Arab spring in retreat

All the evidence points to the ascendancy of counterrevolutionary forces in Syria, writes Peter Manson

Over the last few weeks Socialist Worker has finally admitted what has been obvious for months: the uprising in Syria is not purely and simply a popular revolution. Editor Judith Orr concedes that there are “competing forces” involved and that the imperialists, together with reactionary Arab regimes, are bent on imposing their own ‘solution’. “But at the same time,” she concludes, “we must support the mass popular revolt from below that aims to bring down Assad’s brutal regime” (June 23).

Back in March Socialist Worker published a highly critical article by Sami Ramadani, who commented that, for the Socialist Workers Party, “Wishful thinking has replaced materialist analysis. We have to recognise that the imperialist-backed Arab counterrevolution has, in the short term, regained the initiative and is on the offensive.” While the protests in Syria “began spontaneously and were mostly led by progressives demanding radical political reform”, it is now clear that, “as in Libya, pro-Nato factions have captured the initiative” (March 24).

The point about Libya is well made. Apart from social-imperialists like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, just about everyone on the left was soon able to see that a victory for the National Transitional Council would represent a defeat for the Libyan revolution. Of course, in Libya the imperialists intervened directly and blatantly, using Nato air power to ensure that the forces of Muammar Gaddafi were destroyed. No-one could seriously deny that the new regime was placed in power by the west, and is totally bereft of democrats, progressives and working class partisans.

However, in Syria, a Libya-type military intervention does not seem to be on the cards. Nevertheless, as Ramadani pointed out, “Lebanon’s US-French-Israeli allies, pro-US Iraqi forces, Jordan, Libyan terrorists and Nato special forces are all assisting counterrevolution in Syria.” Groups such as the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council are being funded by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And, “Shaken by the uprisings, Qatari and Saudi sheiks provide funding for sectarian Muslim Brotherhood leaders and Salafi clerics.” But, remarks comrade Ramadani, “Socialist Worker astoundingly implies that FSA Nato-backed gunmen are revolutionaries.”

It was a short but clear indictment of the SWP’s criminally simplistic line. But Simon Assaf’s response, published immediately below it, gave us more of the same. Entitled ‘Revolutions show that ordinary people have the power to change the world’, comrade Assaf’s piece naively described “those making the revolution” as “local committees, the youth, workers, peasants, the left, neighbourhood campaigners and Facebook activists”. While “Regime supporters point to the charlatans of the western-backed Syrian National Council”, he wrote, all those actually making the revolution “reject outside intervention”. Comrade Ramadani may have his faults, but implying he is a ‘regime supporter’ is taking things a bit far.

Recently, however, Socialist Worker’s line has been more nuanced. Comrade Assaf, writing in the June 16 issue, stated: “The revolution in Syria is entering a critical phase, marked by mutinies, strikes and a growing insurgency - as well as renewed attempts by the west and other outside forces to intervene.” However, retaining his rose-tinted view of the anti-regime forces, he commented: “… revolutionaries are swelling the ranks of the armed rebels, bringing with them the anti-sectarian politics that lie at the heart of the popular movement” (June 16).

In this week’s issue, comrade Orr pays more attention to the aims of the imperialists: “Of course, western rulers are not interested in representing the millions of ordinary people yearning for freedom … Their aim was to hijack or subvert the Arab revolutionary movements to ensure that pliant, western-friendly regimes replaced the old dictatorships.” The imperialists, together with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, are engaging in “covert operations”.

Comrade Orr is now also prepared to admit that all those fighting the Ba’athists of Bashar al-Assad may not be progressive: “As with any revolution, there are competing forces. Some are ready to cut a deal with the Assad regime. Some, including the exile-dominated Syrian National Council, are happy to work with and facilitate the interests of western powers or their allies in the Gulf.”

But we should remain optimistic: “The revolutionary wave sweeping north Africa and the Middle East … is still unfolding.” What is more, “the Syrian revolution is rooted in the same revolutionary process at work in Tunisia and Egypt. It reflects the same desires of ordinary people to rise up against poverty and injustice. And it stems from the impact of neoliberal capitalism - the growing gap between rich and poor and abandoned promises of political reform.”

Comrade Orr concludes: “Socialists have to stand firm against our rulers’ attempts to derail the revolutionary wave to pursue their own interests. We are against any intervention, however it is spun. We have to expose the imperialists’ lies about their motivation” (Socialist Worker June 23).

The problem with such warnings is that they are based on a false perception and continued “wishful thinking”. The balance of evidence clearly shows that those leading, those exercising hegemony over the anti-Assad movement are hard-line Islamists and Sunni sectarians of one kind or another, crucially the Muslim Brotherhood, who are, for their own reasons, prepared to present a pro-western face. Apart from this bloc, the opposition is highly fragmented and politically incoherent. A bickering melange of adventurers, French-educated sons of the middle class, exiled businessmen and left nationalist idealists. It is no surprise that Syria’s Kurdish, Alawite, Druze and Ismaili populations have largely kept their distance from the Syrian National Council.

So, it might well be true that the anti-Assad forces are really made up overwhelmingly of revolutionary “youth, workers, peasants, the left” (not to mention “neighbourhood campaigners and Facebook activists”). But who is acting as the leadership? Who is giving political direction? If it was the left, if it was the forces of secularism, democracy and socialism, would the imperialists be siding with them? Would the US and the UK not prefer the Assad regime, if only as the lesser evil? Foreign secretary William Hague talks of the “savage” and “grotesque” crimes of Assad and speaks admiringly of the rebels. And why is the benighted house of Saud pumping in money and arms, while the European Union imposes an embargo on weapon deliveries to the Assad regime?

This week the Russian ship, MV Alead, was prevented from taking its cargo of alleged “attack helicopters” intended for the Damascus regime to Syria after the UK government saw to it that its insurance cover was revoked. It seems David Cameron had even been contemplating sending an armed contingent to board the Alead to ensure the consignment could not be delivered. But now Cameron says that Russia has agreed to “key principles” for a “transition” in Syria: ie, the replacement of Assad and his immediate entourage by a regime more amenable to imperialist plans for the region - including, of course, the Islamist-dominated rebels. To do this the US and UK are touting the so-called ‘Annan plan’ - whose six points amount to nothing more than a UN-supervised ceasefire, plus the release of prisoners and a vague acceptance of democratic freedoms.

None of this is to say that the Arab spring faces inevitable defeat. There is a mass, hugely healthy sentiment against the corrupt, nepotistic, self-seeking ruling cliques that litter the whole region - a sentiment that is entirely laudable. But working class forces must strive to win hegemony over the movement for change, which means firmly opposing the reactionary ideas that are contesting for domination at the moment, not creating illusions in them.

And that means honestly assessing the balance amongst the “competing forces” involved in the rebellion. If the SWP did that, it might conclude that comrade Ramadani is correct: the “imperialist-backed Arab counterrevolution has, in the short term, regained the initiative”.