Syria: The Assad regime - a response to Marcel Cartier

By Chris Slee February 10, 2018 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – In a recent article republished on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Marcel Cartier denounces the Turkish invasion of Afrin and calls for solidarity with Rojava:
It is Afrin that has been a beacon of stability in Syria over the course of the war, not only taking in tens of thousands of refugees from elsewhere in the country, but establishing the principles of direct democracy, women’s liberation and ecology in the midst of an otherwise catastrophic and tumultuous period. It is precisely this model of a socialistic, multi-ethnic, feminist canton advocated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that Erdogan’s AKP government sees as ‘terrorism’
I fully agree with Cartier's call for solidarity with the Rojava Revolution, but I disagree with some other points in his article. Cartier rightly condemns the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria for oppressing the Kurds and other ethnic minorities. But he gives the regime undue credit in some other respects. Cartier claims that Assad is popular with a large part of the population. He says:
I do not doubt that the Ba’athist state enjoys considerable support in many areas of Syria. Personally, I know countless Syrians who may have been critical of the state before the war, but who have increasingly sympathised with Bashar al-Assad’s leadership and view his presidency as a stabilising factor. This is particularly true, from my experiences, among Christians from Syria who see the Ba’athist government as a secular and moderate force....
In some parts of Damascus, I am certain that the Ba’athist state may be viewed as the bastion of progressiveness, secularism, and inclusiveness.
I believe this is overstating Assad's popularity. It is true that many Syrians, particularly religious minorities such as the Christians, support Assad as a lesser evil compared to some of the Sunni-sectarian rebel groups. But that does not mean that they regard him as progressive. The lesser evil is still evil. The protests against Assad in 2011 involved people from all religious groups. This unity soon faded in most parts of Syria (Rojava being the main exception). One reason for the rise of religious sectarianism was the role of Turkey and the Gulf states, which began arming and funding reactionary rebel groups. But the Assad regime has also contributed to the growth of sectarian violence, for example by supporting sectarian Alawi militias that have massacred Sunnis. Cartier also gives Assad credit for being anti-imperialist. He says:
It is true that the Syrian Arab state has been part of the so-called ‘resistance axis’ to Zionism and imperialism in the region. Yet, everything has a dual character. The state’s orientation vis-à-vis imperialism may be progressive. It may be anti-colonial. However, it is internal policies have also exhibited a considerable degree of colonialism as far as the Kurds are concerned."
Similarly, he says:
However, the general tendency that I grew to express was more and more toward full solidarity with Syrian Arab state. The problem with this position wasn’t so much the fact that I explained the machinations of imperialism toward a government that defied its diktat in the region, particularly in regards to the colonial settler entity of Israel. The problem also wasn’t that I expressed how the U.S. government’s support for the so-called ‘rebels’ was creating a situation in which Shia, Christian, or even Sunni communities were facing genocidal consequences. It was simply that I was simplifying the narrative, and not giving voice to those who had been the victims of a monolithic Syrian state based on racial and ethnic prejudice for decades.
It is true that Assad has in some ways defied US imperialism, particularly by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon. But in other ways he has at times collaborated with US imperialism – for example by torturing prisoners sent to Syria by the CIA. From the point of view of the US ruling class, Assad is a less than ideal ruler of Syria. He has long been allied with Russia and Iran. The US is hostile to Iran, and views Russia as a rival. No doubt the US would prefer to see a more consistently pro-Western government in power in Syria. When the rebellion started, the US talked of replacing Assad and supplied some aid to the rebels (though not enough for them to win). Since then, however, talk of replacing Assad has largely disappeared. The US, worried by the rise of Islamic State (particularly since the fall of Mosul in 2014), has been focused on fighting ISIS, not on overthrowing Assad. Many former rebels have stopped fighting Assad. One section has joined Turkey's war on Rojava. Another section has joined the Syrian Democratic Forces in fighting against Turkey and ISIS. It appears to me that the US has abandoned the idea of removing Assad in the foreseeable future. One reason is that US-backed regime change does not always produce the desired result. An example is Libya. When the US and its NATO allies bombed Libya in support of anti-Gaddafi rebels, they were hoping to replace Muammar Gaddafi with a stable pro-Western regime. But this has not happened. Libya has two rival governments (three if you count ISIS). Thus the idea of overthrowing Assad appears less attractive to US policymakers than it may have been in the past. When Cartier talks about "the machinations of imperialism towards a government that defied its diktat", he is referring to the actions of the US and its allies. But in my view Russia is now an imperialist power too. Hence when we talk of imperialist intervention in Syria we should include Russia as one of the intervening powers. Because of inter-imperialist rivalry, Russia may intervene in a different way than the US. Russia's military aid to Assad in suppressing the rebels is a form of imperialist intervention. Russia has also intervened diplomatically, by hosting discussions between the Assad regime and Turkey. This has resulted in Turkish troops entering Syrian territory without meeting any opposition from the Syrian armed forces or the Russian air force. First Turkey invaded the Jarabulus area in 2016. Now they are invading Afrin. In both cases there appear to be trade-offs. Turkey has persuaded, pressured or ordered some of the rebel groups it supports to withdraw from the battlefront against Assad and instead fight against the Rojava revolutionaries. This has helped Assad regain control over much of the territory previously held by the rebels.