar events took place in 2014, coinciding with a renewed crackdown by these states on the Qatari-backed regional Muslim Brotherhood, but this round appears more intense.

US president Donald Trump immediately tweeted his support for the Saudi-led action, charging that Qatar had “historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” Trump’s view appears to represent the views of a section of the US ruling class (there has been talk within the Republican Party right-wing of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organsisation): according to Qatari foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, there were 13 hostile opinion articles focused on Qatar in the US media in the five weeks leading up to the crisis.

While much focus has been placed on Trump’s view, as we will see, things are not so straightforward, firstly because Trump’s visit was followed by a high level Saudi visit to Moscow, and secondly because the Pentagon seems to have a sharply different view to Trump’s.

A US-Saudi plot against Iran?

The focus on an alleged US role is not only due to Trump’s tweets, but also because the Saudi-led attack on Qatar took place shortly after Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, where he sought to please his Saudi hosts by barking out his government’s exaggerated rhetoric about Iran being “the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism” and the like.

Saudi Arabia has been engaged in regional rivalry with Iran for some time, and being the leading powers where Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam, respectively, are centred, this rivalry carries with it a powerful sectarian under-current, which often explodes into fierce rhetoric. So Trump’s rhetoric looked a lot like a declaration of support for Saudi against Iranian positions in the region.

Whether Trump’s rhetoric really means any more concrete support for pro-Saudi against pro-Iranian assets in the region, rather than a mere sop to his Saudi hosts to push through his magnificent multi-billion dollar weapons contracts with the Saudis, remains to be seen. There is simply no evidence of any change in US policy towards “supporting conservative Sunni states against Iran”, as much shallow media coverage puts it, anywhere in the region.

And unless the US were about to abandon the joint venture it runs with Iran known as the “Iraqi government”, together with which it is currently waging an unremitting and horrific war against the population of Mosul which has left thousands of civilians dead, the idea has no meaning.

Why Qatar?

Emboldened by this US support for Saudi positions on Iran, so the story goes, the Saudis and their allies decided to act against … Qatar.

Qatar, however, is not Iran. This part of the story is, in fact, stupid.

Of course, the Saudi-led group did not only talk about Iran. They accused Qatar of “sponsoring terrorism” in the region, by which they did not mean the real terror unleashed by Iranian-backed Shiite jihadists in Iraq and Syria (where they have played a key role in Assad’s counterrevolutionary butchery), but rather Qatar-backed Sunni Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, while also falsely accusing Qatar of backing the Sunni terrorist organisations al-Qaida and ISIS.

But, as Qatar is a tiny state and Iran is a great power, the Iranian bogey-man is more useful; so the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s official news agency was hacked and messages were created where he praised Iran. Furthermore, the fact that Qatar has maintained strong economic ties to Iran, partly due to their joint exploitation of a gas field which they share, was blown up to suggest Qatar was allied to the Saudis’ Iranian enemies.

Here I will demonstrate that not only is this nonsense, but in certain respects the opposite of the truth.

Qatar v the Egypt-Jordan-UAE counterrevolutionary bloc

The Saudi-led offensive against Qatar has nothing to do with Iran. That is just part of the Saudi-Iranian war of rhetoric.

Qatar supported the Arab Spring, Hamas and the Palestinian resistance, the Egyptian revolution, the Syrian revolution, and Islamist forces in Libya opposed to Egypt-UAE-backed general Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to seize control of that state. That is why the regional counterrevolution has united against Qatar, not due to spurious alleged connections to Iran.

Throughout these conflicts, Qatar has supported, or attempted to saddle these movements with, soft-Islamist forces linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. While a conservative and very pro-capitalist force, through which Qatar tries to contain these movements, the Brotherhood nevertheless works via these popular movements rather than head-on clashing with them. In recent decades, it has adopted a strikingly ‘moderate’ Islamist posture, claiming to be dedicated to democracy with a mere “Islamic” reference, opposed to forcible imposition of theocratic laws, and relatively ecumenical in its relations with other religions, including Shiite Islam.

This “mass approach” horrifies the regimes of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, who are threatened either by the Brotherhood’s populism, its republican tendency, the idea of Islamist democracy, and/or its international appeal, and so prefer the head-on confrontation approach to Qatar’s high risk strategy. In Jordan, the MB is the main opposition to the king. Qatar’s support for the elected MB regime of Morsi, overthrown by the Saudi-UAE-backed coup that instigated al-Sisi’s bloody dictatorship, is a particularly sore point. In this, they are in agreement with both Israel, which confronts the Brotherhood in the form of Hamas (whose leadership is based in Qatar), and the Assad regime, which confronts it in the form of many of the Islamist forces in the rebellion; and with alt-rightists around Trump in the US.

As for Qatar’s economic relations with Iran, the UAE – the most virulently anti-Qatar and anti-Muslim Brotherhood member of the coalition – has a raging economic relationship with Iran. Dubai “has operated as a nerve center for Iran’s banking and trade since the 1980s.” According to an aide to Iranian ruler Khamenei, Iranian investment in Dubai amounts to “over 700 billion US dollars.” Further, Iran has used the UAE as an intermediary to sell Iranian oil products, manoeuvring around international sanctions. “Oil purchased from the UAE accounted for more than 60 percent of Egypt’s total imports for the year 2014,” much of it Iranian oil.

A couple of years ago, the UAE compiled a list of regional “terrorist” organizations, which included the Muslim Brotherhood of the whole region (thus covering MB-aligned groups in Syria), and specifically included a significant section of the Syrian insurgency, most of which (except Jabhat al-Nusra and other tiny hard jihadist groups allied to al-Qaida) are backed by Qatar, basically everyone within the softer to mainstream Islamist constellation. That is, the Qatari-backed forces in Syria, that the UAE calls terrorists, have been at war against Iran’s sectarian mass killers operating in Syria for Assad.

The UAE is tightly allied with the Kingdom of Jordan (which has so far only downgraded diplomatic representation with Qatar rather than joining the siege) and al-Sisi’s murderous dictatorship in Egypt. Along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE was a key enabler of al-Sisi’s bloody coup against the Qatari-backed government of Morsi in Egypt. Since then, Sisi’s Egypt and the UAE have intervened in Libya in support of the rebellion led by the military strongman Haftar, in its conflict with Qatari-backed Islamists.

The Egypt-Jordan-UAE alliance has also launched fierce rhetorical attacks on Qatar’s key regional ally, the AKP regime in Turkey (which is also close to the Muslim Brotherhood), claiming it is the sponsor of the “Islamist” problem in Syria. Egypt and the UAE (along with Assad’s Syria) explicitly supported the botched coup in Turkey. As David Hearst writes in the Huffington Post, “Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt are happy for Assad to stay, as long as Syria suppresses its Arab Spring. The last thing the king [of Jordan] wants is for its northern neighbour to hold real elections, form coalition governments and share power and wealth.”

There is evidence of a joint Egypt-Jordan-UAE plan to oust Palestinian president Abbas and replace him with his rival Mohammed Dahlan (the right-wing Fatah strongman and security adviser to Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi-UAE), as a ‘stronger’ leader who could better defeat Hamas and thus more convincingly offer surrender to Israel than the hapless Abbas has been able to achieve, however much he has tried.

Then Sisi of course is an avid supporter of Assad, has sent arms to the Syrian regime, and has even sent pilots to help Assad bomb Syria. The Assad regime, in turn, profusely praises al-Sisi. Jordan was jointly tasked by the US and Russia about a year ago to draw up a list of terrorist groups to be excluded from peace negotiations, and it came up with a list of 160 rebel groups: a greatly expanded version of the UAE list of Qatari-supported groups.

Even more explicit was the welcome given to Russia’s September 2015 invasion of Syria to bolster Assad by Egypt, Jordan and the UAE. As David Hearst writes, “Putin got Jordan’s King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to attend a military airshow in Moscow in August. As MEE reported, Jordan recently withdrew its support for rebel forces on the southern front … Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Saturday: ‘Russia’s entrance, given its potential and capabilities, is something we see is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it’.” Egypt, in particular, has developed very strong economic and military ties with Russia since Sisi’s coup.

In other words, despite Saudi rivalry with and hype about Iran, the core group in this current anti-Qatar alliance is in closer agreement with the Iranian-led bloc on the question of Syria and Assad, and the region, than either are with Qatar. Of course, it is also not that simple: their connection to Assad is much more via Russia, with its conservative ‘state preservation’ strategy (which in fact coalesces with US positions, with tactical variation standing between them), than with Iran, with its more divisive sectarian-based strategy; and of course, while allies, Russia and Iran are also rivals, with interests that do not entirely converge.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that, at least from the point of view of this counterrevolutionary axis, Qatar is an enemy at least partially due to its support for the “wrong” anti-Assad forces, not due to Saudi rhetoric about Qatari connections to the pro-Assad Iranian regime.

Yes, Egypt/Jordan/UAE, but the Saudis?

Of course the question mark about the Saudis is not about the tyrannical Saudi regime being a bastion of regional counterrevolution, which is evident from its crushing of the Bahraini uprising in 2011 through its sponsorship of Sisi to crush the Egyptian revolution.

But the statement that its key allies are closer to Iran on the question of Syria would not appear to apply to Saudi Arabia itself. While Saudi Arabia is a rival to Qatar’s ambitions in the region, there is no doubt that it sees Iran as its major regional rival. There is also genuine fear of Iranian influence among the oppressed Shia minority in eastern Saudi Arabia and majority in Bahrain.

As such, the Saudi “war of rhetoric” with Iran has a somewhat stronger base in reality than the more pure “war of rhetoric” that exists between Israel and Iran (one largely conditioned on geographic distance); however, that does not mean Iran is either the Saudis’ only concern, or one they wish to lead to war. There is conflict with Iran, but the very useful (for both theocracies) war of rhetoric exaggerates it enormously.

In addition, while Saudi Arabia (along with the UAE, and Qatar and Turkey) initially supported Assad’s crackdown on the Syrian uprising, once it began to blow up the region, there is no doubt Saudi opposition to Assad became real. One reason was simply its rivalry with Iran, as Iran more and more became the key protector of Assad; the other was that Assad’s war more and more turned into a sectarian slaughter throughout Sunni towns and villages in 2012-2013, which enraged the Sunni populations of the Gulf, who were far ahead of their rulers on this. Saudi Arabia joined Qatar and Turkey in a joint statement denouncing the Russian invasion in September 2015; Egypt, Jordan and the UAE refused to sign it.

However, while the Russian invasion was initially followed by some Saudi hyperactivity over Syria (it made a one-off delivery of 500 TOW anti-tank missiles to the FSA), over the last year or more since then the Saudis, bogged down in their own criminal yet unwinnable war bombing Yemen (ironically to stave off the counterrevolutionary putsch by former tyrant Saleh, overthrown in the Arab Spring, but in a very “Saudi” way), have essentially lost interest in Syria.

Even when the Saudis were more involved in supporting the Syrian uprising, they were often in direct rivalry with Qatar. Many casual observers of the Middle East believe that, to rival Qatar’s support for the moderate Islamists, Saudi Arabia’s more reactionary theocracy naturally backed more extreme ‘Salafist’ groups, or even that it is behind Al-Nusra and even ISIS. Yet this is the opposite of the truth: the ultra-conservative Saudi rulers are even more hostile to the jihadists than they are to the MB: all these global revolutionary Islamist currents, from soft to hard, see the Saudi monarchy as apostates, and the jihadi fringe in particular promise to overthrow and destroy it.

If we look who the Saudi rulers support in the region – Mubarak, and then Sisi, Hafter in Libya, Harriri in Lebanon, Abbas in Palestine and so on – almost all are right-wing secular, if nominally Sunni, rulers. In Syrian terms, to counter the Qatari-backed forces, but also the Iranian-backed Assad, the Saudis have mostly supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the exile-based Syrian Coalition, with their democratic secular program. Not out of love for democracy and secularism, of course, but for the same reason they bankrolled democratic-secular al-Fatah in Palestine for decades and opposed Hamas – like Fatah, the FSA and the Syrian Coalition are politically heterogeneous forces with limited programs beyond overthrowing Zionism or Assadism; as such, vastly different political forces can support them against Islamists to push different agendas. The Saudis’ aim, in other words, was to find at least a Syrian Abbas, at best (from their viewpoint) a Syrian Sisi, to take part in the “political solution” with elements of the Assad regime in a reformed state preservation project.

However, their American partners were not even willing to go this far with them – the US was giving much more limited support to these same democratic-secular forces for a slightly different reason, namely to turn them away from any struggle against Assad into mere US proxies to fight ISIS and Nusra only as part of the US “war on terror.” The resultant military victories of Assad in western, populated, Syria, have led the Saudis’ main interest now being to preserve, via Jordan, some role in the resource-rich Sunni east of Syria once ISIS is driven out.

As such, whatever their fierce anti-Iranian rhetoric, the Saudis no longer have any interest in ousting Assad, but rather are engaged, like all the other foreign powers intervening in Syria – the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel – in preserving their interests in the coming carve-up. And as always, the Saudis see Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood as arch-rivals in this process.

This reached almost farcical proportions when Turkey declared support for Qatar in this clash, and the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, which has been the main US ally on the ground in its war against ISIS, declared its readiness to cooperate with Saudi Arabia.

It is also useful to remember that the Saudi action took place not only after Trump’s visit. Almost immediately afterwards, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman flew to Russia to meet Putin, where they lavishly praised each other, and announced that their new oil alliance would be extended to one that would try to sort out Syria as well. “Relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia are going through one of their best moments ever,” declared the Prince.

As such, action against Qatar, seen as the key backer of the Syrian rebels, could just as well be connected this new Saudi love affair with Putin as with Trump’s lavish praise.

And then there is Israel

And then of course Israel also welcomed the campaign against Qatar. There is much exaggerated rhetoric coming from the ‘anti-imperialist’ camp about a blooming Saudi-Israeli alliance. In fact, while Sisi’s Egypt and Jordan have open relations with Israel, and the UAE has well-publicised under-handed connections, this is a more difficult road for the Saudis.

Of course it is not impossible; the fact that the Saudis demanded Qatar kick out Hamas, along with the rest of the MB, does suggest a move to please Tel Aviv, though it could more simply be a move to bolster Mohammed Abbas’s toothless Palestinian Authority. The guardian of Mecca and Medina cannot so simply make full peace with the occupier of Jerusalem without massive repercussions; it is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia was the power behind the Arab plan of 1982 and the almost identical Arab plan of 2002, both of which require full Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. In other words, the very opposite to the trajectory of all Israeli governments of the last two decades, if not ever, which refer to make no concessions at all.

Even al-Sisi’s openly and miserably pro-Zionist regime has found taking the deal further not so simple. Sisi allegedly attended secret meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog in April 2016 to work on a plan to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, with Jordan and the US allegedly involved. The aim was to push for a coalition between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Herzog’s centrist Zionist Union party, given the unlikelihood that Likud’s far right coalition with the fanatic Jewish Home Party would make the kind of concessions to the Palestinians necessary, even the minor kind that Sisi was prepared to accept.  But in any case, this initiative broke down when Netanyahu not only rejected coalition with Herzog but also expanded his right-wing coalition to incorporate defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s even more ultra-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, creating what has been called the most right-wing Israeli government ever; any concessions are further away than ever.

Nevertheless, there is a case of “watch this space.”

Despite the Saudi-Israeli convergence on Iran, this Israeli support to the Saudi-led move pointed the finger squarely at Qatar as the enemy: a “new line [has been] drawn in the Middle Eastern sand,” declared Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy. “No longer Israel against Arabs but Israel and Arabs against Qatar-financed terror.” Qatar, after all, hosts al-Jazeera, Hamas and Azmi Bishara, the most prominent former Palestinian leader from ‘Israel proper’ who was forced to flee Israel and took up refuge in Qatar. And Qatar in particular supplied hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid to Gaza after the last genocidal Zionist Blitzkrieg in 2014.

Israel, even more than Saudi Arabia, finds having a rhetorical enemy in Iran a Godsend. There is nothing quite like an alleged “Fourth Reich” in the region, supposedly calling for Israel’s destruction, for Israel to likewise issue fierce rhetoric about, in both cases from a safe distance. In both cases it ideologically bolsters their theocratic projects, as they continue to slaughter Arabs in the regions that separate their states, always with the excuse of “resisting” the enemy they in fact have little to do with.

In the case of Syria, this involves Israel in a complicated way, whereby Israel leaders and strategists have stressed their preference for Assad to remain in power, but their opposition to the Iranian and Hezbollah role that bolsters his rule. So on the one hand, Israel’s Maariv newspaper recently reported that Israel would agree to allow the return of Al-Assad’s forces to the occupied Golan “border” which it kept quiet for 40 years, and the Begin-Sadat Centre released a report re-stating that Assad’s survival is in Israel’s best interests; on the other, US and Russian talks to set up another “de-escalation” zone in the southwest near the Golan, involving Jordan and Israel, notably do not involve Iran (which is involved in other “de-escalation” zone negotiations); Israel made clear its opposition to an Iranian presence near the occupied Golan.

Putin claimed these discussions are getting somewhere: “We are now considering how the interests of all the countries to the south of Syria can be best served, with consideration for the concerns of all the countries that face issues in this region. I am referring to Jordan, Israel and Syria itself.” (The Russian Embassy in London even sent out the cryptic tweet that “Russia is effectively working with Jordan and Israel on issues of a new Constitution of Syria”). Israel’s enthusiastic embrace of the Russian invasion of Syria, followed by four high-level Putin-Netanyahu love-fests, was based on this contradiction in Israeli policy: Israel saw the opportunity for Russia to outflank Iran as Assad’s chief backer.

But Qatar, a revolutionary icon?

As we said at the outset: hardly.

Qatar is an absolute monarchy like the other Gulf states who are now besieging it, but, as they say, contradictions, comrades. The mystery is not that one reactionary state could be playing a slightly more progressive role in certain areas than all the others in the region, it is more that there is simply no-one in the region, or even in the world, even among actually progressive governments in distant Latin America, that chose to occupy this position as the Arab Spring broke out and the traditional imperial order was swept aside. Quite the opposite, in fact; with the Latin American “Pink Tide” governments wedded to the Middle Eastern counterrevolution, the position remained open for an opportunist and risk-taking rising star that had no progressive credentials whatsoever to push a little ahead of the pack.

In 2006, when Venezuelan leader Huge Chavez stood steadfast with Hezbollah against the bloody Zionist Blitzkrieg on Lebanon (back in those ancient historical times when Hezbollah was an anti-occupation resistance organization in Lebanon rather than an occupationist death-squad in Syria), he rightly earned the title of being the most popular leader in the Middle East, ahead of all the Kings and tyrants of the region. Now the idea that Venezuela would be more popular than Qatar in the region would be a particularly bad joke.

With the world’s highest per capita GDP, Qatar felt its quest for a regional role independent of both the Saudi and Iranian blocs could be based on supporting the Arab Spring revolutions (except in Bahrain) with no danger of this leading to uprising or revolution at home – unlike the rest of the Gulf. It also sought to use the soft approach of supporting the uprisings while trying to safely saddle them from within with a conservative, very pro-capitalist, soft-Islamist/MB style leadership. No-one else in the region (except its ally Erdogan’s Turkey for its own reasons, largely due to being overwhelmed by literally millions of refugees from Assad’s slaughterhouse) was willing to take that kind of risk, so Qatar has now emerged as the fall guy for the regional counterrevolution: Russia, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, with the US and Iran in more ambivalent positions.

This odd situation of the Qatari state not only allowed it to promote the Arab Spring, but also to maintain a relationship with US imperialism, and a strange working relationship with Iran. It has always been an odd symbiosis, being the host of the US air-force on one hand, and of Hamas on the other; maintaining better relations with Iran than the other Gulf monarchies on one hand, yet being the main sponsor of the Syrian rebels who fight Iranian forces on the other.

Qatar’s ultimate contradiction all along has been that its territory hosts the largest US air-base in the region, from where the US bombs Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen in its “war on terror.” So while Trump happily joins the regional reaction in calling Qatar a terrorist state, the Pentagon seems to want to take into account the fact that, for now anyway, Qatar hosts the al-Udeid US Air Base, where some 11,000 troops are based, along with around 100 US aircraft, from where they bomb Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan for the US “war on terror”.

The Pentagon’s moves in the midst of the crisis appear almost a direct affront to Trump, if not to Saudi Arabia. Within days of the announcement of the siege, two US navy vessels arrived in the Qatari capital Doha to take part in a joint military exercise with the Qatari Navy, and the same day US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis welcomed his Qatari counterpart Khalid al-Attiyah to Washington to sign a $12bn agreement for the purchase of 36 F-15 fighter jets. The US and Qatari navies began manoeuvres the following day.

The Pentagon also praised Qatar for its “enduring commitment to regional security.” This coincides with the Iranian position (but not that of the viciously anti-MB Assad regime), with Iran also opportunistically declaring its “support” for Qatar.

Of course, this does not mean that either the Pentagon or Iran are supporting Qatar for doing the things that the regional counterrevolution opposes. Rather, both for their own reasons seek to use the pressure Qatar is under to push it in their direction – adopting the same “soft” approach to Qatar as Qatar adopted towards the regional revolutionary wave. In any case, with this wave largely suppressed, the Pentagon probably has a clearer view that the dangers of the Qatari approach are thereby receding, and thus question why Trump and the regional counterrevolution are so determined to upset the status quo for the US air force; and a certain pragmatism within the Pentagon/NSC circles (the leftist tendency to call them “neo-conservatives” is more a reflection of the limited vocabulary of many leftists than having any connection to reality) may also understand that Qatar’s approach was far less dangerous than depicted.

Another aspect is that Qatar’s key regional ally, Turkey’s AKP government, has gone through a drastic change in policy since the middle of last year, following the suppression of the botched coup. Patching things up with the Turko-nationalists at home and with Putin’s Russia abroad, determined to look after its own interests in an even narrower way than before, Turkey has largely abandoned the rebels it once supported against Assad, except in as much as they are part of its anti-ISIS and anti-YPG intervention in northern Syria. Since Qatar largely operated via Turkey in supplying rebels in northern Syria, it is unclear whether it is still in any position to do so.

Squeezed between its giant Saudi and Iranian neighbours, and supported only by the third giant, Turkey, which has largely abandoned the pretence, and with mixed signals coming from the US, Qatar will probably have little choice but to give up its over-sized ambitions of rival regional leadership, and junk whatever remnants it still supports among the leftovers of the Spring.

 

 

 

The Syrian Cause and Anti Imperialism

While my blog is mostly for my own articles, I do very occasionally put up something else I think is exceptional. This is definitely an example. Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a well-known Syrian leftist dissident who spent 16 years in Assad’s torture chambers for having an opinion. When you read his opinions, you can see why. This is a masterful essay, and should be read from start to end by anyway concerned with these issues.

 Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Translated by: Yaaser ElZayyar

Posted on May 5, 2017

In memory of Michel Seurat, our martyr.

http://aljumhuriya.net/en/critical-thought/the-syrian-cause-and-anti-imperialism

I was in Istanbul for about ten days when I met a Turkish communist who explained to me that what was going on in Syria was nothing but an imperialist conspiracy against a progressive, anti-imperialist regime. The Turkish comrade’s talk contained no novel information or analytical spark that could suggest something useful about my country, and everything I tried to say seemed utterly useless. I was the Syrian who left his country for the first time at the age of fifty-two, only to be lectured about what was really happening there from someone who has probably only visited Syria a few times, if at all.

Incidents like this are repeated over and over in both the real and virtual worlds: a German, a Brit, or an American activist would argue with a Syrian over what is really happening in Syria. It looks like they know more about the cause than Syrians themselves. We are denied “epistemological agency,” that is, our competence in providing the most informed facts and nuanced analysis about our country. Either there is no value to what we say, or we are confined to lesser domains of knowledge, turned into mere sources for quotations that a Western journalist or scholar can add to the knowledge he produces. They may accept us as sources of some basic information, and may refer to something we, natives, said in order to sound authentic, but rarely do they draw on our analysis. This hierarchy of knowledge is very widespread and remains under-criticized in the West.

There are articles, research papers, and books written by Westerner academics and journalists about Syria that do not refer to a single Syrian source–especially one that is opposed to the Assad regime. Syria seems to be an open book of a country; anyone with a passing interest knows the truth about it. They particularly know more than dissidents, whom they often call into question, practically continuing the negation of their existence which is already their fate in their homeland. Consequently, we are denied political agency in such a way that builds on the work of the Assad regime, which has, for two entire generations, stripped usof any political or intellectual merit in our own country. We are no longer relevant for our own cause. This standpoint applies to the global anti-imperialist left, to mainstream western-centrists, and of course to the right-wing.

The Western mainstream approaches Syria (and the Middle East) through one of three discourses: a geopolitical discourse, which focuses on Israeli security and prioritizes stability; a culturalist or civilizationalist discourse, which basically revolves around Islam, Islamists, Islamic terrorism and minority rights; and a human-rights discourse, which addresses Syrians as mere victims (detainees, torture victims, refugees, food needs, health services, etc.), entirely overlooking the political and social dimensions of our struggles. These three discourses have one thing in common: they are depopulated (Kelly Grotke), devoid of people, individuals, or groups. They are devoid of a sense of social life, of what people live and dream.

The first two discourses, the geopolitical and the culturalist, are shared by the Western right as well.

But what about the left? The central element in the definition of the anti-imperial left is imperialism and, of course, combatting it. Imperialist power is thought of as something that exists in large amounts in America and Europe. Elsewhere it is either nonexistent or present only in small amounts. In internationalist struggles, the most important cause is fighting against western imperialism. Secondary conflicts, negligible cause and vague local struggles should not be a source of distraction. This depopulated discourse, which has nothing to do with people’s lived experiences, and which demonstrates no need for knowledge about Syrians, has considered it unimportant to know more about the history of their local struggles.

The Palestinian cause, which was only discovered by most anti-imperialists during the 1990s, has paradoxically played a role in their hostility towards the Syrian cause. From their far-off, transcendent position in the imperialist metropoles, they have the general impression that Syria is against Israel, which occupies Syrian territory. Thus, if Syria is with Palestine and against Israel, it is against imperialism. At the end of the day, these comrades are with the Assadists, because Syria has been under the Assad family rule for nearly half a century. Roughly speaking, this is the core of the political line of thinking which can be called ivory-tower anti-imperialism. 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. Anti-imperialists, especially those living in the allegedly imperialist metropoles, are most qualified to tell the truth about all struggles. Those who are directly involved in this or that struggle hardly know what’s really going on – their knowledge is partial, “non-scientific”, if not outright reactionary.

During the Cold War, orthodox communists knew the real interests of the masses, as well as the ultimate course of history. This was sufficient reason for a communist worldview to be always in the right, without fail. But this position, which looks down on history, has placed itself in an overly exalted position with relation to the masses and their actual lives, and in relation to social and political battles on the ground. In fact, this position can be accurately described as imperialist: it expands at the expense of other conflicts, appropriates them for itself and shows little interest in listening to those involved or in learning anything about them. The distinguishing feature of most Western anti-imperialists is that they have nothing but vague impressions about the history of our country; they cannot possibly know anything about its potential adherence to –or noncompliance with– “the course of history.” This makes their meddling in our affairs an imperialist intervention in every sense of the word: interference from above; depriving us of the agency and capacity to represent our own cause; enacting a power relation in which we occupy the position of the weak who do not matter; and finally the complete absence of a sense of comradeship, solidarity, and partnership.

This remains true even when the anti-imperialist left stands with the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions. It stands by their side on the basis of stereotyped and simplistic discourses that are inherited from the Cold War era. 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: to stand in opposition to the great amounts of imperialist power that are concentrated at the White House and 10 Downing Street. 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 anti-imperialist left remembers from the Cold War era that Syria was close to the Soviet Union, so it sides with this supposedly anti-imperialist regime. Consequently, those who resist this regime are “objectively” pro-imperialists. Framing imperial power as something that only exists in the West ascribes to the anti-imperialists a Western-centric tendency, which is no less severe than that of imperialist hardliners themselves.

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. It should be said that this particular mode of analysis, which belongs to the transcendental anti-imperialism, is a belittling imperialist tendency that should to be resisted. There is no just way, for instance, to deny the right of the North Koreans to resist their fascist regime on the basis of such an abstract scheme. Instead, such a scheme can only serve to silence them, just as their regime does.

It is absolutely necessary to rebuild an intellectual and political foundation for criticism and seeking change in the world, but metropolitan anti-imperialism is totally unfit for this job. It has absorbed subordinating imperialistic tendencies, and it is fraught with eurocentrism and void of any true democratic content. A better starting point for criticism and change 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. Imperialism as such has shifted from an essence that exists in the West to a major aspect of local, domesticated power structures. Ironically, the power elites protecting this neo-imperialism may well draw on classical anti-imperialist rhetoric in order to discredit local dissidence and suppress potential political schisms. This is especially true in the Middle East, the world’s most heavily internationalized region. It is characterized by an extensive and aggressive imperialist presence that is directed mainly at suppressing democracy and political change.

From this perspective, working to overthrow the Assadist state is a grassroots struggle against imperialism. Conversely, the victory of the Assadist state over the revolution is a victory for imperialism and a consolidation of imperialist relations in Syria, the Middle East, and the world. Meanwhile, thetranscendental anti-imperialists continue to be mere parasites who barely know anything, practically contributing to the victory of imperialism by opposing the Syrian revolution.

In short, it must be stressed that individual struggles are autonomous, and that their internal structures and histories should be understood, rather than dismissed and subordinated to an abstract struggle that looks down on whole societies and people’s lives. 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. As I have just mentioned, in its relationship with its subjects, this regime reproduces the structure of imperial domination; this is a thousand times more telling than any anti-imperialist rhetoric. Significantly, there exists a strong racist predisposition that is inherent to the structure of this neo-bourgeoisie and its ideology, which celebrates materialist modernity (the modernity of outward appearance and not of relationships, rights, values, etc.). This privileged class regards poor Syrians –Sunni Muslims in particular– just like Ashkenazi Jews regard Arab Muslim Palestinians (and even Sephardic Jews, at an earlier time), and just like whites of South Africa regarded the blacks in the last century. The colonized groups are backward, irrational, and savage, and their extermination is not that big of a deal; it may even be desirable. This attitude does not exclusively characterize the Assadist elite. In fact, the regime and its supporters are emboldened by identification with an international symbolic and political system in which Islamophobia is a rising global trend.

It is well known that the Assadist state has succumbs throughout its history to what can be assumed as imperialist preferences: guarding the borders with Israel since 1974, ensuring stability in the Middle East, weakening the Palestinian resistence independency, treating Syrians as slaves, and destroying all independent political, social, and trade organizations. Indeed, the Assadist state is an integral part of what I call the “Middle Eastern system,” which was founded upon Israeli security, regional stability, and the political disenfranchisement and dispossession of our countries’ subjects. Herein lies the secret of Arab/Islamic exceptionalism with regards to democracy – in contrast to the popular interpretations of cultural critics in the West. Imperialist self-fashioning in such a regime, or the reproduction of imperialism therein, invalidates the conventional notion that imperialist power only exists in America, or in both Europe and America. This suggests that the anti-imperialist left has deep anti-democratic and patriarchal tendencies and suffers from intellectual primitiveness.

We have our own local anti-imperialist communists who adhere to the Assadist state, the Bakdashists. They are named after Khalid Bakdash, who was the Secretary-General of the official, Moscow-aligned Syrian Communist Party since early 1940s up to his death in early 1990s (his wife WissalFarha inherited his post after him, and their son Ammar subsequently inherited it after she passed away). These communists are exactly those who were faithful followers of the Soviet Union within Syrian communism during the Cold War. Today, Bakdashists are middle-class apparatchiks, enjoying a globalized lifestyle and living in city centers, completely separate from the social suffering of the masses and utterly lacking in any creativity. While a diverse array of Syrians had been subject to arrest, humiliation, torture and murder throughout two generations between the 1970s and the 2010s, Bakdashists have persisted in recycling the same vapid anti-imperialist rhetoric, and have paid nothing in return for their blindness to the prolonged plight of their country. This plight has included a sultanic, patriarchal transformation of the regime, the outcome of which was turning Syria into what I am calling the Assadist state, a country privately owned by the Assad dynasty and its intimates. This demonstrates a clear example of the collusion of transcendental anti-imperialism with domesticated imperialism.

In the third place, i.e. after stressing the autonomy and specificity of each conflict, and then emphasizing that nothing about the Assadist state is anti-imperialist, the anti-imperialists should be questioned about their own struggle against imperialism. I do not know of a single example of someone from Western anti-imperialist circles who has been subjected to arrest, torture, legal and political discrimination, travel ban, dismissal from work, or deprivation from writing in his “imperialist” country. I believe that these deprivations do not belong to their world at all, and that perhaps they do not know what a travel ban, deprivation from writing, or torture could possibly mean. They are just like the African who does not know what milk is, the Arab who does not know what an opinion is, the European who does not know what shortage is, and the American who does not know the meaning of “the rest of the world,” as in/goes the famous joke in which four people were asked their opinion about food shortage in the rest of the world. I have never heard of an anti-imperialist comrade who is resented, persecuted, personally targeted or subjected to smear campaigns by imperialism. Actual and moral assassination had actually been common imperialist practices until 1970s. This was especially true in the third world, but also true to a certain extent in the West. Names like Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Mehdi Ben Barka, and Angela Davis, among others, come to mind.

Neither does it seem that these comrades are aware of how privileged they are compared to us Syrians. I do not wish to evoke the guilt of traditional Western leftists. I am merely asking them for humility, to direct their eyes downwards to the laymen in Syria and elsewhere, not towards murderers like Bashar al-Assad and his ilk, and not to a bunch of hypocritical Western journalists who grew bored with London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and New York and now find amusement and a change of scenery in Damascus, Cairo and Beirut– knowing that their monthly multi-thousand dollar salary allows them to live wherever they wish.

As democratic Syrians, we do not wish upon them that they lose the rights to travel and freedom of speech that they enjoy. But how can they not be required to stand in solidarity with us, we who are deprived of such rights, and to denounce the junta that persists in subjugating us?

What I am arguing based on the three points discussed above is that, our comrades are making three major mistakes, all of which are unforgivable: they appropriate our struggle against a regime with which imperial sovereignty in the Middle East is perfectly in peace, for an alleged struggle against imperialism to which they are not even remotely close, supporting an extremely brutal and reactionary bloc about which they are utterly clueless. I will conclude that their anti-imperialist tendencies signify a desirable identity-form for these groups, not an actual mode-of-action in which they are engaged. The transcendental anti-imperialist left today is but a small, bigoted sect, which is not only incapable of taking power, but is also arrogant, reactionary, and ignorant. Gramsci deserves better heirs.

The root of these three mistakes lies, in my view, in the worn-out nature of the essentialist theory of imperialism, which reduces imperialism to Western hegemony. This theory fails to recognize imperialism as a system of international relations that manifests in different ways throughout the various spheres of political and social conflict that span all countries and regions. Syrians live in one of the cruelest forms of this relational system, deprived of political liberties and exposed to a corrupt and criminal junta, which has turned Syria into a hereditary monarchy owned by a dynasty of murderers.

*****

I mentioned above that there is something imperialistic inherent in leftist anti-imperialism. The Syrian struggle is a good example of this.

The US administration, along with Russia’s autocratic regime, denies the Syrian struggle an independence from the war on terror. The Obama administration has done everything to avoid doing anything that the Syrians could benefit from in their struggle, even after Bashar al-Assad broke Obama’s red line. Why? Because this administration preferred the survival of Bashar al-Assad –Israel’s favorite candidate for the rule of Syria– to a transfer of power that would not be fully controlled by them. It was not in favor of Syrian citizens steering political change in their country. The United States has been involved militarily in Syria since September 2014, targeting Daesh and al-Qaeda. The anti-imperialists do not seem to object to this war, however, as much as they did when the Obama administration considered punishing Bashar al-Assad for violating the red line (not for killing Syrians, by the way) in August, 2013. This is despite the fact that US officials rushed to say that the strike would be limited; John Kerry stated in London in the beginning of September, 2013 that the potential strike would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort!”

The root of all of this is that the US administration has annexed the Syrian conflict to its own war on terror. It has tried to impose its battle on Syrians so that they will abandon their own battle against the tyrannical discriminatory Assadist junta: This is what imperialism has done.

In this regard, the anti-imperialist promulgators of the concept of terrorism fail to realize that the war on terror is centered around the state; it is a statist conception of the world order which strengthens states and weakens communities, political organizations, social movements, and individuals. It is furthermore a war in which Bashar al-Assad, who has been in direct conflict with his people for two years, is made partner in a cause that favors the continued domination of the world’s powerful. But perhaps it is not just a matter of realizing or not realizing. There is an inherent statist component in the structure of the anti-imperialist left, which has originated since the Cold War era. This statist quality confirms the observation that the typical anti-imperialist leftist has a geopolitical mindset. Perhaps this is why Trotskyists and anarchists, who are less state-centered and more society-oriented, have stood by Syrians in their struggle.

In the record of this endless fight against terrorism there has not been a single success, and thus far three countries have been devastated over its course (Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria). Yet this record is not surprising, considering that these imperialist forces are characterized by arrogance, racism, and immunity vis-a-vis the crimes they commit and the destruction they leave behind in foreign societies.

The anti-imperialist left, just like imperialism itself, has supplemented the Syrian-struggle to something else, “regime change.” From the point of view of anti-imperialist comrades, regime change in Syria appears to be an imperialist plot. This is a hundred times worse than any mistake. This is an insult to Syrians, to our struggle over two generations, and to hundreds of thousands of victims. This is an insult to a struggle that most of these comrades know nothing about.

I repeat: imperialism, and the Americans in particular, have not wanted to change the regime at any time. Following the chemical massacre in August 2013, they strived to invent reasons not to hurt it, despite the fact that, at the time, they had a very strong justification had they wanted to change –or simply hurt– the Assad regime. The change in Syria is our initiative, and it is our project. Anti-imperialists must consider us agents of imperialism, then. Some are not far from saying so outright – a few months ago, a number of Italian “comrades” attacked an exhibition displaying photographs of the victims of Assad’s killing industry. Otherwise, any change to any regime is a bad thing and serves imperialism. But isn’t that a rather wonderful definition for reactionism?

Annexation is a fundamental aspect of imperialism, and the anti-imperialist activists who deny the autonomy of our struggle and supplement it to their pseudo-struggle are no different from imperialist powers. The two parties find common cause in the denial of our struggle, our political agency, and our right to self-representation. Practically, they are telling us that they are the ones who can define which struggles are in the right; and that we are not worthy of either revolutions or the production of knowledge. But isn’t that a wonderful definition of imperialism?

It is worth mentioning that subordinating our struggle for another one is the defining characteristic of the Assadist rule. For almost half a century, and in the name of yet another pseudo-struggle against Israel, the Assad regime has not ceased to suppress the rights and freedoms of its subjects and to crack down on their attempts to assume political agency in their country. Meanwhile, it has showed a great willingness to wage two hot wars inside Syria, the first of which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, and the second in hundreds of thousands of deaths, up to now. Additionally, subordinating our struggle to something else is also a feature of Islamisms that have worked to appropriate the Syrian struggle for political agency (freedom) in the name of something external to this cause (sharia law, Islamic statehood, and a really imperial caliphate).

Here we have four specific cases of our cause’s subordination; the American government and its followers, Russia and its followers, and Iran and its followers all making our revolution secondary to endless war against terrorism; the Western anti-imperialist left making our opposition secondary to its struggle against imperialism, understood as something practiced only by Western powers; the Assadist rule making our emancipatory aspirations secondary to a struggle with Israel that it has never been engaged in; and Islamists making our common struggle secondary to their own sectarian leanings. The four cases have one thing in common; a patriarchal view. Each of these powers acts like a archetypal father who knows everything, and decides alone what is proper for us, the little boys. Those who reject being infantilized in this manner are considered ignorant, agents of the enemy, or infidels, deprived of speech and of political action. They may even be deprived of life itself, annihilated by chemical weapons, barrel bombs, starvation, or an organized death industry in prisons and hospitals.

The basis of these reactionary patriarchal attitudes by our fellow anti-imperialists contains two important issues. The first is the transformation of the communist left and its heirs into the educated middle classes, which is separate from human suffering and incapable of creativity, just like our local Bakdashists. This is in part due to economic transformations in the central capitalist countries, deindustrialization, the decay of the industrial working class, and the emergence of the “campus left,” which does nothing and knows very little despite its position within academia. There is no longer anything revolutionary or emancipatory in the formation of the contemporary left, and it is not engaged in any real conflicts. The second important issue that underpins these patriarchal attitudes is the intellectual maps that have been inherited from the Cold War (knowledge by recollection, following the Platonic method), added to intellectual sterility and a severe lack of creativity.

Among the main sources of knowledge about Syria for this left are the likes of Robert Fisk, the embedded journalist who accompanied the regime tanks as they stormed Darayya and killed hundreds of its inhabitants. His work later evolved into interviewing notorious murderers such as General Jamil Hassan, of Air Force Intelligence. He publishes his pieces in what are supposedly pro-democratic independent platforms such as The Independent. Another main source of information is Patrick Cockburn, who is Fisk’s partner in friendship with the Assadist junta, and who I doubt knows a single Syrian leftist dissident, just like Fisk. Also in their ranks is Seymour Hersh, who was spoiled by the Pulitzer Prize he had received, becoming fixated on thinking exclusively about “high politics” and seeing nothing down below. In fact, Bashar al-Assad himself is a source of knowledge for this left, as he is frequently interviewed by Western media and visited by delegations from the Western left (and fascists and Western Christian rightists as well), enjoying a status that he had not dreamed of before killing hundreds of thousands of his subjects.

This left no longer has a living cause of any kind. It merely intrudes upon causes like our own, about which it hardly knows and to which it ultimately does a great deal of harm. This left feels guilty because it lacks nothing, so it directs its disordered anxiety at Merkel, Teresa May, Obama, and Trump. It stands with Bashar al-Assad after it has convinced itself that this vile person is against those Western politicians. It is far less knowledgeable or curious about the fate of Bashar al-Assad’s subjects, about whom it knows nothing other than confused impressions it draws from watching TV or reading newspapers.

*****

None of the above is to suggest that Western leftists should not interfere in our affairs or should not comment on what we say about our conflicts. We want them to interfere. In turn, we do and we will interfere in their affairs. We live in one world, and universality must always be defended in both analysis and action. What we expect is that they become a bit more humble and willing to listen, less eager to give lessons, and that they develop knowledge that is not based on recollection. We expect them to be democratic, not to make our conflict secondary to others, to take our opinion into account on the subject of our affairs, and to accept that we are their equals and peers.

Neither am I suggesting that we, the Syrian democrats opposed to the Assadist state, are correct in everything that we say simply because our cause is just, or that we do not accept criticism from others. We want to be criticized and advised, but our critics do not seem to know anything about us or to even be offering criticism or advice. They do not see us at all. Their lofty perspectives render us invisible. Had they been more open over the years to the realities of the Syrian conflict, its dynamics and transformations, they would have been in a better position to synthesize more informed perceptions and to offer more nuanced criticism. Our leftist partners in the West, a multitude of radical democrats, socialists, anarchists, and Trotskyists, have come closer to the grassroots Syrian world and have listened to Syrian narratives. None of them has shaken the blood-stained and pillaging hands of the likes of Bashar al-Assad and the murderers and thieves that constitute his circle.

We are not simplistic, and we do not reduce our struggle to the single dimension of bringing down the Assadist junta. There is another dimension, the struggle against nihilist Islamic organizations. But only among us, the people who are involved in the Syrian struggle on a democratic and emancipatory basis, can radical democratic politics be formed regarding Islamists. We do not approve of essentialist hatred of Islamists, which may be driven by class or sect, and which is definitely reactionary and most probably racist. The most optimal position for a struggle against Islamism is undoubtedly the revolutionary democratic position that also resists Assadist fascism.

Having said that, we are not unaware of a third dimension to our struggle, which pertains to various interventions by conventional or emerging imperialist centers; interventions which are carried out either directly or through regional proxies, in the form of states or sub-state organizations. Here, too, we find that the most coherent and radical position against imperialism is that which takes internal, Assadist colonization into account, and takes sides with the weak and disadvantaged, in Syria and the region at-large. Those who think that Bashar al-Assad and his junta are supportive of the struggle against imperialism are insensible fools at best, and anti-democratic racists at worst.

This three-dimensional struggle defines universality for us, and perhaps for the world as a whole.

Moreover, I am not suggesting that we have no short-comings, or that what we say about these causes and others should be the final word. We work and we learn. Our greatest shortcoming is that we are dispersed and our forces are unorganized. This has been exacerbated by the conditions of detention and killing under torture, which have mainly targeted the social base of the revolution; by the condition of displacement and the extensive destruction of Syrian society by the tyrannical andsectarianAssadist junta and its imperialist partners; and finally by nihilist Islamist organizations. Our efforts are constantly at odds with the shocking and unprecedented extremes that the Syrian tragedy has reached. But we continue to work.

In short, for us, Syrian democrats and leftists, the struggle is a fight for independence. First, we seek the independence of our country from colonial powers, which have donned false masks that boast about sovereignty, territorial unity, pluralism, or the war on terror, much like all colonial powers have throughout history. Second, we seek the independence of our struggle from other colonists, who don equally false masks, such as anti-imperialism and also the war on terror, demanding that we stay silent or act as local copies of them.

This criticism of Western and non-Western anti-imperialist left is both a contribution to the struggle for independence, that is, for freedom, and an effort to own authority over our own discourse. It remains open to partnerships that are based on comradeship and equality.

*****

This article is part of a book about Syria, edited by FouadRoueiha and due to be published soon in Italian

 

No, US bombing of Syria did not begin today

Chemical massacre in Syria

by Michael Karadjis

US bombing of Syria did not begin on April 7, it began in September 2014, two and a half years ago. Nearly 8000 US air strikes have been launched, in which, according to the monitoring organisation Airwars, at least 1400 civilians have been killed. This includes killed hundreds just in recent weeks in some horrific strikes, like the slaughter of some 57 worshippers in a mosque in western Aleppo – which Trump’s Russian friends defended as aimed at “terrorists” – and the massacre soon after of dozens of displaced people in a school in Raqqa. In fact, US bombing in March killed more Syrian civilians (260) than either Russia (224) or ISIS (119), dwarfed only by the massive toll of the Assad regime itself. This bombing has included the use of deadly depleted uranium. Not to mention the mass killing of hundreds of civilians in Mosul in Iraq in just one week in March, just a few of the thousands killed in recent months in the joint US, Iranian and Iraqi regime (ie, the US-Iran joint-venture regime) offensive in that city.

No “anti”-war movement has protested all this US bombing. No “anti”-imperialists have ever cared less about any of this. Because all these years of US bombing have been of opponents of Assad, have often been in direct collaboration with Assad, and have had the tacit support of the Syrian regime.

Then in recent months, under both the late Obama administration and Trump, this US role had become even clearer. From December, the US launched a more intense bombing campaign against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Idlib and western Aleppo, thus joining the Assadist and Russian slaughter from the skies in that region. Hundreds of JFS cadre were killed, and the bombings also hit other rebel groups at times. The US role alongside Assad, Russia and Iran in the latest reconquest of Palmyra was widely reported on. Calculating all US bombings in February from the US CentCom site (ie, the site of the US-led Coalition bombing Syria) shows that while 60 percent of US bombings were carried out in alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, mainly the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, YPG), most of the other 40 percent was in alliance with Assad in Deir Ezzor, Palmyra and Idlib, some 195 strikes of the 548 in total. And that was in a month when the bombing of Idlib was minimal, compared to January and March. Even in SDF-controlled Manbij, the US landed forces to patrol the region with Russian and Assad troops to block the Turkish-led FSA Euphrates Shield forces from advancing.

Despite countless assertions that Trump’s Syria policy was “unclear,” everything Trump has said was very clear: for many months, he insisted the US must ally with Russia and Assad to “fight ISIS,” as he believed Russia and Assad were doing; and that the US should cut off whatever remaining fragments of “aid” he believed were still going to some vetted Syrian rebels. Even Defence Secretary James Mattis, who many have mistakenly seen as more anti-Assad than Trump, has always opposed “no fly zone” plans, and announced several years ago that the time to support Syrian rebels fighting both Assad and ISIS “had passed,” ie, he agreed with the Obama-Kerry line that the US would only support rebels who fought ISIS and Nusra only, not the regime.

Then in the very days just before Assad’s monstrous chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, three prominent US leaders made Trump’s US policy even clearer, announcing that Assad should be allowed to stay. On March 23, US UN representative Nikki Haley announced that the US was “no longer” (sic) focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was”; the Russia-connected US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, used Assad’s very words on March 30, declaring that the “longer term status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people” – a would-be obvious statement, if one assumed Syrian people could hold a democratic election under a tyrannical dictatorship; and the foillowing day, White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.” Of course this had long been unofficial US policy; and had even become partly official under Obama and Kerry when they agreed that Assad could continue to rule in an allegedly “transitional” regime following a political process. But the Trump team made this clear.

Then Assad goes and blows it by throwing sarin in their faces! The interesting issue is why Assad was stupid enough to do this, just days after he received so much explicit US support. Presumably, he was encouraged precisely by all this US verbal and actual military support, and so he decided to test the waters, to see if this meant that even sarin could now be re-normalised. But that just highlights the arrogance of power. The US was giving him everything; Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons in 2013, and then his withdrawal from action, in the US-Russia-Israel deal that saw Assad’s chemical weapons removed, was saying to Assad you can use everything else except chemical weapons; and thus Assad did use everything else in the four years since, in unbelievable quantities, with complete US indifference, if not support. For Assad to then go and use the very weapons that the deal supposedly removed, and show off that he still has them, was simply impossible for the US to ignore in terms of its “credibility.” Assad was reading the messages correctly from this last week, that US leaders were encouraging him; he just read it wrongly that this could include sarin. Look at Nikki Haley, fuming in the UN; she had to fume, because three days earlier the same Nikki Haley had made the official announcement about Assad being good to continue ruling. Assad should have been more gracious about being kissed like that.

The US thus had no choice but to respond in some way for the sake of its alleged “credibility.” Many are claiming Trump is “taking advantage” of Assad’s action to launch a war, just because he likes war, to show what he is made of, to show that he did what Obama didn’t have the spine to do and so on, or alternatively that the strike aims to cover up Trump’s Russia connections that are under investigation at home, by showing he can stand up to the Russians, and so on. This is all a misunderstanding. Certainly, these may well be useful by-products of “taking action” for Trump. But they do not explain the action at all. No, Trump sent a bunch of missiles against the Assadist military facility responsible for the chemical attack, going against everything he wanted to do, and that his entire team wanted to do, as seen by their declarations in the very days beforehand, because Assad’s use of sarin had put US “credibility” at stake.

That is all from the point of view of US imperialism. But from the point of view of supporters of the Syrian revolution, and of liberation and humanity in general, can I ask in all honesty, what is the big deal? Why are 8000 strikes on opponents of Assad (and not only on ISIS), killing thousands of civilians, not “intervention,” yet when you finally get one strike against the biggest, most heavily armed and most highly dangerous terrorist group in Syria, the one currently occupying Damascus, after it slaughters dozens of children with chemical weapons, only that is considered “intervention,” that is supposedly something more significant, that is something we should protest. Really, what is the difference? Surely, if we oppose all US intervention on principle, then this particular bombing is nothing worse than all the other bombings against Anyone But Assad the last two and a half years; and if the left, on the whole, has not been actively demanding the end of US bombing of Syria – far from it – then surely we can say in as much as the US is already there, at least this particular bombing hit the most appropriate target to date.

Frankly, whoever has not been protesting the US bombing of Syria all along the last two and a half years, and who now suddenly protests this US “intervention” today, cannot in any sense be considered anti-war, or anti-imperialist, but simply an apologist for the Assad genocide-regime. As Joey Husseini Ayoub, who runs the excellent Hummus for Thought site, wrote, “For those who care, this is 7,899th US airstrikes in Syria since 2014. I don’t remember 7,898 waves of outrage or concern.”

And that is only noting the absence of protest against US bombings before this one. One might rightly criticise my post for focusing on these US crimes, terrible as they are, rather than the truly massive crimes against humanity that have been carried out by the Assadist regime, its airforce and torture chambers, and the Russian imperialist invader that backs it, the crimes that have left at least half a million dead and turned the entire country to rubble, even before this latest horrific atrocity. That is simply because I have been focusing on the issue of the inconsistency of those allegedly “opposing US imperialism,” indicating that this is entirely fake. But from the point of view of humanity, from the perspective of the part of the left that still believes in the politics of liberation, the malignancy of those “anti-imperialists” who only protest bombing now, but who have never protested the Assadist and Russian bombing, or in fact support this genocide, is far worse.

Meanwhile, while launching a singular “punishment” strike may have the potential to escalate beyond its purpose, this seems almost certainly not the intention of any wing of the Trump regime. As State Secretary Rex Tillerson explains, this punishment strike should not be confused with a US change of line on Syria:

“US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the attack showed the President “is willing to take decisive action when called for. ‘I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today’, he said. ‘There has been no change in that status. I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line and cross the line on violating commitments they’ve made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways’.”

Brief comments on the Russia-Turkey colonialist “ceasefire”

the-powers-carve-up-china
The colonialist Russia-Turkey imposed Syria “ceasefire” is a disaster, yet at the same time unavoidable at this point. A disaster because of the way that it came about (ie, via defeat, a ceasefire where the cards are stacked against the revolution side, no prisoner releases, no siege endings, expulsion from Aleppo, regime upper hand etc), and because it excludes war against Nusra, giving Assad, Russia and the US (and perhaps Turkey and the YPG) the excuse to make Idlib a legal Kill Zone without “violating the ceasefire.” Even outside of Idlib, does the “ceasefire” mean the regime will end its current savagery in Damascus suburbs? And indeed, we have already seen constant regime violations. Unavoidable because, given the relationship of forces on the ground, Turkey’s obvious betrayal, the Gulf’s complete lack of interest, the continued US-Jordan-imposed freezing of the southern front etc, we need a ceasefire, for the revolutionary forces, both civil and military, to regroup, for the people to breathe etc. I guess the civil movement needs to try to make the most of it while it lasts, as it did earlier this year, bring people into the streets, keep the end of Assad as the target, revive popular committees etc. However, if the regime uses it to continue to massacre in Idlib, East Ghouta etc, then what is the FSA to do? If it doesn’t fight back because the regime is (allegedly) “only bombing Nusra” which is outside the ceasefire, while in fact committing its usual massacre, then this will greatly boost Nusra vis a vis FSA – and, in a sense, rightly so. So the FSA is in a bind.
As for the media pointing out that the US is not part of the ceasefire agreement (only Russia, Turkey, Iran), this seems a moot point (apart from the fact that Putin has made clear the US will be brought into the process when his mate in ultra-right politics, Trump, is inaugurated), as the US is not a belligerent in the main part of the Syrian war. The US role has been to (1) bomb ISIS, (2) bomb Nusra, (3) bomb in favour of the YPG. But the ceasefire doesn’t involve any of these forces or conflicts. Clearly, the “ceasefire” is part of the colonial unofficial soft partition “solution” with Russia, Assad and Iran getting what they want of “useful” and western Syria, Turkey getting its own northern zone (filling it with right-wing Turkish nationalists who believe in Greater Turkey, want to expel Syrian refugees into the zone, but have no quarrel with Assad, while blocking (and not unjustly) the YPG’s irridentist “linking” project, the AKP’s change of policy represented by its current alliance with fascistic Grey Wolves and MHP). But the US has manoevured its way into 3 air bases in YPG-controlled territory, so the large Manbij to Hasake region is effectively a “US-backed” zone anyway; the zone controlled by the Southern Front in Daraa has been converted from a fighting front to a strip protecting the Jordanian border from Daesh; and the prizes are Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the east: as the US has bombed on Assad’s side for 2 years against ISIS in Deir Ezzor, that will probably go to Assad. Not sure they’ve worked out Raqqa just yet, with so many contenders; for a while probably just another Kill Zone. I suspect the Saudis will want some kind of Sunni entity in the east to expel ISIS in exchange for accepting Assad’s “temporary” rule (according to the Russia-Turkey agreement) and being left out of the process.

Save Aleppo! Oh, hang on, Aleppo is not Kobani …

Please help the people of Aleppo, just like we helped the people of Kobani. Oh, hang on, Aleppo? Kobani? Oh, that’s right. In Kobani they were Kurds. Civilised, secular, “progressive”, feminists, even green warriors apparently. They were like “us.” “We” (western imperialists and western … “anti-imperialists”) understand them. Therefore, they deserved to be saved from ISIS beasts, said the imperialist leaders, and their “anti-imperialist” echo in unison. Aleppo? Facing a fascistic enemy that has massacred twenty times as many people as ISIS fascists could ever manage, is not full of Good Kurds. It is full of Arabs. And we all know what western imperialist leaders, the far-right, neo-Nazis, Trumpists, racists, and “left-wing anti-imperialists” think of Arabs, especially when they live in Syria. They are all backward, blood-thirsty, barbaric, “jihadis” and “head-choppers,” *all* of the above categories tell us, yes, the left-fascists just as emphatically as any of the others. So those men, women and children, schools, hospitals, markets, every sign of life, are not deserving like Good Kurds are. Indeed, the left-fascists are now all over social media, in unison with their far-right co-thinkers, expressing their great joy with the victory of the most violent, most mass-murderous counterrevolutionary massacre of our era, expressing how happy they are that a fascist regime with an airforce, backed by an imperialist state invading with its airforce, have together bombed a whole country to pieces for 5 years, but moreover have bombed 300,000 people cramped into east Aleppo for months with every conceivable weapon of mass destruction except nuclear, ripping children to pieces on a daily basis, destroying hospital after hospital till none left.

See, when US imperialism intervened in Syria with its airforce in September 2014, bombing ISIS away from Kobani, many “anti-imperialists” decided that just this time they were not opposed to imperialist intervention, because Kurds and especially the PKK are “Good”, and ISIS are Really Bad. And so even though US imperialism has gone well beyond the emergency of defending Kobani from being overrun by ISIS, and has continued to bomb Syria for over 2 years, bombing not only ISIS, but also Nusra, other (non-jihadist) Islamists, and even on occasion non-Islamist FSA fighters, that’s OK; even though every time the US airforce has fought ISIS on behalf of the Kurdish YPG, in full coordination, in full-scale cooperation, including with US special forces, and even US air-bases, that’s OK; even though, beyond the Kobani emergency, all the rest of the US/YPG war on ISIS-controlled territory has been offensive, not defensive, operations, and the US airforce has killed 850 “collateral damage” civilians in these operations, that’s OK say the “anti-imperialists,” because the one armed force the US has never attacked are the armed forces of the Assad fascist dictatorship. Yet, when Aleppo (and countless other towns before this) have been confronted with murderous sieges by an enemy far more murderous than ISIS, and the US has not ever even hinted at helping the people against Assad, the same “anti-imperialist left” that hails the YPG, and did not organise a single “anti-war” demonstration for two years as the US bombed Everyone But Assad, has the impossible gall to slander the heroic Syrian revolutionaries as … “US proxies.” And when Hilary Clinton meekly implied that she might be in favour of some kind of “no-fly zone” to prevent Assad’s airforce from bombing children to bits – not to bomb Assad on behalf of the rebels with the US airforce, to drive back Assad and help the rebels advance, as the US does for the YPG against ISIS, but rather to prevent an airforce from bombing – the “anti-imperialist left” decided that this meant Clinton would bring “World War III”, and so the KKK-loving Trump team were preferable because Trump openly declared his love for Putin and Assad.

Hypocrisy is nothing new historically from any quarter, of course. However, it is rather difficult for me to conceive a level of hypocrisy coming from “our” side – the left, those supposedly dedicated to human liberation – that comes close to this.

Now, before continuing, I can already hear many supporters of Rojava feel they are under attack here. So to clarify, this post is not directed at the Kurds in Syria (despite my political criticisms of the PYD leadership), and still less anyone in the western left who gives solidarity to all equally, those expressing solidarity to both Kurdish and Arab resistance to both Assad and ISIS. The post rather is about the gross Orientalism of parts of the pro-Rojava movement. Further, I am not at all suggesting support for the defence of Kobani was wrong. And for all the anti-imperialist-intervention principles that many of us grew up on, when the US intervention did finally take up the defence of Kobani (about a month into its bombing campaign, which I did oppose from the start – for the first month, the US bombed anywhere but Kobani, especially in Aleppo and Idlib where there was no ISIS), it never occurred to me to go out in the streets and demand “US out now” at that point! Yes Kobani was in danger of being overrun by ISIS maniacs who had just acquired a windfall of US advanced weaponry courtesy the US-Iranian regime in Iraq which handed them Mosul, and the YPG was squeezed into a corner. Like with the defence of East Timor in 1999, I very reluctantly understood that at this point, the US was doing something necessary. For its own reasons. Even though I regard the rest of the US intervention in Syria highly negatively. I am also deliberately making a distinction between the US/YPG defensive, emergency operation then and the more general offensive operations since because I frankly do not support permanent US intervention in Syria to help one side militarily, with all the “collateral damage” and more general political damage it causes (including to the Kurds), yet even then I certainly prefer the YPG/SDF to ISIS rule, whatever criticisms I have of the former. No, the post is about selective solidarity. About those saying ‘Yes to the defence of Kobani against ISIS, including even 2-year ongoing US air support to the YPG’, but ‘no to even a single US gun to help the people of Aleppo (and elsewhere) resist Assad’s bloody dictatorship, Russian imperialism and the global Shiite-jihadi invasion forces’. That hypocrisy has just turned genocidal.

While it may be true that Syria is “complicated”, and not everyone has the time or interest to study the most profound revolutionary upheaval of the 21st century (except a bit of it in “Rojava”, the bit allied to US imperialism to the hilt and also the bit never hit by Assad or Russia), nevertheless, mass murder is not “complicated.” Of course, many on the left are not in the category of the left-fascists, who are a breed of their own which are indistinguishable from their right-wing co-thinkers. Many are personally appalled, but seek to relativise the slaughter (isn’t Qatar also arming some rebels? Oh yeh, that’s why the rebels are SO able to protect themselves and the civilians from the 5-year aerial massacre), or satisfy themselves with the fact that they can do little about it since it is not their own government doing it. Apparently, that makes active solidarity a bad thing, in their view. Whatever. I don’t have a big beef with those genuinely appalled who are simply confused. What we need to stress however is this. Far too much of the western left have labelled themselves the “revolutionary” left, by which they mean that, unlike some other leftists, who they see as mere reformers, they are “the revolutionaries.” Well, revolution, as Grenada’s Maurice Bishop once said, is not like making a cup of instant coffee. In the real world, revolutions are extremely complicated and messy. People like those in Syria, living for decades under a totalitarian tyranny that brutally suppressed all opposition thought, do not emerge from this with fully developed “revolutionary” programs and “correct” ideas that those of us living our entire lives in the relative comfort of western cities may think are necessary. Yes, there is much we need to evaluate in terms of lessons of lost revolutions (if the crushing of Aleppo does end the revolutionary process, by no means a given). But that is entirely different to not knowing which side you are on. The fact is, much of the self-declared “revolutionary” left turned out to be only marginally better than the centrist/Stalinist/”mainstream”/pacifist/”anti”-war left, who were the most resolutely counterrevolutionary. That is, confronted by an actual people’s revolutionary uprising, warts and all, they decided either to support bloody counterrevolution or to declare a plague on both your houses or to use the same racist discourse about “jihadis” and “liver-eaters” etc or one way or another simply had no idea what to do or what to say.

So, while many of these people and groups indeed do an enormous amount of highly dedicated great work around concrete *reforms* in their own countries (eg, they campaign to defend refugees – even Syrian refugees from Assad’s holocaust, ironically enough – among many other valuable campaigns), a very good thing, how about we drop the BS about being the “revolutionary” left? No great harm in being honest. In Australia, two far-left socialist organisations, Socialist Alternative and Solidarity, have distinguished themselves with their unstinting support for the Syrian people’s revolution, to the bloody end, and the same is true of countless other left and socialist organisations around the world, mostly also parts of the far-left alongside many individuals from among the more honest sections of the reformist left. Although I am a member of neither, I am proud to be associated with these comrades.