A revolution is an evolving process, not a single event. When the facts change, so must the analysis. In Syria the issue is not how the process began – its roots as an authentic popular uprising – but the current state of things. We have to look at it as a complex, contradictory process and not allow our perspective to get stuck in an earlier phase of the movement.
This is especially important because revolution inevitably triggers counter-revolution. In the Arab world today the nature of counter-revolution is far from straightforward, taking different forms. Here is what I argued recently:
‘Syria has to be understood in the context of the imperialist counter-revolutionary response to the Arab revolutions. March 2011 was the critical moment here. Two things happened simultaneously. Firstly, the US-backed Saudi regime sent troops into neighbouring Bahrain – also a US ally – to crush the popular movement. This was one way for imperialism to play a counter-revolutionary role: support for direct and bloody repression.
The other approach was less obvious and more contradictory. At the same time as turning a blind eye to Saudi-Bahraini repression, NATO countries launched an attack on Libya. This was not motivated by humanitarian concern or support for democracy. Intervention reflected a recognition in Washington, London and Paris that the Gaddafi regime was profoundly unstable and discredited, and that a speedy intervention – having been caught napping by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt – to engineer a post-Gaddafi regime sympathetic to Western interests was the wisest course.’
External intervention in Syria
What is especially significant in Syria is the role of external intervention and how this intersects with the internal dynamics. It is not a case of only external forces or internal dynamics being important. It is not a question of choosing one or the other as a ‘bottom line’ or ‘final analysis’. Rather, they are interconnected and contradictory.Judith Orr shows some awareness of this evolving relationship. Under the headline ‘Syria’s revolution enters dangerous new phase’, she writes:
‘[The] increasing militarisation of the revolution undermines the ability of ordinary people to take part in mass mobilisations. Yet these give the revolution its strength. The logic of military confrontation moves away from this onto the territory that both Assad and Nato prefer... The shift to out-and-out military conflict is also leading to a growing influence of Al Qaida groups among some of the armed opposition.’
The recognition here that militarisation of the process inside the country is interconnected with the role of external forces is important. The combination of these elements radically alters the character of the movement, so that mass mobilisations are marginalised and there is little space for political organisation and debate. The most conservative elements - those who have defected from the old regime, those who will strike deals with Turkey, the US or Saudi Arabia - gain the upper hand.
The sites of fighting and the negotiating table around which Western representatives sit, not the popular assembly or mass strike meeting, are where the course of events is principally (if not entirely) determined, regardless of the will of many ordinary Syrians struggling for freedom.
Syria is a battleground of rival imperialisms, a crucial site for global and regional powers alike. This doesn’t mean that what happens inside Syria is entirely controlled or dictated from outside. It does mean that we have to look at events in Syria within a wider geopolitical framework. This is particularly necessary when we recall the sheer scale and complexity of external intervention, and when we consider the strategic importance of the country for a range of foreign powers.We should also keep in mind our own location. Lenin famously insisted, at the time of World War One, that ‘the main enemy is at home’ for those of us inside imperialist countries. This has been a guiding principle ever since. Today the priority for socialists in the West is to understand the West’s role in Syria, and how that relates to broader patterns of intervention in the Middle East. As activists we need to focus on stopping our own government’s interference in Syria.
This is not merely a matter of hypothetical direct military intervention: a ground invasion or aerial bombardment. It means taking a stand against the numerous forms of covert intervention already happening. Some on the left persist, bafflingly, in underestimating the scale and importance of this intervention. It is possible to acknowledge and oppose this intervention without drifting into a fatalistic and condescending view of Syrians as ‘puppets’ of external forces. The popular movement is divided and compromised, not fully co-opted or controlled.
The effects of covert intervention
Seumas Milne, in a Guardian column ‘Intervention is now driving Syria’s descent into darkness’, draws attention to the centrality of covert forms of intervention:
‘Driving the escalation of the conflict has been western and regional intervention. This isn't Iraq, of course, with hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, or Libya, with a devastating bombardment from the air. But the sharp increase in arms supplies, funding and technical support from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others in recent months has dramatically boosted the rebels' fortunes, as well as the death toll.’
Russia and Iran are important allies of the Assad regime. Siding with the ‘rebels’ against the regime are a range of regionally and globally powerful forces. Michael Stephens, in an interesting piece asking ‘What does Qatar want in Syria?’, writes about the regional dynamics:
‘In recent weeks more information has emerged as to who is helping the rebel forces, how they are helping and the depth of the assistance provided. Time and again the same three countries are named, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The motivations for two of these countries are clear; Turkey is a neighbouring state and as such faces critical stability and security concerns. Saudi Arabia largely views the conflict through the Iranian lens, and the larger geo-strategic game that plays out between the two purported leaders of the Muslim world.’
Saudi Arabia is the centre of counter-revolution in the Middle East and the most reliable and influential of US allies in the region (Israel aside). Stephens reminds us that for Saudi the struggle over Syria is principally a proxy for countering the influence of Iran, which is the other substantial power in the Middle East.
Its interference – and that of Turkey and Qatar – has to be understood, though, in the context of the whole imperial architecture of the region. These countries pursue policies that are not entirely determined by US strategic interests, but are nonetheless conditioned by them (and will often be aligned with them).
What are the current forms of covert intervention, and who is responsible for them? Seumas Milne again:
‘Earlier this year Obama gave a secret order authorising covert (as well as overt financial and diplomatic) support to the armed opposition. That includes CIA paramilitaries on the ground, "command and control" and communications assistance, and the funnelling of Gulf arms supplies to favoured Syrian groups across the Turkish border. After Russia and China blocked its last attempt to win UN backing for forced regime change last month, the US administration let it be known it would now step up support for the rebels and co-ordinate "transition" plans for Syria with Israel and Turkey.
"You'll notice in the last couple of months, the opposition has been strengthened," a senior US official told the New York Times last Friday. "Now we're ready to accelerate that." Not to be outdone, William Hague boasted that Britain was also increasing "non-lethal" support for the rebels. Autocratic Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing the cash and weapons, as the western-backed Syrian National Council acknowledged this week, while Nato member Turkey has set up a logistics and training base for the Free Syrian Army in or near the Incirlik US air base.
It is sometimes suggested that none of this makes any great difference to the nature of the movement on the ground. While it’s true that many ordinary Syrians who have demonstrated are opposed to – or at least concerned about – external influence, the momentum is sadly not with them. It is difficult to maintain political independence while accepting arms and support from others.
Opposition leaders have come to see their role as liaising with foreign agents to firstly confront Assad’s forces and secondly plan a ‘transition’ to a post-Assad Syria, one which is compatible with Saudi, Turkish and US interests. It is naive of some socialists to claim that the leadership's actions are of only minor importance, as they don't reflect the 'mood on the ground'.
Unless more radical elements can successfully organise alternative forms of democratic and popular power - beyond a very fragmented and localised level - those pro-Western elements will generally dominate. The question of political representation and organisation is, as ever, crucially important.
Imperialism is always a crucial context
Seumas Milne is perceptive about the regional dimensions of the Syrian conflict. He grasps that Syria’s uprising has always had multiple dimensions, both internal and external, and that these are linked – in potentially explosive ways – with the biggest geopolitical conflicts of our age.
‘It was from the start a genuine uprising against an authoritarian regime. But it has also increasingly morphed into a sectarian conflict, in which the Alawite-dominated Assad government has been able to portray itself as the protector of minorities – Alawite, Christian and Kurdish – against a Sunni-dominated opposition tide.
The intervention of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf autocracies, which have tried to protect themselves from the wider Arab upheaval by playing the anti-Shia card, is transparently aimed at a sectarian, not a democratic, outcome. But it is the third dimension – Syria's alliance with Tehran and Lebanon's Shia resistance movement, Hezbollah – that has turned the Syrian struggle into a proxy war against Iran and a global conflict.’
As I’ve argued before, Syria therefore has to be examined in the context of the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and not just the in the framework of the Arab revolutions. The Assad regime has only ever opportunistically promoted its ‘anti-imperialist’ credentials, for reasons of self-interest not principle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t resented or perceived as a threat in Tel Aviv, London and Washington.
Let’s take a step back. Chris Harman, in a May 1999 article ‘Divide and conquer’, looked at the history of imperialism and national liberation movements in order to identify lessons for responding the NATO bombardment of Kosovo. He noted the way that imperialist states have for a long time claimed to take military action on behalf of oppressed groups, but this is rhetoric hiding their real economic and political motives.
What, he asks, should socialists say when an imperialist country claims to intervene on behalf of such an oppressed group? He notes that struggles for self-determination, or against brutal and oppressive regimes, are ‘complicated by other factors’. They don't happen in a vacuum - we can't merely examine their internal dynamics, like the struggle between classes.
‘The most important [factors] are the drive of imperial powers to grab control of as much of the earth as possible, and the coexistence within the same geographic areas of different national identities putting forward contradictory national demands.
Imperialist wars almost invariably involve great powers trying to use for their own ends national movements directed against their opponents. In some cases this amounts simply to providing a few weapons to movements which retain their own independence and follow their own goals – as with the attempts of the Kaiser’s Germany to help the Irish uprising in 1916 or the help the Vietnamese struggle received from Russia and China in the late 1960s.
But in other cases, the once independent national movements have become mere playthings of imperialist powers. This was true, for instance, of the Slovak and Croatian governments established by Germany from 1939-45, or of the Polish government set up in German occupied Warsaw during the First World War. For socialists to support national movements that have acquiesced in such a role would be to help strengthen imperialism.’
There are major differences between different cases, but Harman’s point that imperialism and what we might over-simplistically call ‘sectarianism’ are the main ‘complicating factors’ is acutely relevant.
As for the stance socialists should take, Harman cites the example of Lenin at the commencement of World War One. Lenin insisted that Austria’s denial of Serbian national rights could in no way legitimise Russia’s ‘war of liberation’ against Austria: ‘The national element in the Austro-Serbian war is an entirely secondary consideration and does not affect the general imperialist character of the war.’
Also, socialists had a record of supporting Poles’ demand for national rights. But in the First World War Polish nationalists aligned themselves with German imperialism. Lenin’s view was that for Polish socialists ‘ to put forward the slogan of Polish independence now, in the present relations which exist between Poland’s great imperialist neighbours, would be to chase after a will-of-the-wisp, to get lost in the pettiest form of nationalism.’
The general lesson here is that our practical response to popular and national movements, of one stripe or another, has to be influenced by our understanding of the broader imperialist context (and our place in it). Again, the main enemy is at home. The priority for socialists inside imperialist countries is to weaken imperialism.
In the 1999 article Harman analysed the then-current situation in Kosovo, noting that Kosovo nationalists throughout the 1990s had been too weak to defeat Serbia on their own, so had ‘looked increasingly to drawing the US and other western powers into the conflict’.
‘Under such circumstances, there can be no excuse for any genuine socialist backing the KLA’s nationalism. To do so would be to line up with an ally of imperialism and a proponent of ethnic cleansing, even if on a smaller scale at the moment than Milosovic’s.’
Whatever the differences between Kosovo then and Syria now – and they are numerous - the relevance for Western socialists is obvious. The nature of a popular movement can be altered substantially as a result of its relationship with imperialism. Thankfully the Syrian movement is far from monolithic or universally pro-West, but the problems are nonetheless unavoidable.
When the US and its allies are backing powerful elements of such a movement – financially, militarily, politically – in accordance with their own interests, it is socialists’ duty to oppose imperialism. At the time of the assault on Kosovo, the Western radical left correctly made opposition to 'humanitarian intervention' Nato-style its overwhelming focus, seeing our own governments as the enemy not Yugoslavia. We did not combine 'No to intervention' with 'Victory to the KLA' - for the reasons indicated above.
In relation to Syria today, it is meaningless and inadequate for us to parrot slogans like ‘Victory to the Syrian Revolution’ when William Hague, Hillary Clinton and even the Saudi princes are promoting precisely that message. If we care about the self-determination of Syrians, we must focus on stopping the Western intervention in the country which has already escalated the destruction, killing and chaos.
A response to Richard Seymour’s argument
Socialist blogger Richard Seymour has responded critically to this Counterfire article by John Rees (this latter has the same lines of analysis as the present article). What I’ve already written above provides a counterpoint to Seymour’s argument, but I think it would be useful to respond to a number of his specific points.
The recurring theme is that Seymour under-estimates the role of external intervention in general and the role of US and its Western allies (including the UK) in particular, laying too great a stress on the ‘internal dynamics’ in Syria.
He writes, for example, that ‘by every plausible report, the actual involvement of the imperialist powers has not been very significant; the regional sub-imperialisms are playing a more important role, for some of their own reasons, but even they aren't dominant in this situation.’
Seymour argues that Rees ‘overstates the coherence of US imperialism and its allies in this situation, and their ability to control events’. Yet the article didn’t argue that imperialism is ‘coherent’ or that the US and allies ‘control’ events. The analysis in fact recognised the contested and contradictory nature of external intervention, and indeed gave that prominence.
Furthermore, what I’ve written (and linked to) above offers ample evidence of Western influence in Syria. It surely cannot be disputed that this influence - however contested - is profound and no mere secondary consideration.
Seymour puts great emphasis on the need to analyse the independent policies of Turkey, Saudi and Qatar, rather than seeing them as simple expressions of US or NATO strategy (not an error the article actually makes). It is true that those countries don’t have identical views or policies to the US, but that misses the central point: they have formed an alliance with the major NATO states, and operate in a context shaped by those powerful states.
There have always been, and always will be, differences and tensions between regional players and the Western powers, but in this case (as in so many others historically) that is of secondary importance. The effect of Seymour’s argument seems to be to downplay the role of Western imperialism, by suggesting that regional powers are more independent of it than is actually the case.
A more serious error is Seymour’s argument about Libya. He writes: ‘While it is true that the US regained some of its lost initiative through the intervention in Libya, I think that has to be seen as an improvised intervention in the revolutionary process, which siezed on a unique set of circumstantial advantages.’ The point seems to be this: Syria should not be seen as following a similar pattern to Libya – it is emphatically different.
In fact the current interventions in Syria are in some respects a continuation – in somewhat differing circumstances, and using some different methods – of the approach to Libya. Both are part of a wider US strategy for reasserting its own influence – and the influence of allied countries like Saudi Arabia - in a region where its power has been fiercely shaken by the popular uprisings.
‘[Rees] thinks the current low-level forms of intervention in Syria reflect a long-term priority to depose the Assad regime, rather than an opportunistic attempt by various actors to nudge the situation in a favourable direction. He finds its recent origins in the approach that neoconservatives outlined in the wake of September 11th, when Syria was labelled an 'axis of evil' state.’
This is to mis-understand the argument. Rees was responding to a particular false claim – by Alex Callinicos – that the US has not previously wanted to depose Assad. Rees was absolutely correct to call him out on it, observing that ‘regime change’ in Syria is a long-term US objective.
This is not the same as suggesting that intervention in Syria is simply a pre-scripted part of a long-term US grand strategy. The important thing is to refute the fanciful idea that the US doesn’t have a track record of seeing the existing Syrian regime as a threat which should be removed.
Seymour also strongly rejects the argument that we should "oppose those within the Syrian revolution who are calling for and taking arms from Western imperialism." Yet the Syrian rebels’ use of arms, funding and support from either the US or its regional allies has had a profound effect on the nature of the struggle. We should have a clear-eyed view of the state of that struggle and the acute problems of taking arms from outside forces.
What all this leads on to is an important strategic and practical disagreement between Seymour (and co-thinkers) and most commentators associated with the anti-war movement. He writes:
‘If the strategic priority is to grasp the principal contradiction ('the key link in the chain' etc) and to bend all of one's words and efforts around that, then that must be derived from the concrete analysis of concrete situations.... Concretely, the dominant antagonism in Syria, the one around which most of the fighting and repression and insurgency takes place, is that between the regime, a state-capitalist bloc, and the popular masses based in the working class... The principal contradiction is the class antagonism within Syria, and practical activity internationally, including antiwar activism, should be based on this understanding.’
This is directly opposed to what I recently argued:
‘If you believe that the role of imperialism is only a secondary consideration in Syria - and that more broadly its role in the Arab world is greatly weakened - then you pay little attention to building an anti-war movement to resist foreign intervention. Instead you sit on the sidelines and merely cheerlead for the Arab revolutions, while taking rhetorical potshots at serious anti-imperialists who you think are exaggerating the problems of foreign intervention. Alternatively, an accurate analysis of the situation demands that we mobilise to stop our own political leaders intervening in the Arab world. That is the only meaningful thing we can do, and must be our priority.’
Seymour’s argument is that the internal class struggle inside Syria – regardless of any kind of imperialist dimension - is the ‘dominant antagonism’ here. Therefore the ‘strategic priority’ – the thing that dictates what we should ‘bend all of our words and efforts around’ – flows from recognising ‘the principal contradiction is the class struggle in Syria’’.
What does this mean in terms of our practical activity in this country? I have no idea. But if ‘practical activity internationally, including antiwar activism, should be based on this understanding’ then we presumably shouldn’t be focusing our energies on campaigning to stop Western intervention. What we should be doing remains a mystery.