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Against imperialist regime-change intervention in Syria and the Middle East
By Roger Annis and Felipe Stuart Courneyeur
January 7, 2017 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – David Bush has published an appeal for reasoned and informed discussion in Canada of the war and humanitarian disaster in Syria. He calls for building (or rebuilding) movements in imperialist countries such as Canada to oppose war and foreign intervention in the Middle East. We welcome his appeal and write this essay as a contribution to the discussion David suggests be opened.
We do not agree entirely with David's presentation of the war in Syria. This contribution aims to fill in the gaps we believe he leaves. Hopefully, we can arrive at a better understanding in Canada of events in Syria and from there arrive at a clear path for action by an antiwar left wing.
A war of national self-defense in Syria
A discussion of Syria should begin by recognizing the form that the war there has taken since 2012. We disagree with David's characterization of the war in Syria as fundamentally a civil war. Yes, the war can be traced chronologically to the social protests (civil conflict) that erupted in Syria in early 2011, paralleling social protests in other Middle East countries, notably in Tunisia, Egypt and the authoritarian Gulf states. But, as David acknowledges, the protests in Syria were soon overwhelmed and pushed aside by a conscious turn of leading elements to armed conflict, complete with heavy foreign backing, aiming to overthrow the Syrian government. He writes, "The turn to armed struggle was a product of the regime's strategy to smash the movement by force. It [the turn to armed struggle] weakened rather than strengthened the forces of the popular revolt."
Samer Abboud writes in his 2016 book titled, simply, Syria: "The militarization of the Syrian uprising began in June 2011 when army defectors formed brigades under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)." Abboud explains further, "With the creation of the FSA and the presence of an external and internal opposition, the Syrian uprising expanded into political and military wings that had as their ostensible common goal the overthrow of the regime. However, such coherence between the political and military wings of the uprising was a mirage, and no substantive forms of cooperation that could affect political change ever emerged."
US journalist James Foley, who was murdered by ISIS in 2014, wrote of Aleppo in 2012: "Aleppo, a city of about 3 million people, was once the financial heart of Syria. As it continues to deteriorate, many civilians here are losing patience with the increasingly violent and unrecognizable opposition — one that is hampered by infighting and a lack of structure, and deeply infiltrated by both foreign fighters and terrorist groups. The rebels in Aleppo are predominantly from the countryside, further alienating them from the urban crowd that once lived here peacefully, in relative economic comfort and with little interference from the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad."
Today, the numerous “opposition” or “rebel” groups are not rooted in popular struggles; rather, they respond to the conflicting interests of their foreign sponsors. That is why they have never found any political basis for unity, and why they continue to fight each other and to splinter or merge, depending on the will of paymasters.
From 2011, the conflict in Syria rapidly assumed two fundamental characteristics. One, it became a war of foreign, imperialist 'regime-change' intervention. The United States, Europe and other lesser imperialist countries and their allied regimes in the Middle East have intervened in Syria directly and through regional proxy forces that they have financed and armed.
Two, as a consequence of the above, the war also became a war of national self-defense (national self-determination) by the Syrian people.
The Kurdish national rights struggle
Amid the military conflagration, the oppressed Kurdish people have organized politically and militarily to claim their own right to national self-determination. This right has been opposed by successive Syrian governments in the past and, equally important, by the entire spectrum of the foreign-armed intervention, including the US itself, whose betrayal of the Kurdish people in Iraq in 2003 has been thoroughly documented.
The Kurdish struggle in Syria and the broader region has also suffered the blows of outside intervention, mainly from NATO-member Turkey. Kurdish leaders have been forced to maneuver for survival among forces opposing the Syrian government. Yet despite its relative isolation and the history of conflict with the Syrian government, the Kurdish national movement has fought strongly and sacrificed greatly against the anti-government, regime-change forces in Syria who were heavily backed by Turkey and the Gulf States.
What's more, the widely-hailed ceasefire agreement in Syria has not stopped Turkey from continuing to attack Kurdish villages and Kurdish self-defense forces in Syria. And Turkey continues to pursue its anti-Kurd civil war in Turkey proper.
A difficult history
Of course, it is important to locate how past and present grievances against the Syrian government figure into the current picture.
The grievances are real. For example, the Syrian government and capitalist elite latched onto the ascent of globalized capitalism in the 1990s and early 2000s, introducing far-reaching economic measures in the countryside to the detriment of the rural population. Hundreds of thousands of rural people were forced to migrate to the cities as old livelihoods disintegrated.
As David Bush has intimated, the Syrian government partnered for a time in the US drive for retribution (the so-called 'global war against terrorism') following the 2001 attack in New York City. And, as noted above, the government has a history of denying national rights to the Kurdish people.
But all of this and more are matters for the Syrian people to discuss and resolve. We in the West should not try to assume a role of delivering prescriptions for the future of the country. The fundamental duty of progressives in the West is to join the Syrian people in opposing the war and foreign intervention taking place in their country and aiding the repair of the immense humanitarian suffering that has taken place.
We must strongly oppose the economic sanctions against Syria, for example. The sanctions should not only be ended; any peace settlement should include massive economic aid from the Western imperialist powers who have wrecked the economies of both Syria and Iraq.
We should oppose the inhuman restrictions against the right of war refugees in Syria to seek refuge abroad. We should oppose the Canadian government's restrictive limiting of the number of Syrian refugees eligible to relocate to Canada in 2017 to 1000. A Canadian antiwar movement must also campaign to stop Canadian arms manufacturers and the Ottawa government from selling arms to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, for example, the $15 billion armoured vehicle sale by General Dynamics to Saudi Arabia.
Peace for Syria
The single, most important thing that Syrians require and are demanding today is to end the war. We cannot stress this enough. A lasting ceasefire can open the possibility of political reconciliation that can repair the shattered economy and address the social and national grievances of the population. The ceasefire agreement now in place, brokered by Russia and its regional allies, is a lifeline that offers enormous opportunities for Syrians and the world.
This view contrasts sharply with the positions of some marginal left forces internationally who call for continued arming and encouraging of the armed opposition groups in Syria. Some even support the 'no-fly zone' that the US and NATO wishfully voice. But such a measure is not only a violation of Syrian sovereignty, it is also a formula for escalating the war, barely distinguishable from the blatant war-mongering of neo-conservatives in the US and Europe.
The stance in favour of "more war" in Syria by small left groups (Trotskyists, International Socialists and others – located for the most part in the imperialist West) is rooted in the claim that a “popular revolution” is taking place in Syria. The war crisis, it is argued, results fundamentally from a drive by the Syrian government to crush this “revolution”. This is a false description of the situation in Syria. Social protests in Syria in 2011 never came close to resembling the genuine democratic revolutions that took place in Tunisia and Egypt that year, and that were also threatening several of the Gulf states. The militarization of the protests in Syria, sponsored by foreign powers, ended any potential they may have had to contribute to popular and democratic yearnings of the nation.
We should note here, in passing, that the "global left" cited in some of the political debate concerning Syria (and Ukraine before that) is not so very "global". In Latin America, for example, governments of the left as well as the large, social and political movements of the continent have consistently defended Syrian self-determination and armed self-defense against regime-change intervention.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay have consistently voted in the UN Security Council for the ceasefire and reconciliation measures that Russia and Syria have brought before the world body. Former foreign minister of Nicaragua and former president of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel D’Escoto, has written: "What the US government is doing in Syria is tantamount to a war of aggression, which, according to the Nuremberg Tribunal, is the worst possible crime a State can commit against another State." (cited in The war against alternative information, by Rick Sterling, Jan 1, 2017).
'All imperial powers out of the region'?
Bush has proposed the above-named slogan as a guide for antiwar action. We think the slogan is potentially misleading and ill-advised. An antiwar movement should argue that the imperialist countries – the US-EU-NATO powers – and their satrap regimes must stop their intervention and get out of the region. In other words, we should be specific. Our preferred slogan is “End all foreign intervention in the Middle East”.
Our clarification here has to do with the role of Russia. One of the main reasons for left-wing disarray over events in Syria (and in Ukraine and Crimea) is due to confusion and misunderstanding over the place of Russia in today's world. It is claimed that Russia is intervening in Syria in order to advance "imperialist" interests. But this is false.
As Roger and his co-author Renfrey Clarke have documented extensively, Russia is not an "imperialist" country and has no such corresponding economic interests in the Middle East. Furthermore, Russia's military intervention in Syria beginning in October 2015 has aimed to end the regime-change chaos induced by imperialism which has not only destabilized the Middle East and southern Europe but threatens Russia's own national security. Iran and the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon have for similar reasons joined Russia in assisting the Syrian government.
Let us recall that Russia is in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, no small matter. It is wrong to equate Russia's presence with that of the imperialist countries of Europe and the United States. For more than a century, the latter countries have done nothing for the Middle East region except to intervene and aim to subjugate them, including by supporting the colonial-settler project of Israel.
The claims of "Russian imperialism" go back a long way in much left and liberal thinking in the West. This misunderstanding of Russia has contributed greatly to the political default of the Western left over events in Ukraine in 2013-14. The marginal Western left (and also, for its own reasons, the social-democratic left) have turned a blind eye to the ascendance of extreme-right nationalism in Ukraine (assuming distinctly fascist forms) and the related renewal of a cold war against Russia. That cold war is rapidly threatening to become a 'hot war' complete with the very real threat of use of nuclear weapons as the NATO military alliance (including Canada) pours weapons and soldiers into the countries bordering Russia in eastern Europe.
If more evidence of the deadly import of the imperialist propaganda campaign against Russia is required, one need only take note of the current binge of anti-Putinism in the US. As many US writers and commentators are warning, a dangerous new McCarthyism is being forged. Patrick Lawrence warns in The Nation, for example, "Russia is not destroying (what remains of) American democracy, 'Patriotic Americans' are."
Once again, Russia is blamed by US leaders for all the problems in the country. The rhetoric is rapidly escalating as, for the first time in history, Russia is accused of influencing the outcome of a US presidential election. China will not be far behind as another great evil. Instead of catering to this scam, an antiwar left needs to inoculate all those we can influence.
Role of events in Egypt
Bush writes correctly that: "The conflict must also be put into a wider historical and regional context." But he leaves an important element out of the regional context, namely the disastrous military-fascist coup in Egypt in July 2013. This event was a body-blow to progressive forces in the Middle East as well as internationally, including the fact that the coup engendered massive confusion and disorientation.
Roger has written extensively on the events in Egypt and we will not summarize his words here. Suffice to say that due to anti-Islamic prejudice and a host of other reasons, many progressive forces in the Middle East and further afield turned a blind eye to the coup in Egypt. Some even hailed the coup. All in the name of opposing the elected President Mohammed Morsi and his Justice and Development Party due to their Islamic beliefs and supposed adherence to right-wing, fundamentalist beliefs. The accusations are false and the failure to vigorously defend the Egyptian people during and after the 2013 coup is very serious.
Why is the debate over Syria important for people in Canada? It goes beyond humanitarian concern for Syria and its people, crucial as that is.
We are in a world awash with war and militarism. The world is also suffering the beginnings of a sweeping global warming emergency. In Canada, the opioid drug addiction crisis has become so serious that it is beginning to destabilize the public health care system. Meanwhile, growing numbers of working class people are suffering an acute shortage of affordable housing. These and many other social ills are only worsening.
The enemy of peace for Canadians and for the world is at home, in the NATO countries, not in Moscow or Damascus.
Felipe Stuart Courneyeur is a dual Nicaraguan-Canadian citizen and a longtime socialist advocate. He is a member of the Nicaraguan Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), which was re-elected to government last November. Roger Annis is a socialist writer and activist. He co-edits the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond.
 Samer Abboud's book Syria provides information and insight into Syria's recent history, but it is a skewed interpretation of the social protests of 2011 because it leaves out the fact that the large majority of the Syrian population did not take part in protests that year and a majority of the population has always opposed the drive to overthrow the government by force.
 A rare examination of the role of governing councils in areas of Syria controlled by anti-government forces was published by the Arab Reform Initiative in October 2016. Author Sabr Darwish wrote an eight-page paper titled Syrians Under Siege: The Role of Local Councils. It explains, "Most councils, including those described above, have to deal with interference from the opposition military groups that control their area. Judicial courts, for example, which fall within the councils’ purview, are often subject to change. Some courts which started out as independent and secular have become sharia courts as a result of pressure from military groups. Military groups also undermine the work of the judiciary, as each of them has their own sharia courts that do not recognize any outside authority. Furthermore, local councils have authority only over civilians; they have no power over combatants operating within military groups. This has significantly weakened the councils and encouraged the spread of chaos…"