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Socialists and wars in the 21st century – The case of Syria
by Richard Fidler
November 14, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In Syria the rebel cities that rose up four years ago in revolt against the brutal Assad dictatorship are now under a genocidal siege, bombed and assaulted from the air by Assad’s military aided and abetted by Russian fighter jets and bombers. Their desperate fight for survival, if unsuccessful, will put paid to the Arab Spring and with it the potential for building a democratic, anti-imperialist governmental alternative in the Middle East for an extended period to come. Socialists and antiwar activists everywhere have every interest in supporting the Syrian people and opposing that war.
But where is the antiwar movement? And what if anything is it doing about Syria? The most recent statement on the Canadian Peace Alliance web site is headlined Stop Bombing Syria. But it is focused on NATO. Not wrong in principle, but the statement, addressed to Canada’s previous bombing of ISIS positions in Syria, is many months out of date. There is nothing on the CPA site about the current murderous air and bombing assault on Syria’s cities. And it would appear that across the country the movement is doing nothing to protest the war.
Why the silence? Is it only because Trudeau has pulled Canada’s fighter jets out of Syria; after all, Canadian planes and troops are active in other parts of the Middle East. The CPA denounces the bombing of Syria by Harper and Trudeau but says nothing about the bombing now by Putin. And most of the left and labour movement are likewise maintaining a disquieting silence on the war in Syria.
Part of the reason lies no doubt in the complex and confused situation on the ground in that country, and throughout the Middle East.
In Syria the Assad regime has from the outset responded with brutal repression, displaying no willingness to negotiate with the democratic and popular opposition forces. It has sought to deflect attention from its war by various tactics, including the release from its prisons of Islamic fundamentalists who are now fighting with Daesh, the reactionary Islamic State forces that have been drawn into Syria from Iraq as a result of the civil war.
Iran and now Russia have intervened in support of Assad, while traditional allies of the United States (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, with the obvious sympathy of Israel) have backed the opposition, although for their own reactionary purposes and without providing the opposition forces with the weapons and other material support they so desperately need.
The United States, no friend of Assad but fearing his overthrow will further destabilize the Middle East and jeopardize Israel’s defense, has doled out aid to the opposition as if through an eye-dropper, denying it the necessary anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to ward off the regime’s bombing of the dissident cities.
And most recently it is the aerial bombardment of those cities by Russia’s air force that has saved the Assad regime from what at one point appeared to be imminent collapse. Putin is applying in Syria the same tactic he deployed against Grozny and the Chechen revolt in the late 1990s, seeking to annihilate the civilian population as a whole in the opposition cities, and not just their armed defenders.
Yet despite the complexity of the geopolitical situation in Syria, antiwar forces in some countries have mobilized in opposition to the current bombing and in solidarity with the democratic and popular opposition forces in Syria.
For example, in Paris, a number of coalitions apparently initiated by Syrian exiles and other Middle Eastern expatriates have demonstrated recently. I append below the statement by one such coalition, in which the far-left Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste is participating.
And in Ottawa recently I chanced upon a group of about 100 demonstrators on Parliament Hill waving Canadian and Syrian flags. Almost all of the demonstrators were Syrian Canadians. The demonstration, I was told by the chief marshal, had been hastily organized within their community to call on the Canadian government to protest the bombing of Aleppo and other cities. The demonstrators’ slogans were clear and straightforward: Stop the bombing! End foreign intervention! Trudeau, speak out against Assad’s murderous assault!
Yet some on the left are unwilling to join in such demonstrations, even if they acknowledge the need for an antiwar movement. For example, a recent article in The Bullet, an on-line publication of the Socialist Project, takes issue in particular with “sections of the international left” that seek to build a movement of support to the anti-Assad opposition and opposition to the brutal military assault on it by the regime and its allies, chiefly Putin’s Russia. They are confusing “the act of building a solidarity movement with the act of building an antiwar movement,” the author charges.
For socialists in the imperialist countries, he says, “the main enemy is at home.” In Canada, this means focusing the antiwar movement on Canada’s “drive to war” while presumably putting solidarity with the Syrian people and their democratic popular uprising on the back burner. “[P]rioritizing the fight at home,” he explains, means that “In Canada, the focus should be on ensuring the Liberals do not re[-]engage with airstrikes in Syria. It also means demanding the [Canadian] troops be withdrawn from the Middle East and from the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, while also advocating for more refugees to be taken in and stopping Canada’s escalating arms trade.”
In themselves, these are good demands. But isn’t there something missing? What about the bombing, and the actually existing war that is taking place today in Syria? Surely we can’t remain silent on that.
I sense a reluctance on the part of many activists to condemn Russia’s bombings and its alliance with Assad when Russia itself is the target of NATO encirclement and threats of aggression, especially in Eastern Europe. This is understandable. As the Bullet author notes, political and economic elites in the “West” are waging a campaign to demonize Russia, reflected in hypocritical attacks on some antiwar organizations for not signing on to that campaign. As he says, we must reject the view that Russia is the main enemy on a global scale. Thus it is logical and correct for him to include the demand for Canadian and NATO troop withdrawals from Ukraine and Eastern Europe among the appropriate demands for the antiwar movement of today.
But does that preclude criticism and denunciation of Russia’s bombing and overall counter-revolutionary strategy in Syria? That was the view of one comrade in an email discussion I participated in recently. He expressed his discomfiture at criticism of Russia’s conduct in Syria. “Where Russia is concerned,” he said, we should instead aim our fire at the U.S. and NATO.
This seems an evasion to me. It is not the U.S. or NATO which are bombing the hell out of Aleppo and other dissident cities, it is Assad and his Russian ally. To be sure, Putin's commitment to maintaining the Assad regime is in part motivated as a response to threatening moves by the U.S. and NATO in other regions, especially eastern Europe. But do such maneuvers oblige us to maintain silence on Russia's atrocities in Syria? (As it happens, in Syria the U.S. has been attempting of late to collaborate with Russia and the Assad regime in efforts to rout its Islamist fundamentalist opponents. There is no reason to think that a Trump presidency will lessen that orientation.)
I think there is a further reason for the reluctance of many on the left to criticize Russia’s intervention in Syria. We are still adjusting to the changes in the world situation in the wake of the disintegration of the “socialist bloc” and the end of the Cold War that dominated global geopolitics in the latter half of the 20th century. As Phyllis Bennis points out, in reference to the U.S. antiwar movement,
The left is divided. Some support Bashar al-Assad. “A larger cohort wants to ‘win’ the war for the Syrian revolution, the description they give to the post–Arab Spring efforts by Syrian activists to continue protesting the regime’s repression and working for a more democratic future.”
As to those who see Syria as leading an “arc of resistance” in the Middle East, Bennis makes a telling point: this is
The fact is, today’s world differs substantially from that of the Vietnam war. In the 1960s, a military, political and economic bloc led by a dominant imperialist power, the United States, confronted a bloc of states that in one way or another had been torn from the circuits of capital accumulation under Wall Street’s aegis and constituted a vital source of support and even survival for “Third World” liberation movements, as in the case of the Cuban revolution. Today, in the wake of the collapse of the ostensibly “socialist” bloc, we need to pay more attention to the shape of the world that is emerging on a global scale. In a context of declining U.S. hegemony and the emergence of new and nuclear-armed capitalist powers like China and Russia, we must assess what that means for the anti-imperialist fighters of today.
I think it is wrong to approach Syria as just another front in some “new Cold War” between Russia and the U.S. and NATO. Each situation must be assessed in terms of the class forces involved, not some abstract geopolitics that overlooks the interplay of contending imperial interests. In the post-Cold War world, a new era of national and inter-imperialist competition and rivalry, socialists undermine their own credibility if they limit their “anti-imperialism” to denouncing only their “own” imperialism. As Gilbert Achcar argues in the article I cite in note 2, our starting point in this case must be the interests of the Arab revolution, the Arab Spring, and the popular uprising that in Syria erupted almost half a decade ago.
In analyzing these issues, we can draw on the best traditions of the early socialist movement, in particular the internationalist stance taken during the First World War by the revolutionary wing of the socialist movement in Europe: in each of the warring imperialist countries, the socialists had to prioritize opposition to the aggression of their “own” governments and ruling classes, but this antiwar opposition was also an act of supreme solidarity with the antiwar opposition in the opposing “enemy” countries. This approach was exemplified in the Zimmerwald Manifesto, adopted in 1915 at a conference of European socialists. The manifesto was a powerful appeal for “a peace without annexations or war indemnities.” The right of self-determination of peoples, it said, “must be the indestructible principle in the system of national relationships of peoples.”
Some of the Manifesto’s signatories were critical of the Manifesto, however, for failing to link the struggle against war with the struggle for socialism. Lenin, in particular, was insistent that “a revolutionary struggle for socialism is the only way to put an end to the horror of war.” In a pamphlet he drafted on behalf of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, immediately prior to the Zimmerwald conference, Lenin explained that “our attitude towards war is fundamentally different from that of the bourgeois pacifists (supporters and advocates of peace) and of the Anarchists” who were a major influence in the workers movement in many European countries at that time. His thesis is summarized at the very outset of the first chapter: 
These key propositions were in substance adopted in the program of the Communist International in Lenin’s day. See, for example, the Theses on the National and Colonial Question adopted at the Second Congress in 1920. And they served as useful guidelines in assessing the Second World War, a complex combination of five different conflicts: as Ernest Mandel summarized them, (1) an inter-imperialist war fought for world hegemony and won by the United States; (2) a just war of self-defence by the Soviet Union against an imperialist attempt to colonize the country and destroy the achievements of the 1917 Revolution; (3) a just war of the Chinese people against imperialism which would develop into a socialist revolution; (4) a just war of the Asian colonial peoples against the various military powers and for national liberation and sovereignty, which in some cases (e.g. Indochina) spilled over into socialist revolution; and (5) a just war of national liberation fought by populations of the occupied countries of Europe, which would grow into socialist revolution (Yugoslavia and Albania) or open civil war (Greece, North Italy). 
In my view, this approach is relevant to the present situation in Syria: and in particular, the progressive nature of the Syrian masses’ “civil war” directed against their oppression and repression by the Assad regime and by necessary implication the global imperialist system of which it is a component. This struggle is in essence a class struggle, and its success (and the success of the other democratic uprisings in the Arab Spring) is a precondition to the development and ultimate success of the fight for a socialist Arab East.
The challenge posed to us by the global configuration of forces is huge, there is no denying it. But where peoples are fighting their oppression and imperialist intervention, there is no dichotomy between antiwar resistance and solidarity with the forces on the ground. Nor should our solidarity be determined by whether or to what degree the Canadian state is directly involved.
Yes, in Canada we must direct our fire against the Trudeau government’s aggressive moves against Russia and its present and projected military engagements elsewhere, as in Africa.
But we should have no hesitation in attempting to mobilize solidarity with the Syrian democratic and popular opposition — for an end to the war: for an end to the bombing, withdrawal of all foreign troops (in this case mainly Russian), and emergency provision of massive food, medical and other necessary supplies to the population in the besieged cities.
 Bennis is director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ New Internationalism Project and is the author of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.
 See in particular a valuable article by Gilbert Achcar, “Middle East: Standing Against Barbarism,” Jacobin, October 20, 2016. In this regard, I do not endorse Bennis’s distinction, in her article cited above, between the “heroic activists who first challenged Damascus in nonviolent protests in 2011 and who continue to try to survive and build civil society amid war and terror,” whom she supports, and “the militias doing the actual fighting” in desperate defense of their besieged cities, whom she opposes.
 The pamphlet, entitled “Socialism and War,” can be found in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 21, p. 295 et seq.
 Ibid., p. 299.
 Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War (Verso, 1986), p. 45.
The following statement was issued by the Collectif Avec la Révolution Syrienne in advance of a demonstration in Paris November 5 to protest the Assad regime’s siege, supported by Russian fighter jets and bombers, of urban areas in Syria inhabited by civilian opponents of the regime. The full list of members of the collective, which includes about eight organizations including the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, available here. My translation
On October 20, 2016, after a month of mass killings organized by the air forces of Assad and Putin, the population of Aleppo, taking advantage of a truce lasting a few days, came into the streets again. And as they have said since the beginning of the revolution, in 2011, they chanted “the people want the fall of the regime.”
Despite weeks of bombardment, they refused again to leave the besieged city and denounced the population replacement policy orchestrated by Assad in some regions (as in Darayya, or Moaddamya recently).
Against and despite it all, the civilian and armed resistance continues to fight both the Assad regime and Daesh.
After discussing for more than a year with Putin, whose army is massacring civilians in the liberated zones, many diplomats turned up the volume, especially in the United Nations, when Putin and Assad stepped up the massacres in Aleppo.
While the Aleppo bombing is (provisionally?) less intensive now, the bombing of civilian populations in many regions continues.
Furthermore, Eastern Aleppo, like other regions, is still under siege, and more than 251,000 political prisoners are still being mistreated (and often tortured to death).
There are many eyes riveted now on Mosul, Iraq, and on Raqqa, Syria, controlled by Daesh. The international coalition (including France) is intervening there with the proclaimed objective of “eradicating” Daesh. But eradicating Daesh while letting the butcher Assad quietly continue to annihilate the Syrian people; need we recall that more than 90% of the dead civilians in Syria were killed by Assad and not Daesh? Daesh developed with Assad’s complicity and because of the international abandonment of the Syrian people whom Assad has been massacring for five years, amidst the indifference of many.
The best way to put an end to Daesh and the Assad regime is not through foreign intervention but by supporting the people of Syria in their struggle against these two scourges. A people who have demonstrated their great capacity to self-organize.
But the governments of the regional and international powers are above all unwilling to support a people who demand the right to their self-determination, that is, to decide their future themselves without being massacred, whether it be by a Syrian dictator or by the Russian, Iranian, Iraqi armed forces, or by Hezbollah.
So it is necessary to continue demanding an end to all the bombing of the Syrian populations — by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, first, but also by the coalition led by the United States in which France is participating, which provide Russia with an argument to justify its own bombing and which reinforces the jihadist propaganda.
While the major global powers try to impose, via the UN in particular, their view of how the conflict in Syria should be resolved, only the popular and democratic forces are able to bring about a peaceful political solution to the present tragic situation.
From this standpoint, we must support the convergence among all the democratic forces, especially Arabs and Kurds, fighting against the powers that oppress them in Syria and in the other countries of the region.
It is up to the Syrian people to determine their own future and to define the forms of support that seem necessary to them, support that the supposed “friends of Syria” have completely perverted. We must open our borders and welcome in decent conditions the populations that are fleeing the war.
The organizations in the collective With the Syrian Revolution and the Declaration of Damascus for a democratic change, in their diversity and with their own analyses, support the following common basis:
For an immediate halt to all bombing in Syria!
For an immediate end to all the sieges, and immediate freeing of all the political prisoners!
For the departure from Syria of all foreign armed forces!
The demand of the Syrian people for the departure of Assad and the end of his regime, immediately and unconditionally, is legitimate. It will help to shorten the suffering of the population, allow the return of the refugees to their country and build a free and democratic Syria.
Solidarity with the people in struggle against the barbarism of Assad and his allies, against the barbarism of Daesh, for a democratic alternative. It is for the Syrian people and they alone to determine their future and whatever support they think they need, including weapons to defend themselves against the death raining down on them from the skies.
For an international mobilization calling for humanitarian aid and a welcome for the refugees!