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The Syrian Revolution, imperialist rivalries and the left

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The thirtieth anniversary of the Hama massacre, in which 20,000 perished, reminds us that the Ba'athist dictatorship and the al-Assad dynasty, which has ruled Syria since 1971, is no novice when it comes to the slaughter of its own people. Famed for their intransigence, the son Bashar could say, like the father, Hafiz; "I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er." (Shakespeare's Macbeth). The regime marked the anniversary with a new massacre, killing 200 by heavy bombardment of the rebellious Khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs.

When peaceful mass demonstrations began in Deraa on 18 March 2011 and rapidly spread to Baniyas, Homs, Hama and the suburbs of Damascus, the regime knew only one response, to turn loose the army and the Mukhabarat (military intelligence services) to beat the population into submission. The United Nations now puts the death toll at more than 5,000; the Syrian opposition forces at 6,400. It is believed more than 14,000 have been detained, beaten and tortured by the security forces.

At first, despite the bloodshed, the US insisted there would be no Libyan style intervention and Hilary Clinton still referred to Assad as "a reformer". Then, hesitatingly, the US was obliged to condemn the killings, although it balanced this by condemning the violence of the demonstrators. Echoing Israel's position, Washington still insisted there could be no military intervention.

In late December, the Arab League finally broke its silence on the uprising and adopted a peace plan to negotiate an end to the uprising by releasing prisoners, withdrawing troops from the streets, and beginning a "dialogue" between the regime and the opposition. The League sent a team of "monitors" to Syria to oversee the Syrian president's compliance with the plan’s first stages.

Given the fact that some regimes were pro-Assad (Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan) and others hostile (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf petro-monarchies) the idea that they would come up with a decisive answer was utopian. The largest group of monitors was provided by Iraq and the head of the mission was a Sudanese general who had presided over the butchery in Darfur. In addition the monitors were carefully shepparded around by the Syrian secret services. The report would likely have been a total whitewash (as it appears the unpublished draft is.)

However given the fact that monitors were hardly needed when film and video-clips on Al Jazeera and the the BBC showed the slaughter to be ongoing and even intensifying, under Saudi pressure the mission was eventually aborted. At least 800 people were killed during the monitors month-long stay and this left the Arab League with little cover for further inaction and procrastination. Better to pull out and do nothing.

When the Arab Gulf states led by Qatar plus Saudi Arabia, withdrew their monitors the United Sates and Britain tried to steer a resolution through the UN Security Council but Russia and China vetoed this, believing that it would prove to be a first step towards a Libya style intervention. However, an official, UN-backed, intervention remains unlikely, as long as Russia and China continue to back their Syrian ally.

Who will rule Syria?

Underlying the moves to "internationalise" the conflict is the fear - on the part of the Arab regimes and the bourgeois wing of the Syrian opposition - that otherwise the question of power will be decided on the streets.

The movement of military defectors is growing, with the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Saqba, barely 30 km from the capital, coming under the control of the Free Syrian Army for a time. Similar temporary takeovers have occurred in Homs, Idlib and Harasta, while civilian demonstrations have marched in support of the military defectors in Zabadani near the Lebanese border. This lies behind the artillery bombardment of Homs, which began on February 3-4, when over 200 people were killed, and has continued since.

However, as in the case of Libya, Assad's intransigence in continuing. The rising tempo of the bombardment of oppositional strongholds in Homs will only make calls for intervention grow. The western imperialist powers, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the US’s client Arab regimes will seek some sort intervention. This is not because Assad’s regime is such a thorn in imperialism’s side but because Syria's revolution, uprising and civil war threaten to destabilise the region, encourage uprisings in the US’s own (equally totalitarian) client states. Thus in the name of the name of "defending” the revolution they seek to put it in a straitjacket of UN, Arab League, Turkish, and a Nato intervention, but only as a last resort. The UN option has up to now been blocked by Russia and China.

Both Russia and China are former degenerate workers' states where a bureaucratic caste exercised totalitarian rule over a post-capitalist planned economy. After both restored capitalism they are now imperialist powers. The political regimes of both remain far from being democracies. As such they are themselves vulnerable to democratic revolutions on the model of the Arab Spring, In addition, they have as allies and/or economic/security assets a number repressive and totalitarian regimes like Syria Iran and in China’s case repulsive regimes like that of Robert Mugabe.

Both also fear of the "regime change" strategies directed by the US against a number of such states during over the last two decades. These have included the "colour" or "flower" revolutions as well as UN "humanitarian" interventions. The fear is particularly acute because of the wave of large anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia, the biggest popular mobilisations since the establishment of the Yeltsin regime and the restoration of capitalism in 1992.

China, too, faces a restive working class, movements of national minorities like the Tibetans and the Uighurs and has few if any democratic shock absorbers should economic slowdown turn economic into political dissent. Moreover, after its bloody failures in Iraq and the "AfPak" imbroglio, the USA has adopted a policy of political and military containment of a rising China.

Struggle for domination

Thus, the Middle East is increasingly an arena in which great power rivalries are expressed. The Zionist rogue state which, though a gendarme of imperialism in the region intimidating, dividing and weakening the Arab states, is also because of its political clout in the US party system, able to act with relative autonomy of its master.

Fearing Iran’s attempts to develop a nuclear deterrent (whether bluff or reality) observers seem more and more convinced that Israel will attack Iran this year. The EU and the saner forces in the US ruling class fear (rightly) this could ignite the powder keg of the entire region, in terms not only of war but of revolution with western imperialism this time exposed by its inevitable covering up for Israel.

As the dictatorships and absolute monarchies look for outside protectors, and the competing foreign powers seek local agents, revolutionaries are obliged to chart a course of strict class independence between the NGOs, human rights foundations, Stalinist and Chavista "leftists" and all the other proxies of the rival "democratic" and "anti-imperialist" powers.

The Left Supporters of Assad

The Syrian revolution is not, as some fake leftists claim, a tool of imperialism and Zionism. These "leftists" justify their shameful role as apologists of the Ba'athist regime by grossly exaggerating its anti-imperialist credentials.

It is true that Syria, unlike Egypt and Jordan, never signed a peace deal with Israel and today is an ally of Iran (Israel and the USA's prime enemy) and that it funds and arms sections of the Palestinian resistance, including Hamas, plus Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, it is also true that it has murderously attacked Palestinians in Lebanon, as in 1976. For Damascus, anti-Zionist rhetoric and, sometimes, actions, are ultimately just bargaining chips in the attempt to recover the Golan Heights and normalise relations with the US and the EU.

Before the Arab Spring, Assad was busily wooing Turkey, the EU and even the US, for normal relations- just as Gadaffi was doing. For the same reason, he had long abandoned most of the "Arab socialist" rhetoric and gone down the path of "modernisation" and "economic reforms", that is, privatisation and opening up to foreign capital. This has led to soaring social inequality and an unemployment rate of around 25 per cent, a large part of which are the youth. As in the other Arab revolutions, these form the backbone of the resistance.

Revolutionaries do indeed have to support a semi-colonial country under attack from an imperialist power or its allies (like Israel) irrespective of the particular regime. This was the case with Saddam's Iraq in 1990 and 2003 and will be the case if Israel attacks Iran this year. However, it does not follow from this that revolutionaries must support such regimes in their brutal oppression of their own people. On the contrary, we must support the revolutionary movements to smash these totalitarian regimes, win democratic rights and open the way to the working class struggling for power. Only this is a consistent democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist policy.

However, many of the reformist, latter day Stalinist or vulgar "anti-imperialist" left fear that the fall of Assad might led to an even worse dictatorship or to an even more outright imperialist puppet regime. Here the need to defend secularism against Islamism is sometimes wheeled out as a justification. Of course when supporting a revolution nobody can give or demand guarantees against such counter-revolutionary outcomes. Given the reactionary political character of the leaderships within mass uprisings this is as we have seen as possible in Tunisia and Egypt as it is in Libya or Syria.

Left supporters of dictatorships

But here, the “left” critics of the Syrian revolution make a number of mistakes. Some of them view history into a series of conspiracies, practiced on the masses by the ruling classes. Thus in the cases of Libya and Syria - because these regimes are “anti-imperialist” the revolution are fabricated "from the outside" by the imperialists. This is only an inverted version of the bourgeois view of revolutions in general. The Bolshevik revolution was a result of the machinations of the German High Command. The Stalinist of course always interpreted the workers uprisings against the regimes in Eastern Europe (Hungary 1956, Poland 1980) as CIA conspiracies. So today we are told that the Syrian fighter against Assad are run by US and British special forces.

Whilst nobody will deny that in all mass movements agents of imperialism (or any other power) will intervene, this does not make the character of a movement. Indeed, it is a fantastic, bizarre idea, that a movement which stands up against bloody repression for a year, with thousands being killed, tens of thousands been arrested and tortured, are "made up from the outside".

Likewise, the reference to the reactionary character of leaderships or the low level of class consciousness of the masses - themselves a results of the oppression of all independent political forces by Assad and his backers - are nothing but a outrageous ultimatum delivered to the masses of the working class and oppressed - “first get yourself a progressive, secular, anti-imperialist, even a communist leadership and then we might consider supporting you.” According to this viewpoint, those standing up against Assad and his regime would have to already posses a highly developed political consciousness, would have to break with their religious or bourgeois-democratic illusions before they rise up against their oppression.

Fortunately the masses never follow such a utopian recipe; otherwise there would never be a revolution. Indeed, it is only such a revolutionary upheaval, with all its dangers and chaos, which allows for any rapid change in consciousness, for the development of new genuine revolutionary forces, which can fight for leadership. But the precondition for this is that genuine communists must not be afraid to support the oppressed, despite their illusions, despite the current misleadership. Of course, nobody can guarantee that revolutionists will succeed in coming to the fore. But - in the last instance - counter-revolutionary dangers are - in the last instance - inherent in any revolutionary struggle and uprising.

As Lenin famously said “whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”

The revolutionary Spring led on to a Winter of counterrevolutionary dangers

Like all the other movements in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the Syrian revolution was the result of several converging factors. Firstly, the world capitalist crisis and effects of neo-liberal "reforms" under Assad, which not only resulted in massively growing social inequality, but made the living conditions of millions unbearable. Secondly, this led to broad masses - including important sections of the middle class was well ad the poor – rising up with the demand for the overthrow of dictators for the introduction of real democracy.

In short, the masses were not prepared to go on living as they lived before, to go on being ruled and oppressed by corrupt tyrants. Its outcome, its success will be determined by struggle, by the ability to forge organs of mass democracy and a revolutionary working class leadership, a revolutionary party which can lead the masses to power.

The Arab Spring was initially characterised by the enormous democratic and pacifist illusions typical of what Marxists have called "February Revolutions". Now, disrupted by domestic reaction and embroiled in the inter-imperialist rivalries and, potentially, new wars in the region, these have given way to the harsh realities of prolonged and brutal conflicts. In particular, it is now plain that the Arab revolutions have run into two major counter-revolutionary obstacles.

Firstly, in Egypt and Tunisia, the fact that the military regimes were not actually destroyed has allowed the army high commands to use democratic elections to co-opt the Islamist parties. The real revolutionary forces, the youth and the workers, as yet lack the organisational mass instruments (soviet-type bodies and revolutionary parties) to actually "make the revolution permanent". They must be assisted to do this by the international revolutionary left as a number one priority. Secondly, it is clear that the more absolutist or totalitarian regimes, such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia will require civil wars to destroy them, as did Libya.

In this situation, the task of revolutionaries is to contribute to a debate on strategy and, at the same time, to create international solidarity movements. The latter will of course be hampered by "left" forces that, out of a misguided anti-imperialism, abandon those revolutions that come under western imperialist sponsorship or clash with allies of former Stalinist Sates.

The leadership of the opposition - external and internal

Like the other Arab Revolutions, the Syrian uprising, inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, was a product of self-organising local groups of young people from the lower and middle classes. Now, there are two major centres claiming to represent the Syrian uprising. The Syrian National Council (SNC) is led by a Paris-based academic Burhan Ghalioun who presides over a coalition of forces including, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Damascus Declaration Group (Syrian reformist intellectuals), the Muslim Brotherhood, representatives of the Istanbul Gathering (a group made up mainly of Islamists and independent technocrats), youth activists, individual Kurdish activists, and Assyrian Christians.

The SNC calls for the resignation of Assad and the withdrawal of the army from the streets as a precondition for any talks. Though it has previously opposed any armed intervention, it has supported the idea of internationally imposed safe zones and a UN declaration against Assad. It is heavily influenced by, and dependent on, the Turkish government and also the US administration has sought to give it recognition as the official representative of the movement.

The SNC's rival is the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC), an opposition bloc that functions within Syria. It is led by Hussein Abdul Azim and is made up of more leftist forces than the SNC and favours dialogue with the regime if the latter will stop the killing and allow public demonstrations. It is also strongly opposed to any outside military intervention in Syria.

Clearly, revolutionary socialists can give no political support to such forces. However, the mere fact that the leaderships are wholly or partly pro-capitalist, pro-(western) imperialist, pro-Turkish or pro-Saudi, or Islamist, whether Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist, cannot, and must not, lead us to abandon support for the movement or for the revolutionary overthrow of the Assad regime. As in Libya, it would be quite impossible to win leadership for working class and revolutionary socialist forces if we were to do this. Revolutionaries should support the movement but, within its struggle against Assad, they must also struggle to replace reactionary or pro-imperialist leaders.
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In addition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is made up of several thousand army defectors. To a large extend it is an umbrella for relatively independent and probably quite different armed groups, rather than constituting an army in the ordinary sense. Its fighters have protected demonstrations in the cites that are strongholds of the uprising and have launched some effective attacks on security forces in the north-western province of Idlib, around the central cities of Homs and Hama, and even on the outskirts of Damascus. Although its leadership is based in Turkey, it is not under the control of either the SNC or NCC. Nor is it under control of the popular masses.

At a local level, there are many groupings and organisations that could play a very positive role in ensuring progressive developments. A new leadership can emerge from below, from the rank and file fighters. From the beginning, the mainly youthful protesters rapidly organised small local committees to document and publicise the uprisings. Over time, these have evolved into a web of commissions, councils and unions, formally grouped around three coalitions: the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), the Ghad Alliance, and the Higher Council of the Syrian Revolution.

Mehdi Hasan, a political editor of the London New Statesman, reports, "those who are on the streets, ... have said again and again to Western reporters, to human rights groups - 'We don't want military intervention', 'We are opposed to both the Syrian president, the Assad regime, and we are opposed to Western intervention. We saw what happened in Iraq'". Obviously as the repression intensifies different outcomes are possible. The most progressive is that whole divisions of the Syrian Army refuse orders, mutiny, turn their heavy weapons on Assad’s palace and his Republican Guard.

What comes next?

It is the plain duty of revolutionaries worldwide to support the Syrian uprising, both the mass of unarmed demonstrators and the soldiers who have defected to the side of the people and are defending them. Whatever the character of its actual or claimed leadership, or its self-proclaimed sympathisers in the Arab world, in North America and Europe, it is a justified and progressive, mass national uprising against a totalitarian dictatorship.

The uprisings of the Arab Spring are genuine mass revolts by the youth and the workers and must be supported whether they are directed against pro-imperialist or "anti-imperialist" regimes. At the same time, we must oppose imperialism utilising any pretext to take over any country or impose a puppet regime. Therefore we reject any imperialist intervention, including US-missions and "blue helmets" (with or without the consent of Russia/China). These can only lead either to complete empty gesture or to a further move to an outright intervention.

The Western imperialists and - for partially different interest Turkey and the Arab League - want to impose a solution, which will conservatise and render harmless the social power of the revolutions. They now want the removal of Assad, but at the same time remain- as in Egypt they want the military police apparatus left largely intact. Moreover, it shall ensure that any new regime continues stable relations with Israel as the Assad regime did.

Revolutionaries have neither interest in nor concern for the Great Power (in fact imperialist) interests of Russia and China. Nor do we deny the right of the rebels fighting for democracy to ask for and receive weapons and logistical assistance from other imperialist powers (i.e. from US and the EU). As long as these revolutionary movements remain mass popular uprisings rooted in the youth, workers and the oppressed, we support them in their objective of bringing down these dictatorships.

However, we call for all aid and weapons to be taken without accepting or honouring any “strings" and be put under the control of the popular revolutionary forces. We oppose all actions by the US/EU and the UN or Arab League that tend to subordinate these movements to a project of occupying, economically dominating or dictating the post revolutionary regimes. This includes Nato bombing and the sending in of special forces.

We reject totally the view that movements such those as in Libya and Syria should restrict themselves to "peaceful, non-violent actions" or avoid "civil war." The turn to war is not a choice of tactics but is imposed by the bloody repression of totalitarian regimes. Whoever abandons a revolution when this occurs is no revolutionary but merely a wretched liberal.

Quite the opposite. Once a struggle has assumed forms of civil war or an uprising, the revolution can only succeed, if it arms itself, if it defends its demonstrations and actions with armed militias formed from volunteers and defecting soldiers.

Of course, the mass actions on the streets and in the workplaces, and the attempts to win over the regime's soldiers, remain critical to victory. Purely military or guerrilla actions by a minority of self-armed youth, or defectors from the army and police, cannot defeat a still disciplined army equipped with tanks, artillery and aircraft. If the working class in the workshops and factories and the sons of the working class in the army take action, come over to the side of the revolution, then "everything is possible" including a workers' and peasants' government, a mighty impulse to creating a socialist United States of the Middle East.

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