The Syrian uprising and the American left

(CV #49, August 2014)

On July 7, 2013 the "Detroit Workers’ Voice" Discussion Group held a meeting to discuss the Syrian uprising and the attitude of the left to the Arab Spring. The invitation to this meeting stated:

Outside powers -- such as the governments of the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and so on --  regard the fighting in Syria as a proxy war with different Syrian factions serving the interests of this or that outside interest. Some outside powers are arming the Syrian dictatorship and helping it torture and kill more people; others are providing some support for those groups they like in the opposition, and debating whether to provide more arms or even a no-fly zone. But in reality, the heart of the struggle in Syria is an uprising of the majority of the Syrian people against decades of oppression by the Ba’ath party dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad, and then his son Bashar al-Assad. During the decades of this dictatorship, no independent political life has been allowed in Syria. It is only through overthrowing this dictatorship that the Syrian masses can have some say about their lives.

The US and other imperialist powers want to keep their influence on the Middle East. They worked with the Assad dictatorship in the past; one notorious example is that the Canadian and US governments colluded to send the Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria to be tortured. The Russian and Iranian governments still want to see the outright victory of the Ba’ath dictatorship, but US imperialism and other powers are afraid that Bashar’s massacres are now bringing instability to the Middle East, and they would prefer to see some type of negotiated solution. None of these powers trust the Syrian people; all of these powers are oppressors of the Middle Eastern peoples. But the Syrian rebellion, in order to survive, has had to utilize the contradictions among these powers.

There is also the danger of fundamentalist and sectarian forces coming to the fore in the struggle and imposing themselves on the Syrian people; a similar danger has existed throughout the Arab Spring, in Egypt and Tunisia as well as Syria. And the Assad dictatorship itself has done the utmost to inflame sectarian hatreds, as a way of retaining some support. But there are not only sectarians in Syria, but also a popular movement, which is persisting in the face of horrible obstacles, and which has resisted fundamentalist demands. This movement was not a creation of outside powers or the fundamentalists, but represents the attempt of the Syrian masses to stand on their own feet and to begin to deal with their own problems. It is not a socialist movement, and it is not even a unified movement, but it is a legitimate and important part of the Arab Spring. The democratic and non-sectarian elements in the Syrian movement deserve the support of working people throughout the world.

Meanwhile those forces on the left who have for years supported dictatorships in the name of “anti-imperialism” have vilified the Syrian uprising. They are dragging the noble name of anti-imperialism through the mud. They are in effect saying that the defeat of the Arab Spring would be an anti-imperialist victory, and they are pretending that one can support the people in some of the countries of the Arab Spring, while supporting the dictatorships in the others. This shows that the differences in the left aren’t simply tedious haggling over obscure doctrines, but concern whether one sides with the working people or their oppressors.

The Syrian uprising and the "National Days of Action"
of June-July 2013

The presentation at the meeting of July 7,  edited for publication, was as follows:

I am happy to welcome you here tonight. The subject is the rebellion in Syria,  and the attitude of left-wing organizations towards it.

The left-wing is supposed to support the struggles of the people against the rich and privileged, and against dictatorships and injustice. Yet we find that today there are thousands of people fighting and dying for freedom in Syria, and many prominent left organizations in this country are opposed to it. They have organized three weeks of “National Days of Action”, from June 28 to July 17 [2013], in opposition to this struggle. They are misleading workers and activists at these demonstrations by not openly talking about the Assad dictatorship, but nevertheless vilifying the Syrian rebellion as the creation of outside powers; they are silent about the outside money, arms, and reinforcements flowing to the Assad dictatorship; and they imply the rebellion is a US/NATO/Israeli war on Syria. So this leads to the question of what is going on in Syria, and what does it tell us about those left organizations that are opposing the struggle against the Assad dictatorship.

History of the dictatorship in Syria

The struggle in Syria concerns a genuine uprising of the local population against a dictatorship that has lasted for over four decades since 1970. This is the dictatorship of first Hafez al-Assad, and then, from the year 2000 when Hafez died, the rule of his son, Bashar al-Assad. During this period, the Syrian people haven’t had any political rights. There were no independent trade unions and certainly no right to strike. There was no right to an independent press. There was no right to any mass organizations independent of the ruling Ba’ath so-called Socialist Party.

Things hadn’t always been this way in Syria. At one time, there had been vigorous mass struggles. After World War II there was a tumultuous popular movement. In 1946 Syria won independence from France, and working class strikes forced major concessions and positive labor legislation. A variety of social movements grew and contested for influence: trade unions, the nationalist movement, Nasserists, the Syrian Communist Party, etc. But the Ba’ath Party, which originated as an attempt to block communist influence, came to power in 1966, and Hafez al-Assad turned it into a durable dictatorship in 1970. It called itself a socialist party, but real socialism means that the working majority of the country settles its affairs, while the Assad dictatorship based itself on ending all action by the working class. All organization was supposed to be under the control of the ruling party and the Syrian state. All opposition was ruthless suppressed, and in 1982, the Syrian regime turned the city of Hama into a graveyard, kills tens of thousands of people, in order to repress an Islamist revolt.

Under Ba’ath rule, a group of state-connected crony capitalists enriched themselves. The Assad dictatorship also carried out some industrialization and economic development, and it provided some subsidies for the population as a whole, the development of social programs such as health and education, and a certain redistribution of the land. The plots of land may have ended up too small to support a family; and there was no help given to the peasants for irrigation or mechanization. But still, the villages had a certain economic life.

Bashar al-Assad takes over

In 2000, when Hafez died, and his son Bashar took over as dictator, Bashar began neo-liberal reforms, privatization, and the cutting of social benefits. Peasants, craftspeople, small manufacturers were in trouble. Workers saw their wages cut and subsidies cut. Two-tier systems were pushed for health and education.

Then a drought hit more than half of Syria in 2006-2011, partially due to climate change, partially due to the regime’s development of commercial agriculture, which accelerated the dangerous depletion of water tables. The drought, combined with neo-liberal reforms, resulted in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the countryside for the city. There had never been political rights under the dictatorship, but now it was also harder and harder to make a living. This spread massive discontent throughout the country. It not only spread in the cities, with their impoverished arrivals, but throughout the countryside. This would provide a basis for the rapid spread of armed opposition in the countryside which occurred later.

The Arab Spring comes to Syria

Thus the outbreak of demonstrations in Syria in 2011 was a legitimate part of the Arab Spring. It was the masses rising up against a hated regime. It was sparked not by outside fundamentalists and foreign powers, as some would have you believe, just as Southern racists used to say that the civil rights movement was the result of outside agitators, but because the people had had enough. They were standing up to resume their historic role as a people with a voice. The Free Syrian Army, the military core of the resistance, was formed out of soldiers who deserted from the regular Syrian army.

If one goes beyond the slurs by the apologists of the Assad dictatorship and shallow newspaper articles, then one can find information about how the rebellion has organized itself. It has carried out in some towns the first real elections that the people there had known. It has sought to set up local authorities, and then found that these authorities had to deal as well with the issue of ensuring the food supply. For example, some committees have sought to regulate the price of bread, so it wouldn’t rise beyond what people could pay, and to arrange a compromise between the farmers, who would like to charge high prices during war-time shortage, and consumers, who want to survive. These committees differ from town to town. There is no uniform authority. But there is an impetus to organization.

The danger of fundamentalism

The regime says that the opposition is just Sunni fanatics and is overrun by foreign Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, the main opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, stands for a secular Syria. But there has long been an Islamist movement in Syria; indeed it was the Muslim Brotherhood that had suffered the Hama massacre of 1982; and there are fundamentalist groups in Syria that are fighting against the regime. In part because they have found it easier to obtain weapons from outside powers then the Free Syrian Army, and are better financed so that they could purchase weapons from whatever group obtained them, they have achieved a disproportionate influence in the Syrian opposition. They have committed bloody sectarian acts against Syrian minorities and have sought to take over various of the local councils, but they have been unable to dominate the opposition to the dictatorship. The rest of the opposition has resisted them and organized repeated demonstrations against them. There have been struggles over which flag is flown in liberated towns, against the imposition of Islamic law, and against atrocities committed by the fundamentalists.

[Since this presentation, the struggle over fundamentalism has become a full-scale military conflict. The extreme fundamentalists of the ISIS have launched a major assault against all other groups in Syria, and they have sought to consolidate an oppressive rule in the areas they control. But resistance to this continues, and is hamstrung in large part by the lack of sufficient weapons and supplies for the secular forces and the more moderate Islamists.—CV]

So there is a danger of fundamentalism in Syria, as there is also in all the countries of the Arab Spring. But the fundamentalists do not determine the character of the Syrian resistance.

Meanwhile, it is other Islamic fundamentalists that are the strongest outside supporters of the Assad regime. The theocratic government of Iran provides arms, training, and perhaps troops for the Assad regime. And Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is a fundamentalist organization which has dominated the Lebanese resistance to Israel, has sent thousands of its followers to fight for Assad, and has been important in recent Assad victories.

The Assad regime plays one section of the people against another

More generally, Syria is an ethnic and religious mixture, and the Assad regime, over its decades of existence, has based itself on a system of discrimination. It mainly gives special privileges and the best positions to the Alawite minority, and then promotes itself as the protection for the Alawites and other minorities. The regime has achieved some success in this devious plan, but, nevertheless, a number of Alawites and people from other minorities have stood up against the regime. There have been sectarian massacres in the uprising and civil war, but the regime has been guilty of most of them, and it is the regime which has sought from the beginning to convert the ongoing struggle into an ethnic battle.

One example of the regime’s nature is that, while it promotes itself as a protector of minorities, it has for decades discriminated against the Kurdish minority, the largest non-Arab minority in Syria. It has denied many of them citizenship, making them stateless and also barring them from the social services open to Syrian citizens.

In brief, the Syrian uprising is fairly typical of the Arab Spring as a whole. We do not glorify the uprising and present it as a socialist, or even a radical democratic, revolution. It is but the first step to overcoming the problems of the past in Syria, but a necessary first step, and a step which has cost the heroic sacrifice of thousands and tens of thousands of Syrians. The problems afflicting it, such as dealing with the Islamist influence, are similar to those elsewhere. It is not a united uprising, and it is composed of a number of different groups and trends. But its basic goal is political freedom. This uprising has seen thousands upon thousands of ordinary people stand up to fight against this regime, thousands upon thousands with stories of being tortured by the regime or seeing their relatives murdered, thousands upon thousands with stories of how the regime bombarded their villages as retaliation for being part of the resistance, or simply to punish them for being near an area where the resistance was.

Should anti-imperialists support dictatorships and torturers?

So why would various left organizations oppose such a struggle? They say they stand for democracy. Why would they support a regime of torturers? And why would any activists be taken in by the stands of such organizations?

These groups oppose the Syrian democrats in the name of anti-imperialism. And activists see that various US allies and, to a lesser extent, US imperialism itself have provided a certain amount of arms or other support to the Syrian uprising. We all know that US imperialism has engaged in one dirty invasion and intervention after another, one war abroad after another. So it’s natural for many activists to think that the only thing going on in Syria is another imperialist dirty war.

What gets ignored is the interest of the Syrian masses. And what’s glossed over is that various imperialists are giving arms to the Assad regime, and that the US imperialism has worked with the Assad regime. For example, Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, backed the US imperialist Gulf war against Iraq in 1990-81. The world imperialist agencies, like the IMF and World Bank, favor the type reforms that Bashar al-Assad made starting in 2000. US imperialism found Assad so reliable that they colluded with the Canadian government to send the Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria to be tortured. Even Israel, despite its antagonism toward Syria and every Arab regime, nevertheless regarded the Assad dictatorship as a guarantee of stability for the Syrian-Israeli border.

[Since the presentation, the Morsi presidency in Egypt was overthrown in a military coup on July 3, 2013. The new military government immediately began violently repressing demonstrations, carrying out mass arrests, and cracking down on any dissident activity. It also resumed close cooperation with Israel to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza, and reimposed a strict blockade on Gaza. Assad has established close relations with the reactionary Egyptian military regime. The campaign of the Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, and Assad governments, and other repressive Arab governments, against the Muslim Brotherhood has helped give Israel the opportunity to carry out the current “Operative Protective Edge” in which it devastates Gaza and has killed well over 1,000 Palestinians already.— CV]

However the Assad regime was closer to Russian imperialism than to US imperialism. It has ties with both the imperialists of the West and the East, but it provides a base on the Mediterranean for Russia and  has historically been backed more closely by Russia than the US. And many left groups back the imperialists of the East against those of the West, and call this anti-imperialism. These groups don’t oppose all imperialism. They prefer to back one imperialist power over another then to put their faith in the Syrian people; they don’t believe that, when free of dictatorship, the Syrian working people will eventually oppose all imperialism.

The Assad regime is also close to the Iranian regime, and a number of left groups think that the theocratic regime in Iran deserves support. It doesn’t matter to these groups that the Iranian regime has bitterly oppressed the Iranian people for decades, and imprisoned and murdered many left-wing activists. All that matters to them is that the Iranian regime has differences with US imperialism. It doesn’t matter to these groups that Iran is itself a major power with its own would-be imperialist interest. These groups don’t have faith that the Iranian people, and not the regime, is the real basis for anti-imperialism in Iran. And so these groups think the close relationship between the Syrian and Iranian regimes is yet another reason to support the Assad dictatorship and oppose the Syrian uprising.

Real anti-imperialism is based on the struggle of the people

We call such stands non-class anti-imperialism. Real anti-imperialism promotes the liberation of the people from all imperialist oppression. Non-class anti-imperialism has lost faith in the working people, and looks for something positive in reactionary regimes. It drags the noble name of anti-imperialism through the mud by associating it with the massacres and atrocities of notorious oppressors. It turns anti-imperialism into a reason to oppose popular struggles around the world, rather than to support them. It is an anti-imperialism without the working class, or even against the working class.

The non-class anti-imperialists say positive things about the struggles in some of the countries of the Arab Spring, such as Egypt and Tunisia, but not in others, such as Syria and Libya. But if they followed their own principles consistently, they would have had to oppose the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia. The fact is that US imperialism, once it saw that Mubarak’s days were numbered, sought to ease him out of his position. And since the overthrow of Mubarak, US imperialism has continued its financial support of the post-Mubarak governments. The main factor in the overthrow of Mubarak was the struggle of the Egyptian people, and their hatred for the decades of his dictatorship. But every outside power, including US imperialism and Islamic fundamentalists, sought to influence what happened. If they were consistent, shouldn’t the left groups that oppose the democratic struggle in Syria have also opposed the democratic struggle in Egypt and declared it to be a “US war on Egypt”?

But the non-class anti-imperialists aren’t consistent in their principles. Their real plan is siding with one imperialist against another. Since Mubarak was closer to Western imperialism than to Russian, Indian, and Chinese imperialism, the non-class anti-imperialists didn’t mind Mubarak’s overthrow. The non-class anti-imperialists have certain imperialist and reactionary powers they like, and certain imperialist  and reactionary powers they dislike. They think that siding with one against the other is anti-imperialism, and don’t realize that it really is servility to the imperialist system.

The intervention debate

What about the debate among American politicians over whether to provide more arms to the Syrian rebellion or even a no-fly zone, as in Libya previously? If we support the Syrian rebellion, should we take part in this debate? But if you listen to what these politicians and Obama administration officials are saying, they are not asking what serves Syrian interests, but what serves American, that is US imperialist, interests best. And we are not for advancing US imperialism; we are opposed to it. We think it is legitimate for the Syrian rebellion to get arms where it can, but we know that whatever US imperialism does, it does for its own interests.

The US and European powers haven’t been enthusiastic about the rebellion against Assad. Despite what the leaders of the “Days of Action” say, the US, NATO, and even Israel are rather worried about a victory for the Syrian uprising. They agonize over whether a rebel victory would be worse for their interests than accommodation with Assad. They are used to dealing with Assad, and see that Assad still appeals for Western support. Some imperialist strategists ask, why should the US leave things to the uncertain and unknown outcome of the democratic struggle, when there are so many different trends fighting the Assad regime?

[It’s notable that Obama has spoken of the support of working people for the Syrian rebellion as a reason to prevent them from getting weapons. In an interview on National Public Radio on May 29, he said: “When you talk about the moderate opposition, many of these people were farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn’t have a lot of experience fighting.” He didn’t see the importance of supporting “farmers or dentists or . . . radio reporters”, but was looking for some other way to intervene. He repeated this idea in a news conference on June 19, referring this time to “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists” and deprecating their prospects “against a battle-hardened regime, with support from external actors that have a lot at stake”.— CV]

In fact, the Obama administration would prefer that an international conference impose a negotiated solution to the Syrian uprising. The main interest of the US and many outside powers is that the war in Syria is destabilizing the region, sending hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into neighboring countries, and stirring up such issues as the Kurdish national question. Their aim isn’t democracy in Syria, but to calm things down. They would like to prevent any radical changes in Syria.

[Those supposed anti-imperialists who are campaigning to prevent the opposition from getting any weapons from the US or other outside sources are not a radical opposition to imperialism. On the contrary, they are paving the way for Syrian affairs to be settled by anyone but the Syrian farmers, workers, teachers. And by so doing, they are not just backing various imperialist forces aside from the US, but also siding with one faction of US imperialism versus another.—CV]

The real task of anti-imperialists in the US is neither to prevent the Syrian rebellion from getting weapons, nor to argue about what course in Syria is best for American interests. Instead anti-imperialists should both expose US and imperialist interests and provide solidarity for the Syrian rebellion. The more imperialist interests are exposed, the less influence the imperialists will have over what happens in Syria, despite whatever arms they provide and to who. And we saw, for example in Libya, that US imperialism was disappointed in that, despite the no-fly zone and NATO intervention, neither the US nor NATO could get a base in Libya after Qaddafi fell.

We need to have working-class solidarity with the secular and democratic majority of the Syrian uprising. The more imperialist interests are exposed and the more the truth about the Syrian uprising is known, its problems but also its overall democratic content, the harder an international conference will find it to impose an undemocratic solution on Syria.

A genuine revolt of the people

In conclusion, the Syrian uprising is not the product of outside powers, but is a genuine revolt against decades of denial of rights. If the people in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries are able to break free of the old dictatorships, this will result in increased political life. The resulting regimes won’t be radical; they won’t solve the region’s economic problems; but instead controversial issues that were pushed underground for years will now be fought over more openly. The working class will be faced with uniting on a class basis, developing militant organization which really stands for its interests no matter what the regimes do, and waging a class struggle. This is the real path towards strengthening anti-imperialism in the Middle East. <>


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