Where is the left?
As Syria descends into bloody chaos, confusion lingers on, writes Paul Demarty
Buried under the obsessive cataloguing of every last shot-put, dive and show-jump at the Olympics - which activity, by the standards of the UK media, seems to pass for news these days - a familiar tragedy is unfolding.
The civil war in Syria is intensifying by the day; fighting spread last week to the most populous conurbation, Aleppo, where it continues to rage. Al-Jazeera reports that 200,000 people have fled the city already1; casualty figures appear to be relatively low so far, but somewhat obscured by the fog of war. The same cannot be said of the country as a whole, alas - the death toll already amounts to many thousands, and supply lines for basic necessities have been interrupted on a large scale.
The nature of this conflict is a controversial topic on the international left. There are those - fewer in number in each passing war, it must be said - who argue that it is some kind of ‘point of principle’ to support (or any number of combinations of weasel words that amount to ‘support’) regimes such as that of Bashar al-Assad, on the basis that they are confronted by proxies of the international imperialist order. This position is quite as meaningless in the Syrian context as in all the others, and there is no need to go into it here.
Ali v Callinicos
More interesting is a debate that has sprung up between Tariq Ali and the Socialist Workers Party’s Alex Callinicos on the nature of the war. Ali, in a brief interview for the frequently unhinged Russia Today news network, argued that the Syrian war is one more front - after Iraq, Libya and so on - in a western ‘recolonisation’ of the Middle East. He breezed through the ever-weightier evidence that a good many atrocities have been committed by the Free Syrian Army (some as provocations, to be blamed on Assad), and pointed out the obvious fact that material and military support for the rebels issues primarily from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The conclusion he reaches is a rather grim one. Syrians are presently faced with the choice between a motley crew of rebels, dominated by reactionary Islamist elements, and a brutal and authoritarian Ba’athist regime. They want neither; the only solution is “negotiation”, the calling of a “constituent assembly” and so forth. This, however, is going to prove impossible - because the west backs those who want no negotiations.2
Alex Callinicos is not impressed: “Although I have great respect and affection for Tariq, I think this is nonsense,” he huffs. The recolonisation perspective would only work if there were “a long-standing western priority to remove the Assad regime. But there is no evidence of this. Under Bashar’s father, Hafez, the Syrian state established itself as a brutal but reliable capitalist manager.”3
He concedes that the Syrian uprising has led to Assad’s more powerful neighbours trying to replace his regime with something more “congenial”, but believes it unlikely that there will be western boots on the ground, or even a military intervention after the fashion of the Libyan air support campaign - primarily because Russia will not abandon “its last ally in the Middle East”.
He also agrees that neither Assad nor the Syrian National Council looks attractive to the majority of the Syrian population; but then asks, where is this majority? All the evidence suggests that it is rising, peacefully or violently, against Assad. Callinicos argues further that it is implausible that all these fighters are simply puppets of the Gulf states and the US - it looks like “an improvised and desperate armed rising”, with none of the heavy ordinance that one would expect from a force backed by world imperialism.
Above all else, the Syrian civil war (Callinicos is happy to use that phrase) has its roots in a popular revolt. “Those in the western left who allow a reflexive and unthinking ‘anti-imperialism’ to set them against the Syrian revolution are simply confessing their own bankruptcy.”
Both perspectives are deeply flawed in different ways. It must be noted that the SWP as a whole is becoming more sanguine about prospects in Syria - yet, in this piece at least, comrade Callinicos remains stuck in an old mindset which is proving difficult to shake off.
This is the mindset of winter 2010 through to spring 2011 - the moment that did for Ben Ali and Mubarak, the moment of Tahrir Square, of revolts springing up throughout the Arab world, from Libya to Bahrain. The Arab awakening had the salutary effect of revealing the western image of the Arab masses as pliant, ignorant subjects of brutal regime as so much sub-colonial hokum. It was also a shot in the arm for the whole of the left internationally - a reminder, at a time when we are all under one cosh or another, of the power of the masses when they are united in a momentous struggle, however ill-defined in details, for freedom and dignity.
Like all the best drugs, political euphoria takes a while to wear off - and then issues in a monster of a comedown. The left, in Britain at least, appears on the whole to have overdosed. As a movement, we were wrong-footed by the transformation of the Libyan popular revolt into a military assault of western-backed tribalist and Islamist forces for state power. That, on the whole, is the direction things are going in now - the Arab revolution cannot in any sense be completed under present conditions, and the dynamic is one of retrenchment, of the reconfiguration of political alliances and the restoration of ‘stability’ in the region.
And so comrade Callinicos’s reasons for supposing that the west will not intervene are entirely spurious. Firstly, the west is intervening, through those Gulf states with which it is allied. Saudi Arabia is not stupid enough to get involved in something like this without a US green light - still less Qatar. Secondly, the political spine of Vladimir Putin is hardly something upon which to stake a perspective. Of course, Russia would not like to lose another ally; but then it is a matter of Obama making an attractive enough deal over Syria to force through compliance with a security council resolution. Libya was a Russian ally too.
Whether or not the west uses direct military force, there is every reason to imagine that it is taking an active interest in bringing this conflict to a close - with the Free Syrian Army and SNC replacing Assad at the top. Not least among its priorities is, precisely, the need for ‘stability’ in the region. What exactly that highly euphemistic word means depends whose mouth it is in, but there is no way to deny that the chaos in Syria is of an infectious sort - a kind of grim counterpart of the Arab awakening. Fighting is reported in Yemen, as well - tensions are rising in Lebanon, a country whose fate is bound up with Syria. Things are starting to look very dangerous indeed.
In this situation, whether or not a civil war grew out of a political revolt becomes a matter of secondary importance. “Good? Bad?” wonders the anti-hero of an old video game. “I’m the one with the gun.” The outcome of this situation will be decided by who can win a military victory - and at present, the two candidates are, as Ali points out, the Ba’athists and the armed rebels, who are composed predominantly of extremely dubious forces, and supported by equally dubious foreign paymasters.
Ali, on the other hand, is mistaken to call this ‘recolonisation’. Imperialism, except in limited cases, no longer desires or needs formal colonies. It is not quite true to say, as Callinicos does, that the important point is the installation of “brutal but reliable capitalist managers” - imperialism is about political-military as well as economic relations between states, and the US’s enthusiasm for deposing Assad has more to do with Iran - an unlikely but consistent regional ally of the Assad regional dynasty - than Syria itself. In that respect, the game is somewhat more dangerous than Ali makes out.
Ultimately, though he indicates sympathy with both the Syrian masses and those on the ground fighting - in spite of everything - for a progressive outcome, his thinking on the issue is basically limited to great-power politics. He supports the idea of a ‘compromise’ UN resolution, which would choke off arms supplies to both sides, and ultimately negotiations between them. This, ultimately, is a leftish version of the diplomatic line coming out of Moscow and Beijing, and is subject to the same vulnerabilities as Callinicos’s belief that Russia is a check on western military intervention.
The question that cries out to be asked is simple - where is the left? Comrade Callinicos rightly points out that its weakness has deformed the course of events in Syria considerably: “One thing the Arab revolutions have revealed,” he writes, “is that much of the left in the region is politically dead. The best evidence is provided by those elements in the Egyptian Communist Party who backed the military candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, in the recent presidential elections.”
In Syria, things are little different - the Communist Party there is thoroughly and fatally compromised by its relationship with the Assad regime. Those left groups who took the initiative in 2011 to fight for the regime’s overthrow were, as they are in other countries in the region, small and fragmented.
Syria’s fate is tied up with the left because it is tied up with the Arab world’s fate as a whole - only the far left can truly lead the struggle for the thoroughgoing democratic and socialist transformation of this region, knotted with national questions and sectarian-religious divides, a transformation that can consign horrors such as the present war in Syria to the past. Within the borders of Syria, the best the left can hope for right now is survival.
3. Socialist Worker July 28.