What Revolution?.. #Syria

Never has there been so much talk of revolutions without anything revolutionary actually taking place. Ikhras

I liked saying what we said before, to keep our distance from these ‘movements’ so celebrated by opinion: ‘Not everything which moves is red’. In the serenity of the concept, let us say that not everything that changes is an event, and that surprise, speed, and disorder can be mere simulacra of the event, and not its promise of truth.
Philosophy and the ‘Death of Communism’ by Alain Badiou

In the midst of the intensifying assault on Syria, the blood stained humanitarians of liberalism are again to be heard everywhere, dominating the discussion with their noise, if not their persuasiveness. The blunders and crimes of these hypocrites are a familiar topic. After all, rejecting the apostasy of the Euston Manifesto is how a substantial segment of First World radicalism has defined itself in the wake of the “War on Terror”. Less discussed, however, is the behavior of groups within the broad coalition of the anti-war left that consider themselves to be hostile toward liberal imperialists yet concede many of their central premises, and that act as ideological disciplinarians against those who propose a more wholesale rejection of the forces destroying Syria or solidarity with those attempting to defend it. The anti-anti-imperialist left accuses its opponents of being pro-Assad stooges, of being blinded by myopic hatred of the United States into forgetting what really matters. In the name of a crude realpolitik, they claim,brothers and sisters in the common struggle are being slandered and sold out by the craven useful idiots of totalitarianism. Military intervention must be rejected out of hand, naturally, but only because it will frustrate the real revolution that is going on parallel to the confrontation between the US bloc and Syria.

Such anti-anti-imperialists presume something that must be proved, namely that there is indeed an ongoing revolution in Syria that holds claims to our solidarity. This presumption is itself based on a rose-tinted view of the turmoil in Syria (both in its present manifestation and in its 2011 origins); the denial or downplaying of the long counter-revolutionary regional project of the US bloc; neglecting to learn from the ongoing experience of the national liberation struggle of the Kurds; and finally, misunderstanding or denigrating the role of the Jabhit al Mumana’a (Resistance axis) in MENA. The consequence of the anti-anti-imperialist interpretation is that actual revolutionary tendencies in MENA are erased in favor of “revolutionaries” who have no aims that are not compatible with the capitalist-imperialist order. The anti-war discourse of the left is thereby weakened as it is forced from a partisan stand in a concrete struggle to an abstract moralism that attempts to defend something that simply not there.

What a Revolution is Not

First, some semantics: The very ambiguity of the word “revolution” confuses many arguments. If we understand revolutions as simply any attempts to overthrow the status quo, and preventing a government from ruling in the old way, then the events in Syria are indeed a revolution. But defenders of the Syrian Revolution are not only asking their audience to recognize the social strife as real in this trivial sense. They are claiming that such violence is a revolution in the normative sense of the word: that it is part of a movement advancing the cause of human emancipation. Otherwise, there would be nothing of value to defend in the first place from either the liberal imperialists or Assad. To support their case, we hear these clichés:

“It has broad majority support”: If this is the condition, then the Syrian Revolution fails automatically (but then it’s in good company, given that almost all recognised historical revolutions lacked clear support from the majority of the population). Estimates of the size of the armed opposition at present range from 14,000 to 30,000 (including foreign fighters): at best, this is one in 1300 of Syria’s 22.5 million inhabitants, or .0062% of the population.This presumes, as we must, given the argument being made by the anti-anti-imperialists, that these fighters are at all representative of the 2011 demonstrators. It is a doubtful presumption, considering that the protesters had many different aims, some of which were only reformist in nature, and that many now at least grudgingly accept the regime. One could say: “But in the silence of their hearts, the majority want revolution; and not just any revolution but this revolution.” But if so, we must wait for someone to find a method to register this invisible consensus. Until then, this claim is a non-winner for the advocates of the Syrian opposition.

“It is a response to exploitation and tyranny”: This sounds very pleasant and progressive, until one considers simply that not all responses are equal. After all, the Gordon Riots, for example, were both plebeian and anti-elitist in character, yet do not deserve our support as they were an anti-Catholic pogrom. The broader phenomenon of fascism both draws its political support from the depredations of, and massively expands, the inequalities and crises of capitalism and the bourgeois state. And one should be leery, in the first place, of rushing to judgment about who is the “tyrant” in a specific context just because the apparent underdogs identify one for us. Crude calls for support of rebellion against a “dictatorship” have a dark history: if those who died at the hands of UNITA, the Contras, and the Afghan Mujahedeen are to be accorded any respect at all, then we must not repeat this blunder yet again. We must recognize that using the discourse of liberty to mobilize against nationalist and progressive governments is a historically familiar tactic of imperialism’s proxy groups, and it is one that rises in importance whenever direct intervention has been (temporarily) discredited.

“It advances Democracy”: As it was throughout the Cold War, the response here should be “Democracy for whom?” “Democracy” has never been a univocal concept; and as a word, it has surely by now been degraded by so many reactionary projects, such as U.S. imperialism itself and the various middle class comprador movements that have furthered its purposes through coups and color revolutions. It is not the nominal political form aspired to, but the social goods that are being sought, that should weigh our evaluations of those who use such rhetoric.

Or to use the words of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in their document, The Project of the Democratic Self-Governance in Western Kurdistan:

Democracy is a term that is used today by all socio-political powers, including the regime and the opposition. On the other hand, the capitalist powers intervene in the affairs of the region under the slogan ‘bringing democracy to the region’. Therefore, the correct identification of the essence of democracy – both in terms of ideology and principles – is essential for the proper Implementation of the democratization process.

In the specific case of Syria, there is the real possibility that the endgame of rebel “victory” would not be a democracy of even the most degraded bourgeois type, but national fragmentation into Salafite “emirates”, warlord fiefdoms, and U.N. peacekeeping zones.

“It is an expression of the self determination of the [ ] people”: Unqualified invocation of self-determination is an extremely ambiguous criterion. The people of any given country are constituted by many differing political projects, each of which has differing ideas of what the “nation” should be: some Venezuelans want their country to be socialist, others capitalist; some Americans want a Christian nation, others a secular one, and so on. To say that one expression of self-determination is “authentic” and the other false, is either an arbitrary exercise of intuition regarding the “will of the People”, or it is an implied argument for the real or possible value of one project over another. By itself, this criterion is inadequate.

It should be remarked that the fervor of those who use this line of reasoning has lead to some paradoxical formulations:

The Syrian revolution is a revolution that began as a struggle for self-determination. The Syrian people demanded to determine their own destiny. And, for more than two years, against all odds, and in the face of massive repression and destruction from the Assad regime, they persevered….

…I don’t care about sovereignty. Syria has become a land for everyone but Syrians nowadays. The myth of Syrian sovereignty is not why I oppose Western intervention. Neither is the prospect of the destruction of Syria, for it has already been destroyed by this criminal regime. I oppose Western intervention because it will work against the struggle for self-determination, that is, against the Syrian revolution.

The line that “Syria has become a land for everyone but Syrians” suggests that there is a homogenous Syrian people who are being cheated of their country, and denies the reality of the conflict as a civil war between Syrians of conflicting politics. The author appears to deal with this real lack of homogeneity by subtly suggesting that the pro-government factions, which just happen to include a majority of Syria’s religious minorities, are in fact not Syrian at all – unlike the predominantly Sunni opposition – preserving by this sleight of hand the unity of the Syrian people as a revolutionary subject. This is then followed by the cavalier suggestion that this heroic self-determination of Syria will survive the death of Syria itself. But who then is the “self” that is doing the determining?

Let us propose, for now, that what constitutes a revolution is not the existence of a situation in which there has been a breakdown of the status quo, nor the mere presentation of just any demands by a certain number of people however large or well intentioned. Neither is it the expression of the mysterious, metaphysical will of The People or The Nation. Rather, revolution is the disruptive intrusion into an opening in the status quo, by means of politicized human agents, of a program which advances the rectification of structural injustice, and enables forms of human flourishing which did not previously exist in the intervened-upon situation. It may be from below or from above, from assemblies of citizens or institutions of the state, from civil disobedience, or from a war of liberation. All that matters is:

That the guiding ideas have a positive emancipatory content (even if they are negative in their form). That they push for the side of the oppressed within any given historical contradiction, and do not collude with that of the oppressors. Such ideas do not obscure, but clarify, the historical problems that are to be faced, and what is to be done.

That the concrete means to accomplish these ideas exist.

That there are active militants to serve as the operators in the tortuous dialectic between the ideas and the concrete means.

If Syria were presently a revolution, it would not matter if the “nation” or “majority” approved, or if “democracy” were the watchword or not, as long as these three conditions were satisfied. However, examining the groups involved suggests they are not.

There is No Syrian Revolution

We will begin by looking at the main factions within the opposition and establishing:

A) if any have revolutionary aims

B) by what means they propose to or are achieving these aims, and

C) whether they are agents of influence in the present stage of the process, or mere accessories to another group’s project

First, let’s examine the civilian groups:

National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, aka the Syrian National Council (SNC)

The SNC consists of fractious shifting cabals of religious sectarians, Western-based expatriates, cronies of the Gulf, “leftist” collaborators, and liberal technocrats whose authority is not much respected by the rebels on the ground, or even by its foreign patrons. How many of these “democrats” would actually win an election within their own country is an open proposition, unable as they are to keep a stable and legitimate consensus even amongst themselves. The political principles underlying their constant horse-trading and internal conspiracies are meager indeed. They range from the all too conveniently vague (“a civic democratic Syria”) to ones (“Absolute national sovereignty and independence for Syria”) which their organization, premised on the courting of the U.S. axis, makes impossible. There are no set assurances for women, oppressed nationalities, or religious minorities either: such things can be granted, denied, or negotiated away later. Not that one should put much trust to begin with in any opportunistic assurances about human rights, freedom, and pluralism coming from a group that counts obscurantist royalist regimes and the racist Yankee empire for its allies. Further, there is no economic program offered for the workers and peasants of Syria, unless you count the implied one that would be acceptable to a group groomed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States throughout its existence. Nothing revolutionary could come from such an entity. In fact, nothing much at all will come of it, without a U.S. led regime change.

You would of course be hard pressed to find anyone within the section of the left being critiqued here who would say the SNC is revolutionary. But emphasizing the reactionary nature of the SNC is necessary, because, as we shall see, this has implications for the evaluation of some of the other major groups.

The Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs)

The LCCs began as decentralized networks of activists in the first year of the revolt in Syria, who seemed to have over time formed some type of co-operative unity, at least as far as their sponsors are concerned. Laying to the side, for the moment, what these circles actually were or could have been in 2011, the first thing that must be observed now is that this organization’s publicly available documents present a vague ideology of “revolution”, “liberty”,
“unity”, whose aim is “building a state for all Syrians” for the “Syrian people are one” (but who is to be considered a “Syrian” remains unclear). Into such wooly phrases, the agenda of neo-liberals or the PR savvy contemporary Syrian Muslim Brotherhood could be filled much more easily than any bona-fide revolutionary agenda. The LCCs, presumably, leave filling in the details of the political line of the movement to those that carry the gun, and to the official foreign based opposition, the SNC, to whom they profess loyalty as members. Considering the recognized nature of the latter body, this fact alone should disqualify them from being counted as a revolutionary force.

Some western commentators point to the existence of the LCCs as a sign of a quiet revolution that is building up the basis for a post-Assad society. This confuses the maintaining of a skeleton of the former administrative apparatus and the handing out of humanitarian aid with societal transformation. Construction of a “dual power” is impossible without a genuine alternative political vision, which, as we just observed, is conspicuously absent from the LCCs. Much of the activities of these groups can be summed up as people trying their best to aid each other in times of civil breakdown, out of a sense of mutual aid that is natural to humans living in society. Such makeshift altruism is common in wars and other general calamities. But that does not mean these ad hoc arrangements that are dictated by survival are advancing a lasting political alternative. Rather, they are keeping a modicum of livability in the interim before their side, or anyone’s side, wins the political-military battle.

They are said to be at least non-violent, which is true, in the sense they are not a military organization. But this does not mean they are neutrally working as a separate organization from the opposition fighters. Insofar as they still effectively exist in the ground, they act as civilian auxiliaries and propagandists for the so called “FSA”. Their report for September 2 is typical: A large part of it is a description of the multiple attacks led by opposition fighters, accompanied by videos allegedly showing rebels taking on regime artillery positions, attacking Hezbollah, and downing government warplanes.

Doreen Khoury of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs confirms this in piece entitled Losing the Syrian Grassroots when, after observing that the LCCs as a whole have much declined in importance with the intensification of the conflict, she talks about the successful ones:

However, there are numerous examples across Syria of successful cooperation between the civilian and armed opposition. In Idlib, Deraa and Kafrnabel, LCCs and local councils have remained strong; despite the presence of armed groups. In Kabboun, activists have said that there is a clear division of responsibilities between the LCC (media outreach, political activism), the local administration council (municipal services and local judiciary), and the local FSA division (security, aid and resource distribution on behalf of the local council)

Lina Zouhour, a sympathetic observer of the LCCs as a “revolutionary” body, confirms this trend towards integration, while trying to place a positive spin on it:

Acting as the guardian of the uprising, the non-violent movement is willy-nilly learning to coexist with the armed movement. Activists continue to act through the distribution of humanitarian aid and the organization of awareness campaigns, with the hope that they will reap the fruit of their labor in the long run.

The fate of the peaceful activists is thus tied to that of the armed opposition (see below). One cannot be in solidarity with the cause of the one without also siding with the cause of the other.

Finally, the most damning fact against the LCCs (besides their endorsement of the SNC) is found by following the money trail: the LCCs receive funding from The Office for Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS), a creature of the State Department and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as the U.S. founded “Friends of Syria” group. In fact the OSOS seeks to provide training to “activists” in how to be the next “governing class” in post-Assad Syria. In addition, there are several private Western donor groups with paternalistic names like “Adopt a Revolution” sending money to the LCCs. This is where at least part of the sources for the “humanitarian aid” they distribute in the areas they help administer with the “FSA” ultimately comes from. Thus, the LCCs act as conduits for material support to armed rebels by the U.S. axis. They are not some independent, civilizing force working among the domestic combatants; they are a humanitarian cloak for the influence of Washington, Downing Street, and Riyadh.

National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB, sometimes called the NCC)

One of the genuine political (as opposed to the many human) tragedies of the conflict, was that this left-leaning, secular, home-grown, and anti-imperialist coalition that was even inclusive of Kurdish national aspirations (the PYD is officially a member) has been sidelined, having long been left behind by the escalating military logic of the uprising. The opposition and the regime alike distrusted the NCB for being too soft on their respective enemies, and so they ultimately disappeared from view, though not existence. They survive on the interstices of the conflict, without an army or allies willing to lend them one, pleading and castigating the various parties for their crimes and betrayals. Their own position is thus contradictory: They call for non-violence and oppose intervention, but yet they also consider the “FSA” a component of the revolution, while hoping that the Syrian Arab Army will step up to save the country from both the regime and disintegration . They want the foreign Salafists out for destroying the nation; they also want Hezbollah out, who is combating these Salafist factions. They, like certain Western leftists they resemble, wanted a speedy revolution in one country, and were wrecked on the rock of international realities. The neither/nor conclusions that the NCB has eventually reached from its premises are arguably flawed, but show an admirable integrity, have been paid for in suffering, and when peace comes, from the hand of others, its scattered members will hopefully find some role to play. At the very least, they have reached their position by taking part of the historical process, not as observers. Significantly, few if any of the western leftists in question talk about them anymore, thought they were used for a time to cover for the uglier elements of the opposition.

If there is a only a weak progressive faction among all the civilian factions, and all of them have little control of the realities of the ground, what about the armed elements? Are there revolutionaries among these armies without parties?

The Free Syrian Army (FSA)

There is no real organization called the FSA. There is no political charter, manifesto or constitution that one can examine, criticize, or even praise. As Swedish journalist Aron Lundputs it:

Media reporting has consistently focused on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the FSA has always been more of a brand name than an actual organization. Their widespread use of the FSA brand gave the impression of a unified movement, but no nationwide FSA structure was ever created to match the name.

As a popular franchise name, the “FSA” has proven useful for some commentators who seek to draw a hard distinction between the “legitimate” freedom fighter and “non-legitimate” jihadists who are not “really’ part of the alleged revolution. But in truth, what does not exist as a coherent political body cannot be said to be anything, either way.

The General Staff of the Military and Revolutionary Forces (SMC)
General Salim Idris of the SMC with Senator John Mccain and Razan Shalab AlSham of theSETF

The SMC was an attempt to gain some semblance of reality to the FSA, and it does have a structure of sorts. On the surface, it’s a military central command, but this is a deceptive appearance. Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Salim Idris has little control over the organization of the fighting, or the mounting warlordism of the individual commanders. The SMC’s less nominal function is to dispense weapons and funds provided by the Gulf, with the coordinating help of the CIA in the name of the SNC, to the individual brigades on condition of supporting the goals (such as they are) of the SNC itself and refraining from allying with the less savory of the Islamist groups, which is an often ignored counsel. In this way, a diffuse control over the many brigades is established. Considering the nature of its source of funds, its open call forWestern intervention, and its efforts to facilitate such an intervention, we can safely deny that the SMC is in fact a revolutionary body.

The Syria Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), The Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, Durou al-Thawra Commission, etc

These are just a few names from a constantly splitting collection of armed groups with a “moderate” Islamist ideology who are counted within the pale of the Syrian opposition mainstream. What “moderate” would mean here is unclear, particularly since many of these groups include Salafists (the secretary general of SILF, for example, is Zahran Alloush, is a Salafist). The rhetoric of their manifestos is ominously thin: Note that this founding SILF document promises only “protection”(not even “civic” equality), to the diverse peoples within Syria (not too consoling if you happen to not be an Arab and/or Sunni). Many derive funding from the Gulf kingdoms or Ankara. Further, the largest have joined the SMC, tying their wagon to its success and ultimately that of the SNC.

Unless the defenders of the revolutionary character of the Syrian rebellion would wish to assert that Jabhat al-Nusra,Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar and other hardline Sunni sectarian jihadist groups (who are also the effective military vanguard of the opposition), or the many free-lance groups who are more brigands than anything else, are revolutionary, no further discussion is needed. If the civilian opposition had hapless progressives cut off from the live process of the conflict, the armed opposition is all too much a part of the conflict, and its governing “ideals” are differing mixtures of religious sectarianism and subordination to imperialism.
Side Note: Mercenary Abstractions

Why does the opposition prefer to use such generic language and avoid definite programs? Because it pays. If the LCCs, for example, committed themselves to a clear program against capitalists and landlords, how would they attract funding from Gulf donors? How could the SMC aligned units hope to convince the US State Department to arm them if they made struggle for the liberation of Palestine part of their regional vision? Consider the fate of contemporary movements whose theory and praxis are overtly red, like the Naxalites of India or the FARC of Colombia. They make capitalism and imperialism an issue, and thus must fight under conditions of extreme international isolation. Similarly, only the documents of the Kurdish PYD that lay out their somewhat inconvenient aims read like bona fide political documents, without the vacuous and infantilized style preferred by other opposition groups. The PYD, in turn, is the most invisible force in Western representations of the upheaval in Syria. “Perhaps the Syrian rebels are just trying to be practical”, some may argue. But to say one must sometimes have to be practical implies that you have identifiable convictions to begin with. The evidence that there is more than is being advertised among these groups does not exist.

The Outcast Kurdish Revolution

Despite all this, there is, in fact, revolution in Syria: It is the one occurring in Western Kurdistan. The PKK-affiliated PYD with its de facto armed wing, the Popular Protection Units, (YPG) has taken advantage of the weakness of the regime to successful liberate virtually all of Syrian Kurdistan and created what is effectively an autonomous zone, which it has begun to administer with their (unarmed) junior partners, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), furthering the emancipation of their community from a system that has long denied them recognition and equality. They will have a solid position in any final political settlement, barring an outright victory by imperialism and/or the takfiri. More will be said about the significance of their struggle. For now, it only needs to be observed that their revolution, though it began as one part of the larger uprising, stands apart from it. Ideologically, this is shown in their unambiguous commitment to secularism; their insistence on social, not merely civic, equality; their open commitment to the advancement of women; and their hostility towards imperialism and its agents. The other reason for this distinctiveness from the rest of the armed and civilian opposition movement is the PYD’s practical isolation; partly because of the Kurds own priorities, partly because of the hostility of their supposed Arab brothers-in-arms. Both the “FSA” and the Jihadists have violently terrorized and de-legitimized the PYD administration in the Syrian autonomous zone as Kurdish “shabiha” and as ethnic separatists who cannot be tolerated. And as is to be expected, the civilian “leadership” in exile, with their own chauvinist prejudices and concerns with positioning themselves to foreign powers, has no time for their cause. (Considering the clout of Turkey within those circles, and the treatment of the PKK mother organization as terrorists by the West, this is inevitable). Like the NBC faction, they are often conflated by pseudo-anti-imperialist leftists with the rest of the opposition forces in order to inflate the moral weight the rebels as a whole.
The Beginning was Never as Innocent as It is Now Remembered

Looking from this dismal perspective, some among the left critics of robust anti-imperialism may say: “You forget about those early months of 2011. Perhaps there is no revolution now, but there was one then, before it was broken under military repression.” By seeking to invoke the general optimism of that year, to imply that they themselves, at least, are faithful to the legacy of emancipation, while their opponents are accused of colluding with the cynical tactics of an oppressive regime. The purity of the event remains, though history has buried it under cycles of violence. But there are no innocent beginnings in politics, and cynical tactics are not the monopoly of the Syrian Baath.

In those optimistic early months, there were certainly activists who decried the movement towards liberalization of economic policy of the regime, minorities who were seeking justice, and pauperized refugees from the drought-ridden regions of the country who marched for reform and democratization in the social as well as the formal sense of the words. From the beginning though, there were also religious sectarians; those who thought economic liberalization had not gone far enough; and compradors “who were tired of the regime’s radical foreign policy rhetoric, which isolated Syria and made it difficult to travel or connect with other people.” Among and between both these two broad camps, the camp of potential revolution and the camp of potential counter-revolution, one could find that most politically visible, and ambiguous, of demographics: educated middle class youths with frustrated professional ambitions.

In background of this vulnerable incoherence struggling to define itself, existing even before the first demonstrations were held or the first shots were fired in 2011, was the reality of foreign subversion that had prepared the grounds for an opposition moldable to its priorities:

The files show that up to $6.3 million US was funneled to the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based dissident organization that operates the Barada TV satellite channel, which broadcasts anti-government news into Syria. Another $6 million went to support a variety of initiatives, including training for journalists and activists, between 2006 and 2010.

Asked point-blank by reporters whether the United States is funding Syrian opposition groups, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news conference Monday, “We are — we’re working with a variety of civil society actors in Syria with the goal here of strengthening freedom of expression.”

How many of those Syrians who demonstrated, who ran LCCs, and who provided gruesome reports of atrocities to the international press in the first crucial months were groomed by such State Department funded “civil society actors”? We cannot know for sure, but knowing that there was indeed American involvement in certain activist circles prior to the eruption should give us pause before taking the spontaneity or political rectitude of the uprising in 2011 at face value. Even if we discount entirely any reports of violence in the early months, this would not mean they were acting with the best intentions. Non-violence itself can be utilized into a strategy of provocation and imperialist subversion.

As the pro-war T.V. “journalist” Clarissa Ward, who won a Peabody award for her reporting work among the Syrian rebels, explained to her peers in April on Face the Nation when asked why the “ordinary Syrian people” were “disenchanted” with the United States:

WARD:…When people first took to the streets in those peaceful demonstrations, there was a calculation — a few of us maybe will die, but then the U.S. will step in and help us. And nobody, nobody believed for a second — so they were willing to die in the beginning.

GERGEN: It reminds me– to go back in history — Hungary in 1956. They thought we would come in. They went into the streets. We didn’t go.

NOONAN: Czechoslovakia in ’68. Some of them thought we would come in. They got slaughtered.

The witless ideologues of the ruling classes understand, casually, without irony, what so many radicals continually refuse to understand: (1) Protests do not occur in a vacuum, but within the global context of imperialism; and (2) savvy demonstrators know this. If the activists’ agendas are reactionary, they still know who to call, who to send the videos to, what stories to weave, what buzzwords to include, etc. Such Contras without guns know the value of a provocative act just as well as those who deal in bullets and bombs. They know that turning their bodies into testimony (to the cameras, preferably) for the cause by risking injury and death provides the necessary material for the media theatre of supplication and salvation. Imperialism must have victims to rescue, after all.

Not that the one was required to be corporeally in Syria (or even from Syria) to further the revolution through “activism”:

In Egypt there was a grassroots movement, but there was also a very significant Facebook, Twitter movement that galvanized international support and that helped to organize demonstrations against the army and against the state, and the army stood aside. In Syria this has been driven to a large extent by people in Washington, in London, using Facebook, Twitter, so forth. A lot of the Twitterers have been from Egypt. And they are driving this agenda and trying to keep the winds of change moving across the Middle East into Syria.

And we can be sure that some of those people were not merely politically conscious privatecitizens.

Not only was the U.S. interested in fostering activists to serve as the unarmed foot soldiers for regime change: it was interested, long before 2011, in creating an expatriate political opposition to replace the Baathist state. As was written in a 2007 New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh :

There is evidence that the Administration’s redirection strategy has already benefitted the Brotherhood. The Syrian National Salvation Front is a coalition of opposition groups whose principal members are a faction led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian Vice-President who defected in 2005, and the Brotherhood. A former high-ranking C.I.A. officer told me, “The Americans have provided both political and financial support. The Saudis are taking the lead with financial support, but there is American involvement.” He said that Khaddam, who now lives in Paris, was getting money from Saudi Arabia, with the knowledge of the White House. (In 2005, a delegation of the Front’s members met with officials from the National Security Council, according to press reports.) A former White House official told me that the Saudis had provided members of the Front with travel documents.

Finally, as early as 2007, there was the creation via the Saudis, of armed Sunni sectarian groups in the region whose potential targets included Damascus. As the Middle East think tank expert Vali Nasr explained this development:

Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.

The existence of such jihadist cells goes a long way in explaining the initial murky acts of opposition violence in March-April of 2011: the the killing of 7 police officers by “armed protesters”, along with the torching of a courthouse and a Baathist party headquarters, in the first week of major protests in Daraa, and the assassination of security forces by unknown gunmen in the ensuing weeks as the regime sought to de-escalate the situation with reformsand clemency.

For at least half a decade before the uprising, Washington and its allies were preparing the elements – grassroots activists, a potential interim government, and armed Sunni militants – which would come together in 2011. And note when this unwelcome attention to Syria began: after 2006, the year in which Hezbollah successfully defied Israel during the 34 days war. Far from viewing Damascus as a “friend”, the West wished to eliminate the Syrian government for failing to end its solidarity with resistance factions in the regions and go down the route of Sadat. With Syria out of the way, the encirclement of Iran would be perfected, and a rollback of Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon would be more feasible. Participating in the extraordinary rendition of Sunni extremists (who have always been much more an existential threat to Syria than they have ever been to the United States) was a paltry favor compared to its unforgivable “crime” of membership within the Resistance axis; a relationship that Syria’s moderate economic liberalization in the context of the continued state ownership of the commanding heights of the economy made more, not less, worrying. A Chinese style state-developmentalist path would allow Syria to set the terms of its participation in the market, and maintain, perhaps strengthen, its political sovereignty, including in foreign affairs.

And in fact, from the point of view of the State Department, during the era of liberalization, U.S.-Syria relations “worsened”:

Issues of U.S. concern included the Syrian Government’s failure to prevent Syria from becoming a major transit point for foreign fighters entering Iraq, its refusal to deport from Syria former Saddam Hussein regime elements supporting the insurgency in Iraq, its interference in Lebanese affairs [i.e. Supporting Hezbollah], its protection of the leadership of Palestinian rejectionist groups in Damascus, its human rights record, and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

This is not to say that the Syrian revolt was simply a conspiracy. The Unites States is not omnipotent, nor is it the proximate cause of all social contractions within any given society. What is being asserted is that a spontaneous movement from its beginning was surrounded by premade snares and traps. Imperialism did not need to manufacture out of whole cloth the original political crisis; it just needed to have the networks in place for taking advantage of it. Lacking sufficient political acumen and resources, the (Non-Kurdish) left wing factions soon became trapped in the currents of those who knew what the international community wanted, and had an idea of what attracted their attention.


All of this takes on an even more sinister light by considering the rebel campaign preparing for the 2011 NATO intervention against the Jamahiriya of Libya, with its sensationalist, dishonest,racist propaganda; long cultivated expatriate opposition networks; the involvement of Sunniextremist groups and other armed factions with foreign connections; and a host of non-Libyancyber activists circulating stories of atrocity-patterns emerge. By juxtaposing both rebellions, we notice the similarity in the tactics that, to differing degrees of success, were utilized in both countries during the so called “Arab Spring”, and we can hold a more sober view of what was happening in 2011 within Syria and what its ultimate destination may be.
Yet “Neither Washington nor Damascus” is Still Not the Answer

After it is admitted that the Syrian revolution is a mirage, there still remains, unchallenged, the premise of neither/nor-ism among the beautiful souls of the Occidental left: the confrontation, they say, between Syria and the United States is just the confrontation of two rival ruling classes. To position ourselves with the former is just as bad as positioning ourselves with the latter: “Why should we support Assad, just because he in the sights of the Empire?” And that is how it is often phrased, as “supporting Assad”, tellingly echoing the infantilizing mantras of the pro-war propagandists, as if it what was at stake was the personal character of a particular head of state. Yet such leftists still insist their position is anti-imperialist, and in fact that it is the purest type of anti-imperialism, because it opposes aggression without caring on any level for the governments attacked.

But if there is no reason for caring about the governments and states destroyed by imperialist aggression, it becomes hazy why anyone should oppose imperialism in the first place. If one says we oppose it as a matter of principle, because such behavior is just wrong, then one is open to the charge of ahistorical moralism, tying the hand of action with empty “oughts”. One could say “because of the people that live there.” But while it is undoubtedly the case that many will suffer in an imperialist war, we then end up the same ground as the militant humanitarian, who can point out that people will die if there is no intervention too. This reduces the argument with liberal imperialists into an interminable calculation about whether more people will die than not if the “right to protect” is invoked; a debate which mirrors the way the technocratic policy makers treat the issue among themselves. This line of reason also presents the people as one entity, somehow completely separated from the state they live in. The neat division of state and people is a favored imperialist trope, used so that the interventionists can trample the rights of the former in the name of saving the latter. If we are to escape becoming trapped in the ideological cul-de-sac of the progressive crusaders, this reactionary contempt for states outside the magic circle of the “West” must be combated.

In order to avoid this mess, the material and historical grounds for anti-imperialism, its social content, must be reaffirmed. Any apology, however cogent or indulgent, of the present government in Damascus as a whole is not sufficient for this purpose. For this would be to base opposition to imperialism, and solidarity with its targets, with the contingent, positive features of the government in question, while implicitly saying that if the United States suddenly decided to lay waste to an unsavory erstwhile flunky (say, Saudi Arabia), we would look the other way (or maybe cheer!). Our political line would then truly become a mere shadow of Washington’s shifting caprices, as in the case of Baathist Iraq, where the shameful crimes done by that regime with the encouragement of the United States became an alibi for some leftists to be thankful for its destruction by none other than…the United States.

Who is more at fault: the large multitude of states in the periphery and the semi-periphery who are constantly pressured from all sides to sell their resources, land, sovereignty, and dignity for survival; or the minority of strong predators who are all too willing to buy when they cannot steal? Whose collective rights should be asserted, whose protection ensured, and whose association be encouraged, when the most pressing political choice is between the one or the other ? If we answer the former over the latter, than to not recognize the claims of any one of the states on the geo-political disposition matrix in a confrontation with capitalist imperialism is to perpetuate the system of division which encourages collaboration in the first place. It puts the onus of blame on the weaker parties for the criminality endemic to the system itself.

The states of the Global South must be defended collectively from imperialism, or the moral and legal claims made by any one of them against aggression will be weakened. Every successful regime operation is a violent message from Washington and co to any countries who even think of stepping out line: “Nothing will hold us back if we think your continued existence inconvenient.” If the fall of Syria to aggression can be achieved without impediment or legal scruple, then so can the fall of Iran; if Iran, than Cuba; if Cuba, than Venezuela, and so on. And if we, of the western left, can shrug off one attack as not our affair, because the President of x did y, or because of this or that policy of the government in question, then we cede to our ruling class its contention that rights are for “us” in the “Free world” to grant or take away as we please. When imperial states of exception are allowed to erode the generic force of the hard won norms that affirm national sovereignty and condemn aggression, no one is safe. The declining Western bourgeoisie have made clear their intention to rule the world with an arbitrary supremacy; we, in turn, must pick up and carry forward the flag of international legality which they have lightly thrown in the rubbish heap. Lawless imperialism is not discriminating in its destruction; any politics claiming to oppose it must answer back with a matching firm lack of partiality in the defense of the colonized.

To fully understand why such political-legal principles are worth preserving,it is necessary to come back again and again to their social content. This means that the material and historical grounds for anti-imperialism must be reaffirmed. Only by returning to this foundation can we soberly identify which forces combat empire and which collaborate with it, and shape our political efforts accordingly.