by Roger Silverman
The widespread confusion about the respective motives and affiliations of the key players in the Syrian conflict, from the Americans to the Russians to the Turks and the Kurds, is not surprising. Part of the explanation is an entirely misplaced reflex reaction by sections of the left of defence of the Russian gangster regime against US imperialism, an indefensible nostalgic overhang from the Cold War days; but it is also due to the confused and constantly shifting situation itself.
Just as US imperialism at one time supported Saddam Hussein, using him as a surrogate in his war with Iran, and later turned against him and waged full-scale war to destroy his regime; just as it bombed Gaddafi in the 1980s, targeting him personally and branding him the fount of all subversion, then made him its accomplice in the practice of extraordinary rendition, and finally intervened militarily to overthrow him; so too US imperialism has switched eclectically from one zig-zag to another in relation to the Assad regime. Along with Israel, it opposed Assad as an ally of Iran and the godfather of Hezbollah; then it gratefully used his services (along with Gaddafi’s) as a favourite torture rendition agent; then, as in Libya, it exploited the revolt against him; now it is giving him tacit support in the current civil war, largely through its support of the Kurds. And yet in 2012 it was openly preparing to intervene militarily against Assad, and was prevailed upon to draw back only when the British parliament voted against collaborating with it. Now, however, while fearing the enhanced influence of Russia and Iran under Assad’s regime, there is no doubt that the USA is once again tactically supporting him as the best defence against revolution, as well as against the Islamic State.
It is a lazy reflex default position on the left to assume that US imperialism’s prime objective is the removal of Assad, and that all reports of atrocities in the Syrian civil war can be discounted as black propaganda, like Saddam’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction”. Perhaps also some on the left have a vague memory of the sharp turn of Assad senior in the 1970s to state ownership of the entire economy, and are unaware of the current regime’s switch to wholesale privatisation. Finally, the horrific antics of the fascist Islamic State – so much more luridly publicised than the monstrous, virtually genocidal acts of Assad’s bombing campaigns – only helped blur scrutiny of the true nature of the Syrian government.
The question is now raised of whether or not to call for military aid to the Syrian resistance from capitalist governments. This is especially being pressed due to the slaughter being carried out by the forces of Assad and Putin in E. Ghouta.
In one form or another, this is a question that arises repeatedly in all but those rare and brief periods when the proletariat is conscious enough and organised enough to intervene directly on the historical stage.
Of course, it is all too easy to issue pious “Marxist” platitudes from afar while workers are facing extermination. Nevertheless, it does no harm to start by restating first principles. Imperialism, after all, is the problem, not the solution. There have been countless cases of military interventions from outside which may initially have appeared to offer immediate relief to mass suffering, but which actually solved nothing. It has been shown again and again that calls for intervention in local or regional conflicts by world imperialism (whether under the flag of the United Nations or otherwise) have been misplaced. There are several parallels within living memory of military interventions from outside which initially appeared to provide immediate relief to mass suffering, but which solved nothing and often led to more intractable forms of oppression.
When an uprising began on the part of the oppressed Catholic minority in Northern Ireland in 1969, the Catholic population initially welcomed the arrival of British troops, expecting them to rescue them and protect them from Loyalist persecution. It didn’t take long before they were bitterly resisting what soon turned out to be a hostile occupying army.
In East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971, when a national uprising was met by genocide at the hands of the Pakistani military, India declared war on Pakistan, alarmed at the threat of destabilisation posed throughout the region by the ensuing guerrilla war. The resulting speedy establishment of Bangladesh was greeted with euphoria. But Indian domination soon came to be hated, and there followed an endless succession of coups, uprisings and dictatorships.
In Cyprus in 1974, fascists loyal to the Greek military dictatorship organised a coup and overthrew the Makarios government. AKEL (the CP) pinned their hopes on military intervention by the British (which never materialised) and by the Turks. A week later, the Turks duly invaded, and war broke out. For the last 44 years the island has remained partitioned, and there are still thousands of displaced refugees.
In Cambodia in 1979, the genocidal Pol Pot regime was overthrown by an invading Vietnamese army; this paved the way for a new era of national oppression and two decades of civil war.
Also in 1979, the equally murderous regime of Idi Amin in Uganda was brought to its downfall by an invading Tanzanian army; this too led to years of civil war and the imposition of a succession of dictatorships.
Another example is the Indo-Lanka accord in 1991, an abortive attempt to end the Tamil secessionist civil war in Sri Lanka. An uneasy diplomatic settlement was to be guaranteed by Indian military intervention. This soon turned into a fiasco. Before long the Indian army had turned its guns on the Tamils, a former Indian Prime Minister was assassinated, and Indian troops hurriedly departed in disarray.
So far, US imperialism has shown no inclination to seriously oppose the Assad regime. Suppose it were to
change course and do so? Suppose it were to intervene in East Ghouta? What could we expect? We have only to look at the intervention of US imperialism in Raqqa, where it provided air and artillery support for the Kurds, to help them crush the fascistic Islamic State. There, even within the first couple of days of the attacks, hundreds of civilians were reported killed. Any US imperialist intervention in East Ghouta in any significant scale would have similar results.
In every one of these cases, the aftermath of these interventions – all of them initially supported by some naive left commentators – was coups, civil wars, national oppression, dictatorships, partition, and demoralisation. Many more cases could be quoted of disastrous interventions by apparently “neutral” forces in various flashpoints around the world, among them the most glaring example of all: the massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia, under the very eyes of the United Nations “peacekeepers”.
These arguments may sound glib and facile. No one would advocate telling workers facing oppression or extermination to go meekly to their deaths rather than accept temporary or partial relief at the hands of an imperialist intervention force. The point is that, in all these cases, those forces on the left which fostered illusions in imperialist intervention soon forfeited their claim to political authority.
Revolutionary Mainspring of Syrian Civil War
We know the revolutionary mainspring of the Syrian civil war. The way out of oppression is socialist revolution. This is not an abstraction or a mantra, it is a fact. There are no easy ways out or “practical” half-way alternatives. In all the cases mentioned, those left groups which fostered such illusions were soon discredited.
There are several possible scenarios in which imperialist powers, either independently or collectively through the UN, intervene in local conflicts: in the attempt to avert full-scale war; to reduce the risk of destabilisation threatening crucial strategic supplies; to forestall the danger of revolution. Factors which will certainly not influence them are either pity for the oppressed masses, on the one hand, or appeals from left organisations, on the other.
Can Revolutionaries Passively Stand By?
So can we just stand by and tolerate the bloodshed while contenting ourselves with “mere” socialist propaganda? The answer is simple. Imperialism doesn’t wait for appeals for help. It intervenes for its own purposes – and ultimately to cut across the possibility of the masses taking matters into their own hands.
If in any situation Marxists were strong enough to weigh in the balance of the calculations of imperialism, then by the same token they would also be strong enough to adopt an independent initiative of their own. In that situation, to call for imperialist intervention would be nothing less than a betrayal of their responsibility. Conversely, in situations where Marxists do not have the forces to intervene, then appeals to imperialist powers are not only misleading, they are also futile.
So, the point is that, as revolutionary socialists, we have to continually point to the only force that is capable of resolving the crisis – the working class and their organizations. In a period like this, that seems naive and idealistic. It’s also the only way forward. Anything else turns socialists and any forces paying attention to socialists away from the working class and towards one wing or another of the capitalist class.