Anti-imperialism of fools?
Daniel Lazare savages the ‘solidarity with the Syrian people’ petition fronted by disorientated luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, George Monbiot and Ariel Dorfman
When conservatives cover up the crimes of imperialism, it is par for the course. But, when the self-proclaimed left does it, it is worse, since the result is confusion and dismay in the ranks of what should be imperialism’s main opponents.
A case in point is a recent petition about Syria signed by more than 700 left-leaning intellectuals, among them such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, George Monbiot, Ariel Dorfman and the sociologist, Saskia Sassen.1 It comes festooned with all sorts of anti-imperialist rhetoric about the “appallingly destructive” course that US power has cut “all across the globe, from Vietnam to Indonesia to Iran to Congo to South and Central America and beyond”.
But its point is that Syria is the great exception: “America is not central to what has happened in Syria,” it says, and anyone who refuses to go along is a product of
a provincial political culture which insists on both the centrality of US power globally as well as the imperialist right to identify who the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ are in any given context … Forgive us for pointing out that such erasure of Syrian lives and experiences embodies the very essence of imperialist (and racist) privilege.
If you disagree, then you are an upper-class snot, if not worse. But the petition’s argument is nonsense. If defenders - not of president Bashar al-Assad, but of the Syrian people - “have mushroomed in recent years”, as it complains, it is because the evidence concerning America’s central role in the destruction of Syria has mushroomed as well. This is not to say that Assad is blameless - far from it. But responsibility lies overwhelmingly with the United States and its allies.
The evidence goes back at least to the 1980s. This is when the US and Saudis essentially invented jihad in its modern form as part of a joint effort aimed at overthrowing the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan. For the Saudis, backing a fundamentalist revolt was a way of burnishing their Muslim credentials following the takeover of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in November 1979 by fundamentalists, who charged - all too accurately - that the royal family had gone weak and corrupt. For the US, it was a no less valuable opportunity to use indigenous forces to roll back Soviet power. An interview that Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, gave nearly 20 years later is still the best word on the subject.
He told the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur:
Indeed, it was July 3 1979 that president Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul … We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would … The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to president Carter, essentially [saying], ‘We now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam war.’ Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that bought about the demoralisation and finally the break-up of the Soviet empire.
“Giving the USSR its Vietnam war” meant arming terrorists, so that they could string up Afghan communists and kill school teachers guilty of the unspeakable crime of teaching little girls to read. When Le Nouvel Observateur asked Brzezinski if he regretted “having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists”, he replied scornfully: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the cold war?”2
Hence, the destruction of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan just three years later was nothing more than blowback from a policy that was otherwise sound.
Same mistake twice
The Nouvel Observateur interview is important because the strategy that Brzezinski outlined was essentially the same one that Barack Obama and then secretary of state Hillary Clinton would pursue two or three decades later in Syria. Confronted with a regime reeling under the impact of a protest movement that was also increasingly fundamentalist, their response was identical: send in a cut-throat jihadist army to overthrow a government seen as hostile to US, Saudi and Israeli interests.
Despite 9/11, the Obama administration was intent on making the same mistake twice. The rhetoric out of Washington grew more heated, as the Syrian protests wore on. Assad had “shattered his claims to be a reformer,” Clinton declared in June 2011. “From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy, he has failed to deliver on the promises he’s made, he has sought and accepted aid from the Iranians as to how to repress his own people,” she said in July. After months of hesitation, Barack Obama finally issued a call for regime change in August: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for president Assad to step aside.” Six months later, Clinton urged neighbouring countries to intervene in order to establish a string of “no-kill zones” inside Syrian territory. In a New York Times op-ed, Clinton aide Anne-Marie Slaughter explained what this meant:
Establishing these zones would require nations like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to arm the opposition soldiers with anti-tank, counter-sniper and portable anti-aircraft weapons. Special forces from countries like Qatar, Turkey and possibly Britain and France could offer tactical and strategic advice to the Free Syrian Army forces. Sending them in is logistically and politically feasible; some may be there already.3
Jihad had begun. In June 2012, The New York Times reported that the CIA was working with the Muslim Brotherhood to supply anti-Assad rebels with arms paid for by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar - and, no less importantly, to identify which rebel groups were worthy of support in the first place.4 Two months later, the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a secret report warning that “events are taking a clear sectarian direction” in Syria, that “the Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al Qa’eda in Iraq, forerunner of Islamic State] are the major forces driving the insrgency,” and that “the west, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition.”5 Yet no-one in Washington’s bloated foreign-affairs establishment cared. In October 2014, vice-president Joe Biden told an audience at Harvard:
Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks … the Saudis, the emirates, etc, what were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al Qa’eda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world … So now what’s happening? All of a sudden everybody is awakened because this outfit called Isil, which was al Qa’eda in Iraq when they were essentially thrown out of Iraq, found open space and territory in … eastern Syria, worked with al Nusra who we declared a terrorist group early on, and we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them ...6
Although Biden wanted his listeners to think that it was not America’s fault, he had to take it back a few days later when Barack Obama ordered him to telephone Riyadh and other Persian Gulf capitals and apologise for spilling the beans. If the Saudis wanted to send in al Qa’eda to overthrow Assad, the US was not going to complain, at least not publicly.
This is the record of US-sponsored violence that hundreds of pseudo-left petitioners now want us to ignore. Finally, there is John Kerry, Clinton’s successor as secretary of state. In October 2016, he explained why Russia had opted to intervene in Syria a year earlier. He told a pro-rebel gathering at the UN:
The reason Russia came in is because Isil was getting stronger. Daesh [ie, Isis or Isil] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth, and that’s why Russia came in, because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got … Putin in to support him. So it’s truly complicated.7
Where Putin had the good sense to oppose an Isis takeover, the US clung to a harebrained scheme, in which Islamic State would topple the Ba’athist government and then meekly step aside, so it could install a regime more to its liking. After being in bed with Sunni jihadis for decades on end, the United States found it impossible to get out.
So why would hundreds of intellectuals try to pull the wool over the left’s eyes regarding such an important aspect of American policy? The answer has to do with the increasingly reactionary role of the International Socialist Organization, sister organisation to Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party in the UK, plus remnants of the late Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat in Paris. Both movements have broadly converged, now that the Soviet collapse in 1991 has removed the main point of contention between them: ie, the class nature of the Soviet state. Syria offers a perfect opportunity for them to adopt a ‘nuanced’ view of US power more pleasing to liberals, who are increasingly their natural milieu.
All the usual suspects have thus signed the petition, which appears on a website run by New Politics, a US ‘third camp’ journal founded by followers of Max Shachtman after he split with Trotsky over the Soviet issue back in 1940. They include such important spokesmen as Ashley Smith, Joseph Daher, Gilbert Achcar and Michael Karadjis, whose writings on Syria have been either soft on America, pro-al Qa’eda or merely incoherent.
After noting that “Saudi Arabia strengthened … Islamic fundamentalist currents in the [anti-Assad] resistance hostile to religious minorities”, for example, Smith assailed Assad in an article last year for “portray[ing] the revolution as a foreign-sponsored Sunni Islamic fundamentalist threat to the country’s religious minorities”.8 (Assad is wrong, evidently, even when he’s right.) A few years earlier, Smith had advanced the preposterous notion that the US is not interested in regime change and that “whenever the Assad regime crossed supposed ‘red lines’, … the US preferred to cut deals with Russia rather than take any action that might topple Assad, but also threaten a wider upheaval”.9 In 2016, Daher asserted that “al-Assad and his clique … are the main force responsible for around 500,000 deaths and the forced displacements of millions of people since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011”, thereby dismissing the role of the Saudi-backed mujahideen as worthy not even of a mention.10 In 2014, Karadjis wrote that Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al Qa’eda, “is playing an important role in the epic defence” of rebel-held Aleppo and that, despite its jihadist leadership, “much of its ranks are decent revolutionaries”.11
Karadjis also noted, not disapprovingly, that demonstrators in Aleppo, Idlib and Homs had taken to chanting, “We are all Nusra” and “Jabhat al-Nusra came to support us when the world abandoned us”. As to whether they chanted such reprehensible slogans of their own free will or because al Qa’eda guns were pointing at their heads, he did not say.
The left can hardly be blamed for sympathising with protestors who rose up against the Ba’athist dictatorship, just as they did with other uprisings during the 2011 Arab spring. But sympathy is not enough; rather, tough-minded analysis is required concerning why such movements ended up running aground on the shoals of religious sectarianism. This was the case not only in Syria, where the Muslim Brotherhood - hated and feared by Alawites, Christians and secularists alike - figured heavily in the anti-Assad protests from the outset, but in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia, where the pattern was much the same.
This is why Assad was able to hold onto power: not because Syrians were happy with his government, but because they saw him as at least supporting the religious pluralism and comity that al-Nusra and other forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the Americans - not to mention people like Smith, Daher and Karadjis - were determined to destroy.
The Syrian revolution failed because activists sought to make common cause with ultra-reactionary elements. It is not pretty, but it is true. Yet hundreds of intellectuals want us to believe that anyone who points out the obvious is guilty of “the ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘leftism’ of the unprincipled, of the lazy and of fools”.
This is not pretty either. But it also happens to be false to the core.
The quote starts at 53:00 at youtube.com/watch?v=dcKVCtg5dxM.↩︎
The quote starts at 26:10 at youtube.com/watch?v=e4phB-_pXDM&t=1575s.↩︎