The Western left and the Syrian war

November 1, 2016

Australian socialist Corey Oakley takes up the debates among anti-imperialist forces over what the left should say about Syria, in an article for the newspaper Red Flag.

THE SYRIAN war is not just a tragedy. It is a crime of immense proportions. And it is clear as day who is culpable.

First, the Assad regime, which in 2011 met the demands of a protest movement for social justice and democratization with bullets and torture cells, and when that failed, and protesters began to call for Bashar al-Assad's overthrow, decided there was no price in blood it would not pay to stay in power.

Second, the Iranian regime, which, as the rebellion grew and the resources of the regime were exhausted in the face of a nationwide uprising, deployed its own military forces and proxy militias to keep the government in power and prolong the war.

Third, Russia. While Putin backed Assad from the outset, it was only in September last year that Russia, fearful the regime was on the brink of collapse, intervened decisively, unleashing the terrible power of its air force on rebel-held cities such as Aleppo. John Kerry's assertion that the Russian plan for Aleppo is modeled on its campaign in Grozny in 1999, when Russian forces laid waste to the entire city in order to wrest it from rebel hands, is likely to be a correct, if hypocritical, assessment.

Bombs rain down on a Syrian city
Bombs rain down on a Syrian city

THEN THERE is the West. It deserves its share of the blame too, but not for the reasons many claim. The predominant narrative on the left is that the U.S. and its allies have pursued a strategy of "regime change" in Syria, and are responsible for fuelling the resistance to Assad.

In fact, the opposite is true. Despite expressing, at various times, sympathy for rebels and hostility to Assad, the U.S. has at almost every stage hindered efforts to overthrow the regime.

CIA officers in Turkey, nominally in place to assist arms supply, in many cases in fact prevented the flow of weapons, particularly heavy weapons, to rebel forces. U.S. and Israeli pressure has been key to the ongoing refusal of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia to provide crucial anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition.

While there are significant elements in the U.S. security establishment who argue it is in the strategic interests of the U.S. to support the overthrow of Assad, the prevailing view thus far, and the actual policy pursued by the Obama administration, has accepted the need to keep the regime in place.

After the September cease-fire collapsed, there was renewed talk that the long-enforced U.S. ban on the supply of significant numbers of Saudi surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels would be lifted. But by mid-October it was clear that these plans had yet again been shelved.

This has been the recurring pattern of the war. While Russia has intervened decisively in defense of the Assad regime, U.S. promises of "support" for rebels have repeatedly failed to materialize or been so conditional (e.g. insisting that in exchange for weapons, rebel groups agree to fight only ISIS, rather than Assad's forces) as to be of no actual help to the struggle against the regime.

This seeming paralysis is not simply the result of political ineptitude. It reflects the fact that while Putin has a clear policy of defending the regime as a means to entrench Russian influence in Syria, the U.S. has no clear strategic orientation. It has no particular love for Assad, especially as the regime's ties with Russia have tightened over the course of the war. But the U.S. is equally hostile to a decisive victory for the revolutionary forces, precisely because--counter to what many in the pro-Assad camp assert--there is scant evidence that the removal of the regime would serve U.S. interests.

THE DIVISIONS on the Western left over what attitude to take to the Syrian war have been bitter and wide-ranging. At the core of the problem has been a hesitancy by many on the left, or in some cases outright refusal, to accept the legitimacy of the revolutionary movement that broke out in 2011.

At the extreme end of this are those like University of Sydney academic Tim Anderson, who consider the Assad regime to be a secular, socialist government that is part of the "axis of resistance" to U.S. imperialism and Zionism, and therefore to be defended at all costs. For them, the entire revolution was a CIA plot from day one, and the well-documented crimes of the regime are all fabrications concocted by imperialists and their lackeys.

Anderson restated his long-standing position in a recent interview, arguing

The war on Syria has never been a civil war, although there has always been a small minority of Syrians who have engaged in the war, betraying their country to NATO and the Persian Gulf monarchies. The key forces against Syria since 2011 have been Washington and its regional allies, the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey and Israel, with support from some others including Jordan, Canada, the UK and France.

According to Anderson, the crimes of the regime are "false flag" operations--lies concocted by the opposition. The 2013 sarin gas attack in Ghouta, which killed as many as 1,500 people, was, according to him and his fellow conspiracy theorists, in fact carried out by the opposition to win international sympathy. Anderson and his ilk also ignore the long history of collaboration of the Assad regime (both father and son) with Israel to keep the peace, as well as Bashar's collaboration with George W. Bush during the "war on terror," during which Syria was one of the key destinations for "rendition", i.e. where the U.S. sent its prisoners to be tortured.

BUT MUCH more common than apologists for Assad are those on the left who acknowledge some or many of the crimes of the regime, but nonetheless think that the U.S. is still the most culpable party in the Syrian conflict, and/or that the primary duty of leftists in the West is to oppose our own governments over Syria.

At one extreme of this category are journalists like Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk. These people repeat the talking points of the regime while acknowledging some of its worst atrocities. Cockburn, for example, argues that the West should form a military alliance with Assad and his murderous forces to fight jihadi extremism.

At the other end of this spectrum are those like the leaders of the UK Stop the War Coalition, who oppose Russian bombing but "do not take sides or have one position on the internal conflict" and maintain that the focus of the Western left must be on opposing Western imperialism.

The Stop the War stance is often justified with reference to the German socialist Karl Liebknecht, an iconic hero of the revolutionary movement that opposed the First World War, who coined the antiwar slogan "the main enemy is at home."

The problem--as is often the case when enlisting quotations from the dead for use in contemporary debates--is one of context. When Liebknecht said that his enemy was his own government and not their imperial rivals, it was not just an assertion of the conflict of interest between German workers and their rulers, but also a powerful statement of solidarity with the workers of Russia, Britain and the other powers against whom Germany was waging war. Furthermore, when revolution against the Tsar broke out in Russia in 1917, Liebknecht enthusiastically supported it, even though the overthrow of the Tsar was in the narrow short-term interests of the German state.

How does this apply today? If Britain were at war with Russia, "the main enemy is at home" would be a fine slogan for the UK left to raise, one that would not only expose the conflicting class interests in British society, but also promote internationalist sentiments among Russian workers and help them resist the jingoistic propaganda of their own rulers. In the Syrian context, though, all it does is say to those resisting Assad: "Your enemy is not our enemy. Because you are not fighting our government, your plight is not our concern."

One way around this, of course, would be to establish that Western governments like the UK, the U.S. and Australia are in fact the main immediate enemy of the Syrian people. The problem is that this is palpably untrue. There is simply no argument that the U.S. is inflicting death and destruction on Syria on anything like the scale of the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian allies. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented the death of 9,524 people, 42 percent of them civilians, at the hand of Russian air strikes between September 30, 2015, and October 7, 2016.

Chris Woods from the monitoring group Airwars says, "the Russians' death rate probably outpaces the coalition by a rate of eight to one." And that is leaving aside entirely the fact that the regime the Russians are propping up is the responsible for the overwhelming majority of deaths in Syria since 2011.

There is no doubt that the U.S. is responsible for many atrocities in Syria--according to Airwars, the U.S.-led coalition has caused around 900 civilian deaths over 26 months of bombing. But the logic of the so-called "anti-imperialist" position is constantly to play up the atrocities of Western forces and downplay the much greater level of death and destruction caused by the regime and its allies, which the overwhelming majority of Syrians consider to be their main enemy.

Given the difficulties in claiming Western powers are right now a greater threat to the Syrian people than the Russian Air Force, the other approach adopted by defenders of the "anti-imperialist" position is to put forward analyses of what the Western powers want to do in the future (i.e. invade, start a war with Assad/Russia, etc.) that not only overstate the potential for such developments, but downplay the indisputably real imperial intervention in Syria that is taking place right now.

IN RECENT weeks, the position of the antiwar left in Britain has been considerably complicated by a chauvinist campaign of anti-Russian hysteria launched by a section of the Tory party, backed by opponents of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on the right of his party. This follows an earlier campaign in favor of British intervention that the Labour right and the Tories used to try to undermine Corbyn's leadership.

The most obscene element of this latest campaign was the call by Tory Foreign Minister Boris Johnson for antiwar protests outside the Russian embassy. The Stop the War Coalition was attacked in parliament and the media for refusing to back such a protest.

Stop the War was right to say that the call by Tories and Blairites for "antiwar" protests were in fact calls for "start the war" mobilizations for the UK to start a military conflict with Russia. But Stop the War's insistence on prioritizing opposition to UK and other Western imperialist wars left it unable to convincingly make the obvious argument against Johnson--that of hypocrisy.

Chris Nineham, the Stop the War representative who appeared in a widely shared interview on the BBC, epitomized the problem. Challenged as to why Stop the War was not prepared to protest against the monstrous crime of Russia's blitzkrieg of Aleppo, he was reduced to arguing that it was because the Russians wouldn't pay any attention to what Stop the War said.

Much more effective was Eamonn McCann, the People Not Profit member in the Northern Ireland Assembly. He denounced the Russian war on Syria in blistering terms, before turning his attention to the sickening hypocrisy of those in the media and political establishment who cried crocodile tears over Aleppo, but then cheered on U.S. interventions in Iraq and Yemen, and provided weaponry and political support to reactionary dictatorships like the Saudi monarchy that are neck-deep in the counter-revolutionary wars being waged across the region.

There is no doubting the need to make the case against Western imperialism in the Middle East. The U.S.-backed assault on Mosul, Iraq, in which a ferocious torrent of U.S. and allied air power will rain death on a city filled with civilians, to support the military campaign of sectarian Shiite forces just as murderous as ISIS, is already in motion, with little in the way of opposition in Western capitals. And if Hillary Clinton wins the U.S. presidential elections, as is almost certain, there is every likelihood of a new period of aggressive U.S. militarism.

But the left cannot convincingly make the case against Western imperial wars if it is ambivalent in the face of militarism of the non-Western variety. More importantly, the left cannot build a movement in solidarity with struggles in the Arab world if its criterion for supporting progressive struggles or opposing reaction with conviction is based on the involvement or otherwise of Western governments.

OVER THE last few years, a loose body of activists and writers has emerged in and around the English-speaking left who are determined to pursue the case for solidarity with the Syrian Revolution and combat the arguments that have marginalized Syrian solidarity in the West.

This has been a positive and important development. But particularly in the last year, lines of argument have developed within this camp that are harmful not just to the left in general, but also to the cause of solidarity with the Syrian Revolution.

First among these has been the contention that the Syrian Revolution is the dividing line of modern politics, against which all else must be judged. It is not in dispute that the Syrian Revolution is of crucial importance not just for Syrians, but for the future of the Arab Revolution more broadly and even for the international left as a whole. Michael Karadjis, the most prolific defender of the Syrian Revolution on the Australian left, has argued that the Syrian Revolution is the defining struggle of our time. He may be right. But that does not mean (and Karadjis does not assert) that every struggle can be seen through the prism of the Syrian debates.

That view is, unfortunately, what has taken hold in a number of cases. For example, some supporters of the Syrian Revolution have backed Hillary Clinton and opposed Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein (and in some cases previously, Bernie Sanders) on the basis that Clinton has expressed opposition to the Assad regime and has not adopted the prevailing anti-interventionist view of the U.S. left expressed by Stein and Sanders.

For example Clay Claiborne, on his Linux Beach blog which contains many excellent articles defending the Syrian Revolution, writes that "Not only is Hillary Clinton's position far more sympathetic [than Jill Stein] to the Syrian people and their plight, as a purely practical political matter, she is correct to embrace the reality that any solution that does not involve the overthrow of the Assad regime can never succeed in bringing peace to Syria."

This is an extreme case of missing the wood for the trees. Clinton is a darling of the neo-conservative wing of the U.S. military establishment. She advocates an aggressive U.S. militarism of the kind that destroyed Iraq and, incidentally, forged an alliance with Bashar al-Assad during the "war on terror." Her hyper-imperialist politics have nothing to do with solidarity with the struggle for democracy of the Syrian people.

As for Stein and Sanders, it is true that some of their statements reflect talking points that are used by the Assad regime. But this is, for the most part, simply a reflection of the consensus on the U.S. antiwar left.

U.S. leftist writer Louis Proyect, in a useful article, suggests considering the position of the Greens in a similar way to that of the U.S. Communist Party in the 1930s, at the time of the Moscow Trials. While the U.S. Communist Party was thoroughly Stalinist, it would nonetheless have been wrong for the anti-Stalinist left to reduce the Communist Party to its Stalinism. On the one hand, the Communists defended unspeakable atrocities of the Stalin regime; on the other hand, in the U.S. context, they were an important part of the struggle against the bosses and against the ruling class. Their support for Stalinism could not be written off, but nor could their role in the domestic class struggle.

However much you think the Syrian Revolution is the defining debate in world politics today, it is hard to argue it is more important than the question of Stalinism was to the left in 1937. And yet the anti-Stalinist elements of the revolutionary left then--or some of them, at least--found a balance between the necessity of a relentless struggle against Stalinism and the need to find unity with those who wanted to fight the ruling class and their parties in particular countries.

The same argument applies to those in the UK who denounce Jeremy Corbyn because of his association with Stop the War (for example, Sam Hamad, who declared himself "completely unmoved" by the recent Labour leadership challenge). Whatever you say about Stop the War's approach to Syria, the fact that there is now a leader of the Labour Party associated with the organization responsible for the millions-strong demonstrations against then-Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair is of enormous significance.

It is true that it would have been better if Corbyn had made stronger statements in relation to the Syrian war, but the fact that he did not do so reflects a failing of the left in general, not primarily of him. What is significant is that we have a Labour leader aligned with the antiwar movement. The challenge in that context is to change the attitude of the antiwar movement to Syria, not to denounce the first Labour leader in generations, if not ever, to align himself with those resisting British imperialism.

FROM THE beginning of the Syrian Revolution, there have been those who denounced calls from within Syria for military aid from the U.S. or Arab states and seen them as proof of a CIA plot. I argued against this in 2012, writing:

Is it wrong for the Syrian revolutionaries to demand, and where possible accept, weapons from imperialists, the imperialists' allies, or anyone else? Of course not. They have every right to do whatever it takes to defend themselves from the horrifying apparatus of Assad's state.

The fact that the U.S. has provided next to no weaponry to the rebel forces, and has actively prevented them from getting the heavy weapons they need from other sources, is one of the reasons the regime is still in place.

But it is one thing to demand the U.S. end what is effectively a weapons blockade against the Syrian rebels. It is quite another to demand, as some supporters of the Syrian Revolution do, that the U.S. or the UK establish a no-fly zone that would bring them into military conflict with Russia and potentially spark a much broader war. Such calls are understandable in view of the horror of the Russian/Assadist onslaught, but they are wrong.

If the U.S. did shift policy and consider such action, it would not be directed at saving lives in Aleppo or elsewhere. Instead it would represent a major attempt to reassert U.S. imperial might in a region where U.S. power has been considerably diminished since the Iraq war. Direct U.S. military involvement would be a disaster for the people of Syria and for the revolution. The U.S. is no more interested in democracy or social justice than Russia, as its previous close collaboration with the Assad regime attests.

Internationally, the antiwar movement is at a low ebb. So too is international solidarity with what remains of the Arab revolutions. Stop the War in Britain is rightly proud that it has kept an antiwar movement alive when so many others--including us in Australia--have failed to do so. But the truth is that the vital energizing power of the antiwar movements born of the 2003 Iraq war subsided a long time ago. The anti-imperialist left has struggled ever since, no more so than in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, which tore apart the old formulas that put imperialist intrigue at the center of politics and ignored the potential of the Arab people to be the agents of their own destiny.

For the left to be relevant in the future, we need to solidarize with movements of the oppressed in the Arab world (and beyond), and at the same time form the alliances necessary in the West to take on the oligarchs that rule our countries for the 1 Percent. The old "anti-imperialism" that targeted only the West will not do. And neither will a politics that subordinates domestic questions in the West to litmus tests of international politics, or allows hostility to Russia to turn into accommodation with Western imperialism.

First published at Red Flag.

Further Reading

From the archives