Note: We attempted to get this article, plus a shortened version of the same article, published on the DSA blog site as a reply to an article by R.L. Stephens, who is also the editor of that site. So far, the editor has not published it, so we are doing so here.
In the summer of 2017, the US Department of Defense’s Strategic Studies institute published a report called “At Our Own Peril” in which they outlined the global threats facing US capitalism. A central feature of those threats as these strategists for US imperialism saw it, involved both the rise of the Islamic State and the threat of the Arab Spring – tendencies which they say emanate from the Arab world but may “metastasize”.
In other words, these strategists for US capitalism see the crisis in Syria as being at the center of the political crisis of world capitalism. They may be right. That is why it is crucially important that socialists understand the nature of this crisis. Unfortunately, the article written by R.L. Stephens of the DSA NPC gets it wrong on almost every count.
Hafez Assad seizes power
Hafez Assad seized power in a right wing coup against the left wing of the Baath Party in 1970. As did a series of regimes in underdeveloped countries throughout the world, he did carry out a series of steps that moderated the ravages of the “free” market, nationalizing industries and intervening in the market to make basic consumer goods more affordable to Syria’s poor and working class people. He also helped many small farmers gain ownership of their own land. In part, this was possible due to the existence of the Soviet Union. However, with the capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union and under the pressure of the global “free market”, his son Basher Assad reversed these measures. As industries were privatized, Assad and his cronies massively enriched themselves in a process which Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine” graphically describes in other countries. These measures were the order of the day in many of the surrounding countries. Also, Basher continued the brutally repressive regime that his father had instituted.
Arab Spring shakes the world
A revolt shook that part of the world in 2011, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt and later in
Syria. In Syria, the revolt started with a group of teen agers spray painting anti-Assad slogans
on a wall. Assad’s police arrested these teens, tortured them to death and then dumped their
mangled bodies at the doorsteps of their families. That did not deter the revolution there. Assad’s brutality turned thousands of rank and file soldiers against him and a layer of Assad’s officers followed, in order to be able to control the rank and file soldiers.
The response of the Assad regime can best be demonstrated by the slogan of Assad’s “ghost troops”: “Either Assad or we burn the country” was their slogan. This was not just some idle threat. Since that time, there has been some 500,000 people killed and over half the population has been forced out of their homes. According to one estimate It is the Assad regime which is responsible for the deaths of over 90% of the civilians killed. That stands to reason, since it is the regime plus its main backer – the Russian regime – that controls the skies in Syria. Any cursory glance at the photos and video emanating from places like East Ghouta show to what devastating effect they are using their control.
Like much of the left, R.L. Stephens largely pictures the situation as an inter-imperialist rivalry. He also sees the position of US imperialism as being similar to that in Iraq, as being a position of “regime change”. This is entirely mistaken.
“Regime Change” or Assadism without Assad?
The example of Egypt is instructive: When the Arab Spring first arose, the position of the US regime at first was to support Mubarak. Quite quickly, Obama saw Mubarak as being an obstacle to capitalist stability and called for him to step down. In Syria, things were a little more complex but essentially the same. That was why Obama called for Assad to step down, but what he never ever did was in any way call for “regime change”. In other words, similar to in Egypt, what the US regime wanted was “Assadism” without Assad. They never had any intention of carrying out the sort of regime change purge that they carried out in Iraq.
Nor did the US regime ever give serious aid to any rebel force as the article by Schulman and Sloughter, carried in these pages, shows.
Trump supports Assad
By 2014, the US regime had more or less dropped any effort to even institute Assadism without Assad. That was because by then they saw the greater threat as being the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, especially the Islamic State. Michael Karadjis has amply documented this, as for example his article documenting how the US and Jordanian regimes demanded that the Southern Army of the FSA stop fighting Assad.
Obama never explicitly stated his priorities, but Trump has. Even before he came into office, the NY Times (11/11/2016) reported his saying in an interview “that the United States should focus on defeating the Islamic State, and find common ground with the Syrians (i.e. Assad) and their Russian backers.” This position has been repeated since Trump came into office.
U.S. bombings of Syria
And it has been carried out in practice. Like much of the left, Comrade Stephens makes much of the recent US regime’s bombing of Assad’s chemical facilities, just as much of the left did last year following the Assad regime’s sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun. It is ironic that those same people and groups on the left more or less ignore the US air force attack on the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque near al-Jinah on March 16, 2017, just a few weeks before the bombing of the al Shayrat air field. In contrast to the latter, some 40 civilians were killed in the mosque bombing, which was an attack on the Nusra/HTS. While Nusra is not a friend of the revolution, it is attacking the Assad regime. Thus, that US attack effectively was in support of the Assad regime! In the case of the al Shayrat bombing, that attack was coordinated with the Russian regime and, through it, with the Assad regime too. Nobody was killed and that airfield was back up and running within 24 hours. The al-Shayrat bombing was simply for show; it was intended to show the world that Trump and Company are opposed to the use of chemical weapons, while at the same time ensuring that nothing was done to seriously weaken the Assad regime.
We have seen a similar but even more egregious blindness on the part of much of the left more recently. As in the al-Shayrat airfield attack, the recent attack on the Assad regime’s chemical weapons facilities was coordinated with the Russian regime and, through them, with the Assad regime too. It was carried out for the same reasons as the al-Shayrat attack, and is not reported that anybody was killed.
Raqqa: Genuine war crimes ignored
Contrast that with the US regime’s aerial bombardment and shelling of Raqqa. It is estimated that some 200 people were killed in the first several days of that attack. According to the Washington Post (4/19/2018), over 11,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, and they say “it is easier to count the buildings that are still standing than the ones that have been reduced to shattered concrete and twisted reinforced steel.… Raqqa has become nearly unrecognizable to those who try to return and navigate its streets. Public squares are hidden underneath debris, and the tallest residential towers are mere rubble.” The picture that article carries of Raqqa is indistinguishable from photos of Gaza after the Israeli regime attacked it in 2014. If anything, the Raqqa photo is worse.
Why do these war crimes in Raqqa tend to be ignored? The most charitable explanation is that what happened in Raqqa does not fit the common narrative. That’s because the US regime’s attack on Raqqa was not an attack on the Assad regime; it was in fact in indirect support of that regime. The attack was carried out against the home base of the Islamic State in Syria; it was carried out for the US regime’s allies – the Kurds – to take over there. But the Kurdish forces have been operating with a de facto truce ( See this article among others) with the Assad regime for many years now!
Reality: A revolution from below
But all of this is somewhat beside the point. The main point is this: What happened in Syria in 2011 was a revolution from below. That revolution met with a counter revolution, just as all such revolutions do. The counter revolution took two main paths. One was that of the Assad regime and its backers – the reactionary regimes of Putin and Rouhani. The other main path was the reactionary forces of the Islamic State. (It should be mentioned that Assad himself encouraged the growth of the Islamic state. As the book “Burning Country” among others points out, shortly after the start of the Syrian revolution, he famously released from prison some 1,000 or more violent salafists. They formed the basis for the nucleus of the Islamic State in Syria.) US imperialism has played a slightly more complex but also a secondary role in Syria. While it first called for Assad to step down (Assadism without Assad), it never really seriously acted on that call. It gave moderate support to elements of the Free Syrian Army, but as the case of the Southern Army shows, it used that “support” to prohibit the FSA from really attacking Assad’s forces. Today, its overwhelming focus is on destroying the Islamic State.
Assad, Putin & Rouhani the main criminals in Syria
Comrade Stephens raises the role of other imperialist forces, including those of the Putin regime. However, an equivalence is drawn between those forces and the forces of US imperialism. That is a serious mistake. It is the Russian forces who, together with those of Assad himself, who have caused the majority of the damage due to their bombing campaigns. It is they who have been bombing hospitals, schools, residential neighborhoods and public markets throughout the country, rather than in just one city (Raqqa). It is the Assad regime that is carrying out mass imprisonment and widespread torture and execution of political dissidents. In addition, as Leila al Shami, co-author of “Burning Country”, among others points out, there is presently a program of ethnic cleansing being carried out throughout Syria by the Assad regime and also by the Iranian regime. These are the principle actors in Syria.
As do some others, Stephens refers to the 2,000 US troops in Syria. However, those troops are not there to conduct “regime change”; they are there to defend the PYD in North East Syria and to oppose the Islamic State. Trump made that perfectly clear when he recently called for their withdrawal, which call was based on his belief that the IS had been defeated. He was quickly corrected by his military advisors, who believe that if the US troops leave that part of Syria, that the IS will make a comeback.
Perspective for Syria
This raises the question of perspectives for Syria: With the militarization of the popular revolution from below, and with the forces opposed to Assad largely defeated militarily, what does the future hold for Syria and for Syrians? One possibility is that Syria will be divided up into different regions of imperialist influence. One region may come under the influence of Iranian sub-imperialism; another – that of the PYD – under US imperialism; and the rest under the control of the Assad regime and their sponsor, Russian imperialism. As for the 5 million plus Syrian refugees living outside Syria, it seems they will remain permanent refugees at least for the present. That is because as al Shami among others reports, if they return they are greeted with suspicion and often with arrest by the Assad regime. And anyway, where will they return to since the Assad regime (and also the Iranian one) is tending to resettle regime loyalists in the homes of these refugees. So, at least for the moment, they will live as do the millions of Palestinian refugees in semi-permanent refugee camps. Except that the conditions for the Syrian refugees are often even worse.
What forces remain of the original revolution? Here in the United States, it’s impossible for us to really know. But there must be some; as recently as January of this year there were reports of protests against both the Assad regime and the Islamic State in several different cities not under regime control.
International working class solidarity
Socialists in the United States should be guided by the principle of international working class solidarity. First and foremost, we should be countering the disinformation campaign such as carried out by the Putin mouthpiece, RT.com, and repeated by many on the left here. This campaign pretends that what is happening in Syria is all a matter of US imperialist inspired “regime change”; that it is simply a replay of what US imperialism did in Iraq. In fact it originated as a revolution from below, and socialists should be orienting towards that revolution; we should start with that. Anything less than full support for the Syrian revolution, any tendency to ignore the massive crimes against humanity carried out mainly by the Assad, Putin and Rouhani regimes, will inevitably be correctly seen by the Syrians themselves as implicit support for one of the most brutal dictatorships of the present era, a dictatorship whose methods have been correctly likened to those of fascism. (In that regard, it is no accident that within the Assad administration is the outright fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Nor is it any accident that fascists and semi-fascists around the world support Assad. That includes former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Russian fascist Aleksander Dugin, Marine le Pen of France’s National Front, and the British National Party.) We should also be pointing out the massive US war crimes in Raqqa as well as the real role of US capitalism in Syria, which is opposition to the Syrian revolution.
Alliance of Middle East Socialists
Instead of implicitly supporting the Assad regime by ignoring its crimes, we should be following the example of the Alliance of Middle East Socialists (AMES): As we know, there have been protests and strikes in Iran against that tyrannical regime. AMES is calling on the Iranian workers to connect their struggles with that of the Syrian revolution. That is what we should be doing here in the US regarding our own working class. In addition, we should be calling for the US to admit many thousands of Syrian refugees into this country.
As events show, US capitalism actually supports the Assad regime as the lesser evil compared to either the Islamic State or, even worse (in their thinking), a popular revolution. That is true for both of the main capitalist political parties – the Republicans and the Democrats. Therefore, the campaign to support the Syrian revolution is connected with the campaign to build a mass working class political party here in the US.
Support the Syrian Revolution!
In other words, which side should socialists be on today – the side of the Syrian revolution or of the counter revolution? The question answers itself.
This piece was written before Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. That withdrawal means a possible military assault on Iran. It was also written before the Israeli murders of protesters in Gaza. With or without a US assault on Iran, a new peace movement, a movement against US imperialism, is likely to develop on a wider scale in the US. That makes a clear understanding of what is really happening in Syria and the real role of US imperialism in Syria all the more important. It is hoped that this article will contribute to that understanding.
Note: for those who are interested in further reading from this point of view, we recommend the following:
- This piece puts the war in Syria and the role of capitalism in the former colonial world in its historical/theoretical context. It explains why capitalism in countries like Syria cannot accomplish what it did in the developed capitalist world.
- This pamphlet explains how and why so much of the “peace movement” in the United States has come to develop politics that overlap the politics of the far right, including outright fascist groups. It puts this development in the context of the return to capitalism in Russia.