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Cynics and cowards: the left on Syria

If you made a rogue’s gallery of the opponents and critics of the Syrian revolution on the Arab and international left, you would come up with a range of positions and emphases. Marcus Halaby writes

You could start with the outright supporters of the Assad regime, like Respect MP George Galloway, US-based David North’s World Socialist Web Site, French conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan (who also defended former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic), or the British pro-Gaddafi Press TV and Russia Today correspondent Lizzie Phelan.

These voices simply repeat the regime’s lies, that it is not putting down a popular revolt, but defending the country’s independence against an externally inspired and imperialist-sponsored aggression, like former US president Ronald Reagan’s “Contra War” in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

A bastion of resistance?

But this regime has not fired a single shot over the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights since 1973. Worse still, Hafez al-Assad originally sent troops into neighbouring Lebanon in June 1976 to support the rightist Christian president Suleiman Frangieh, against the Palestinian-Muslim-leftist coalition that had come close to overthrowing him, and who constituted Syria’s historic allies.

The then serving Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin even boasted in his memoirs that the Syrian army killed more Palestinian fighters in Lebanon “within a few months” than Israel had “over the previous thirty years.”

Syrian interference in Lebanon

Despite his “resistance” rhetoric and the collapse of his alliance with Lebanon’s right-wing Christian Phalange movement, Assad senior also failed to protect Lebanon from Israel’s invasion in 1982, and later rehabilitated Israel’s Lebanese collaborators like Elie Hobeika, a leading participant in the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Hafez al-Assad would also promote Saudi Arabia’s favoured Lebanese politician, Rafic Hariri, and supported the US-led coalition that fought against Saddam’s Iraq in 1991. In return, the United States allowed Syria to impose a fragile political settlement to Lebanon’s civil war that gave it a mandate to keep its troops there.

Hariri would become prime minister in a Syrian-dominated post-civil war Lebanon in the 1990s, before falling out with Bashar al-Assad in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war, leading to his assassination by Syrian agents in March 2005.

More recently, Bashar al-Assad’s regime was involved in the “extraordinary rendition” of alleged terrorist suspects on behalf of the United States under George W Bush.

Pacifist phobias and “militarisation”

In addition to these voices, however, there are figures that, without supporting Assad’s regime, have become alarmed by the “militarisation” of the Syrian uprising, and with it the risk of Western military intervention. These include the popular Lebanese blogger As’ad AbuKhalil, Palestinian professor Joseph Massad, Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, and veterans of the global anti-war movement like Tariq Ali and Sami Ramadani.

Often having initially supported or sympathised with the uprising, they now regard it either as having been hijacked by the West and its Turkish, Qatari and Saudi allies, using the Syrian battleground to wage a proxy war against Iran; or they regard it as being near-irretrievably on that road.

Others, like Counterfire’s John Rees and Chris Nineham, have noted the emergence of these voices and are adapting to them, to hold together a Stop the War Coalition that came into existence a decade ago and in very different circumstances. They now hedge their support of the Syrian revolution with equivocations and conditions that undermine any effective expressions of solidarity with it.

Geo-strategic “blanket thinking”

What all of these voices have in common is a tendency to view the Syrian situation solely or primarily in geo-political terms, as if there were no revolution happening, as if the insurgent masses were not also wise to the machinations of the great powers, and as if the ability of the West to influence events on the ground without troops there were so strong that the merest hint of self-interested Western “support” denies the masses any agency to resist the takeover of their struggle

For the Stalinists and their imitators, this attitude is second nature. Artificially dividing the world into “progressive” and “pro-imperialist” camps, they have slandered popular revolts that transgressed the boundaries of these camps as far back as the 1953 East German workers’ rising and the 1956 Hungarian revolution, through to the struggle of the Polish workers’ union Solidarnosc in 1980, and the collapse of the East European Stalinist regimes in 1989.

However, for those like Rees, Nineham and Tariq Ali, who come from the anti-Stalinist left, this position requires them to close their eyes to the fact that the Western powers, for all their words of “support” for a selected part of the Syrian opposition, are not at all raring to go into Syria as they did in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Either, like Sami Ramadani, they have to descend into a poor analysis verging on conspiracy theory; or, like Joseph Massad, they conclude that the revolution has already been lost, on the basis that the popular movement has become strong enough to excite the inevitable interest of external parties, but not yet strong enough to take power.

An unrepresentative minority

John Rees, however, is right on one thing – that there certainly is the danger “of an unrepresentative minority arising within the revolution and coming to dominate it”. But this is not primarily, as he puts it, a matter of the imperialist powers promoting and arming those “that they can rely on to do their bidding”, but of a section of the opposition coming over to the much-touted idea of a “Yemeni-style” transition, tasked with restoring capitalist order and reflecting the balance of forces between all the imperialist powers involved in Syria, Russia and China included.

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