Syria: In imperialist sights

With Syria in the sights of the imperialists and the bourgeois media, James Turley wonders where the Left and anti-war movement is.

It is clear at this point that the Syrian uprising - met with such ruthless brutality by the Ba’athist regime - is in the process of being transformed into some kind of civil war. It is equally clear that imperialism has taken sides against the government of Bashar al-Assad. What is less clear is who exactly is fighting the Ba’athists.

The western media is positively bloated with stories of massacres and atrocities. A ‘constitutional referendum’, which would ostensibly limit the power of the Ba’ath Party, was pushed through on February 27 - but accompanied by another glut of deaths. The uprising has spread to many Syrian cities, and everywhere it has been met with the full force of the state. Car-bombings blamed by the government on the opposition are, in turn, denounced as state provocations (either option, it has to be said, is quite plausible). A new round of EU sanctions is in the offing.

We know all this, because the media is all over it; and the media is, and can only be, all over it with some degree of state support - whether that consists in helping to get journalists into the country, or simply feeding intelligence reports to the news desks.

This, in a sense, is remarkable. After all, it is not the first time that the Ba’athist regime has come under serious threat from a popular uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood was engaged in a sustained armed campaign against Assad’s father, Hafez, until 1982. It was put to an end the old-fashioned way - the Syrian town of Hama, a hotbed of Sunni revolt against the Alawi-dominated government, was subjected to scorched-earth military bombardment. Between 10,000 and 25,000 people were killed.

At the time, the bourgeois media was more circumspect in reporting it. Certainly, state regimes in the west were not clamouring to impose sanctions and otherwise rattling their sabres. That was not because imperialism liked the elder Assad; but he was in strategic alliance with the Soviet Union, and thus more or less untouchable.

Even a year ago, headlines from Syria - though they did appear - were rather drowned out by those from Tunisia and Egypt, and later Libya. With dictators collapsing left and right, and the strong probability (and now reality) of their being replaced by Islamists of various stripes, the US and - especially - Israel settled momentarily for a ‘better the devil you know’ policy. Assad was hardly an ally, but he was predictable.

Inasmuch as one can glean anything about the character of the Syrian opposition, is has to be said that Islamism is again prominent. The Hama massacre put an end to the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed campaign, but not to the Muslim Brotherhood. Sunni discontent against notionally secular but de facto Alawite rule has not dissipated. The ‘modified’ flag of the Syrian uprising - the conventional red stripe replaced with an Islamic green - is one sign. The fact that even the exiled Syrian National Council (subject to the same limitations of all imperialist-supported exile groups in terms of its relation to the actual movement) has had to play dirty to circumvent MB influence is another.

This change of heart on the part of the west has two main components. Firstly, the MB is no longer such an unknown quantity as it was in the spring of last year. As it proceeds towards some form of governmental office in Egypt, it will be in negotiations with representatives of the US state department at the very least. Though its members largely despise Israel, the US will be pushing for a compromise; and the relatively benign attitude of the US establishment to the MB suggests that they have one in some form. Whether or not they keep their promises is another matter - after all, Ruhollah Khomeini promised to respect democracy and women’s rights in Iran after 1979.

Speaking of which, Iran - the second component - is clearly enough at the top of the US agenda for the Middle East, as it proceeds towards developing nuclear capability (that is, the ability to develop nuclear weapons within a relatively short space of time; indications are that the Iranian regime plans to stop there for the moment). This is significant primarily because it imposes limits on Israeli action in the region; the US is concerned that the balance of power could again shift away from itself and its allies.

Its response is partly targeted at the regime itself - more CIA dollars for ‘regime change’, more sanctions and threats, and more clandestine sabotage operations ... More importantly, however, it is necessary to isolate Iran as completely as possible. Thus, for example, European Union countries are equally under pressure to apply sanctions, which they are indeed doing, in spite of substantial French investments in the country.

As for the Middle East itself, Barack Obama is stuck with the disastrous legacy of George W Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. The end result of the removal of Saddam Hussein is a Shia Islamic regime in close alliance with Iran. Recent history limits Obama’s option here, so the buck falls to Syria.

The Syrian regime is perhaps not the most obvious ally of the Iranian state. The former, as noted, is a notionally secular regime dominated by the Alawite sect; the latter is a Shia theocracy, from whose perspective the Ba’athists are both godless and heretical. The apocalyptic falling out of the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’ath parties, however, led Syria to lend diplomatic support to Iran in the war with Iraq (as well as participation in the first Gulf War). Relations have remained close ever since.

Suddenly, then, Assad is not a minor irritation to American power, but a troublesome obstacle - and the widespread unrest under his regime an opportunity. If the Ba’athists can be displaced, then the immediate result will be a period of relative political instability in Syria, which will obstruct its ability to act in any way decisively in Iran’s favour. At the end of that, there is every possibility that a new regime can be manoeuvred away from Iranian influence - provided the theocracy has not been wiped out of existence by that point anyway. Islamist dominance of a future government should not deter the US - after all, the mediaeval theocratic trappings of Saudi Arabia have not prevented the latter from despising the Islamic Republic with some venom.

All this raises the question: where is the workers’ movement and the left? In Syria, alas, it is hardly in a position to challenge the Islamists for dominance of the uprising. Its largest sections, especially the Syrian Communist Party, are hopelessly compromised by the regime. To the left of the ‘official communists’, there are only small, nascent organisations, which as yet lack visible penetration into society at large. The uprising has involved political strikes, but not on any large scale.

The grim fact of the matter is that none of this is likely to change sufficiently in a short enough time for the left to have any decisive effect on events. It will be caught between the blood-spattered regime and the Islamists, and will have to use every opportunity, no matter how meagre, to grow into a real independent force - or, at least, to avoid being wholly wiped out.

As for our own comrades on the British far left, the story is also somewhat dispiriting. Socialist Worker (February 25) is very keen to accentuate the positive in the rebellion, reporting demonstrations in that tone of forced breathless excitement we all know so well. The Socialist Workers Party still seems to be in ‘Tahrir Square mode’, unable to see that the forces contesting the legacy of the Arab awakening are more fragmental and, in places, more dubious than ever; realism, as ever, loses out to that starry-eyed optimism that no scale of disappointment seems to dissipate.

In any case, our first duty in Britain is to disrupt the game our imperialist rulers are playing with Syria - and what a dangerous game it is, involving not just the fates of Syrian protestors, but also the possibility of a truly horrific war on Iran. A pity, then, that political opportunism and cynical factional manoeuvres have left the anti-war movement in this country reduced to a desiccated, demoralised rump.

In this connection, it is worth discussing a laughably evasive piece in The Guardian by sometime SWP dissident Richard Seymour, the Lenin’s Tomb blogger. Why, he asks, are people not turning out on anti-war demonstrations, when polls reveal they oppose war? Because of a “more conflicted sentiment” than existed around Iraq, thanks to sympathy with the democratic movements in Syria, Libya and so forth. He also puts forward deflected Obamania and the end of the war in Iraq as reasons for anti-war demobilisation. On the other hand, this is not the “death spiral” of the anti-war movement - indeed, he claims that the general mood against war is a product of its successes (February 27).

Almost all of these claims are spurious. The sentiment around the beleaguered Iraqis under Saddam Hussein was quite as “conflicted” - and the hawkish press made much of it. As for Obamania taking tens of thousands off the streets: the most significant resurgence of anti-war demonstrations - to which comrade Seymour refers! - came in 2009 with the Israeli assault on Gaza, slap bang in the middle of Obama’s post-election, pre-office honeymoon period. No mention of the failings of the anti-war movement’s leadership, naturally, which have left the Stop the War Coalition on life support.

So keen to find ‘objective’ explanations for the bad, Seymour nonetheless has the gall to attribute the passive anti-war sentiment in the country to the STWC’s activity. I think, comrade, you will have to share the glory with George Bush and Tony Blair - Iraq and Afghanistan are quite transparently disasters, and the majority in the country would be suspicious of sustained military engagements today even if the entire Stop the War steering committee had died in a plane crash on February 14 2003.

Seymour is right that rebuilding the movement will require much open discussion and debate (how about letting Hands Off the People of Iran affiliate, then?); but it is a shame that, thanks in part to avoidable errors, we have to do so almost from scratch.