On June 5, the Ukraine Socialist Solidarity Campaign hosted a very successful meeting (with 40 attending) on Syria, Ukraine, Geopolitics and the working class. Michael Karadjis made an initial presentation, whose text is below. Here is the video of the full meeting.
Good evening, or morning, or whatever it is where you are, thanks very much John for inviting me to speak today.
Now I’m asked to speak on the connection between Syria and Ukraine, and the opposition between a ‘geopolitical’ and a ‘class-struggle’ approach to these issues.
Firstly, I have written a great deal on Syria over the last decade and I feel I have a reasonable level of expertise on issues around the Middle East. My earliest involvement in Palestine solidarity goes back to the early 1980s. On the other hand, I don’t consider myself any great expert on Ukraine, but I have written a couple of pieces since the all-out war began 3 months ago. So I’d like to stress that on the Ukraine issue I’m facilitating a discussion rather than presenting a polished ‘line’.
What connection is there between Syria and Ukraine then? There are two main connections. The most obvious one is the direct involvement of Russian imperialism in both conflicts – a Russia led by Vladimir Putin, the head of the global far-right, fascist and white supremacist movements. Both cases of direct intervention represent the striking out of a new and aggressive imperialist power, determined to cut out its own sphere within a global system already dominated by more traditional imperialist powers, where the main serious rival to US imperialism is not Putin’s fossil-fuel fiefdom, but the infinitely more dynamic new Chinese imperialism.
If Russian imperialism is now challenging in a very “rough” way – ie, via late 19th century style direct conquest imperialism – it is precisely because it does not have the real capitalist dynamism of rising China to actually compete.
In transferring our opposition to Putin’s intervention to prop up the genocide regime of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad to opposition to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, some who agreed with us on Syria have challenged me: just because Russian imperialism is involved in both, does not mean we should automatically be against Russia in Ukraine; we need to look at the actual dynamics at play in Ukraine, and not ignore the violations of the Ukrainian government, in the same way as in Syria, we had to look at the actual dynamics of struggle and the role of the Assad dictatorship, and not simply support Assad because the US is allegedly opposed to his rule (and I stress “allegedly”).
So to begin with I want to stress that I agree in principle with this. In some conflicts US imperialism will be the main one at fault; in some cases it may be Russian imperialism or Chinese imperialism. In some cases a rival imperialist power might provide some backing for a just struggle against a rival imperialist power, for its own reasons. We should always warn against the motivations of such powers – such as the US in supporting Ukraine right now – but this in itself should not prevent us from supporting a struggle which we consider to be just.
So to clarify – I am opposed to Russia’s breathtakingly brutal, violent, illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine because of what it is, not just because it is Putin who I perhaps already hate because of Syria; just as I was opposed to America’s breathtakingly brutal, violent, illegal and unprovoked invasions of countries from Vietnam to Iraq.
And so this is exactly the second connection between Syria and Ukraine – in supporting the Syrian people’s revolutionary uprising against the genocidal tyrant Assad, I had to continually confront what we will call the ‘classless geopolitical viewpoint’. That is, the allegedly left-wing version of the viewpoint that sees countries much like Kissinger does, as chess pieces to be supported or opposed based on whether or not some capitalist regime is supposedly “on the side” or US imperialism or “against” US imperialism. This viewpoint is also often called the ”counter-hegemonic” viewpoint: since US imperialism is hegemonic in the world at present, anything that allegedly blocks or opposes it – whether some local despot or a new and oppositional global imperialist power like Russia – should be supported no matter what they do.
The opposing view is the internationalist class-struggle viewpoint. In this view, we do not ignore the motivations of any of the imperialist powers involved in different ways, but our primary issue at all times must be: what is in the interests of the working classes and popular masses in the particular struggle? What role is a particular ruling-class regime and a particular imperialist backer playing in that struggle? Other stuff is important, but secondary.
The geopolitical viewpoint, by contrast, can land you in hot water as a socialist – supporting the Assad regime, the very embodiment of the Syrian billionaire ruling class, as it used the most violent means on Earth to crush its working classes who rose against it; the Assad regime used its airforce to bomb every town and city in its country, many into oblivion, including the large working-class shantytown areas on the outskirts of its major cities Damascus and Aleppo. Every conceivable form of weaponry bar nuclear was used, from primitive barrel bombs, filled with all kinds of metallic junk that explodes and goes everywhere, to more regular cluster bombs, to ballistic missiles, to chemical weapons. Russia joined in with its airforce, adding greater precision but also greater power – and the greater precision was not used in order to better target military targets and avoid civilians, but actually the opposite – for example, Russian ‘bunker-busters’ were used to bomb underground hospitals which had gone underground precisely in the hope of not being “collateral damage” – for Assad and Russia, hospitals, schools, markets, bakeries and refugee camps were never even officially collateral damage – the aim was to terrorise the civilian population, so they were the actual targets. Meanwhile, the regime employed an industrial scale regime of torture – some 130,000 people have been disappeared or are in the gulag; at least 13,000 have been tortured to death.
If you are an internationalist and support this, or go apologist for this, what is it that you think you are achieving? How did this advance the struggles of the working classes? How did this advance the struggle for human liberation? Of course, there are no answers.
Therefore, the retreat of the classless geopolitical viewpoint is that Assad was opposed by US imperialism and supported by the ‘counter-hegemon’, Russia.
This would be a nonsense argument which only mocks the struggle for human emancipation even if it were true; hopefully we can agree on that. Yet here’s the thing: the geopolitical viewpoint also has no validity whatsoever even on its own terms. It is almost entirely a concoction of nonsense that suggests that those spouting it are still living in fantasies from some 50-60 years ago.
When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, all the US-backed regimes in the region – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar etc – sent messages of strong support to their friend and partner, the Assad regime. Hilary Clinton, Obama’s State Secretary, declared that unlike his father, the junior Assad was a “reformer”, even as his troops machine gunned the earliest peaceful rallies, and children were carted off and their mutilated corpses returned to their parents. Israel from the outset asserted that it preferred the Assad regime, which had kept the annexed Golan “border” quiet for 40 years – to any of its opponents.
However, following 6 months of slaughter, as thousands of Syrians fled across borders, and as a huge popular movement among the largely Sunni Arab population of the region mobilised and radicalised in opposition to Assad’s slaughter, the local regimes began a new tack – trying to coopt the Syrian uprising by providing some support to it, in order to pressure the Assad regime into a more compromising position that would not set the region on fire. First, the soft-Islamist regime of Erdogan in Turkey and its Gulf ally Qatar declared their backing for the uprising and began sending support to Free Syrian Army rebels (ie, the armed people) but also to more Islamist currents associated with the regional Muslim Brotherhood; then Saudi Arabia – a rival of Qatar, and an enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood – also began supporting rival groups to head off Qatar, but also in rivalry with Iran, which had stepped in to support Assad.
Finally, in August, the Obama administration also stated that Assad should “step down.”
However, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey began arming the opposition, the US refused to send arms; Israel remained essentially pro-Assad (as it saw the Muslim Brotherhood as connected to Hamas, and with the post-revolution regime in Egypt also led by the MB, it saw itself surrounded if the rebels took power in Syria). In 2013, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates helped overthrow the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, replacing it with the bloody dictatorship of al-Sisi; right from the start, despite being backed by the Saudis, the US- and Israel-backed Sisi dictatorship declared full solidarity with fellow tyrant Assad in his struggle against “Islamic terrorism.”
Already we can see the problems of trying to find a pro and anti US “camp” here.
For its part, the US sent agents to the Turkish and Jordanian borders from where arms were crossing into Syria to the rebels to ensure that no anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons got to the rebels. The ban on anti-aircraft weapons remained throughout the entire war, and since from mid-2012 Assad was overwhelmingly launching an air war, this US role I would consider the most decisive intervention in aiding the Assad regime maintain power.
In 2014, the US began bombing Syria, in support of the left-wing Kurdish led YPG, the Syrian arm of the PKK, as it defended itself from the onslaught of ISIS, which had crossed over from Iraq. ISIS was against the Assad regime, but it was even more against the anti-Assad rebels, who drove it out of the whole of western Syria in 2014. For the US, the Kurdish YPG – which later expanded into the SDF, Syrian Democratic Forces – was the perfect partner against ISIS, because like the US itself, it only wanted to fight ISIS, and to keep out of the war between Assad and the rebels.
While I would criticise the YPG/SDF on this, nevertheless, I support their own revolution they were making in Kurdistan, and their right to freedom, and certainly to resist ISIS. But what do those who say everything can be determined by geopolitics, that we should support anything opposed to the US, say about the US stepping in to prevent the fall of Kobani to ISIS? What do they say about the subsequent 7-year US air war in Syria in support of the SDF against ISIS – including the complete destruction of Raqqa and killing thousands of civilians? What they say is nothing at all, because it does not fit their geopolitical analysis. Their entire viewpoint is based on the false idea that the US is trying to overthrow Assad, but they cannot explain how years and years of direct US intervention does not touch Assad but only bombs ISIS – and often also bombs genuine Syrian rebels by the way – and in doing so the US supports a left-wing led Kurdish militia which is the enemy of the NATO state Turkey!
In 2015, Russia launched its direct air war in Syria in support of Assad. Russia’s invasion was immediately welcomed by a joint declaration by US allies Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Jordan, and was also welcomed by Israel. While Israel had wanted to support Assad but oppose Assad’s key ally Iran, it was difficult – if it hit Iranian forces too much, it might weaken Assad, so it only very occasionally did so (and never in any confrontation between Iranian forces and rebels). Now however Israel had an ally in Assad’s other main ally – from that moment on, the Russia-Israel alliance, and in particular, the personal alliance between Putin and Netanyahu, blossomed. Now Israel could back a Russian-dominated Assad regime against the threat of an Iranian -dominated one. And while allies, once they had helped Assad win the war, Russia and Iran more and more became rivals for the spoils. Therefore, both following the Russian intervention, and even more following Assad’s Russian-backed military victory over the rebels in most of Syria, Israel stepped up its attacks on Iranian-led forces in Syria, while Russia, which controls Syria’s air defence system, ensured Israel it would never activate it as long as Israel only hit pro-Iran targets. As the Assad regime reconquered the south towards the Golan in 2018 in a deal involving Israel, Russia and the Trump administration in the US, Netanyahu declared “Israel has never had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years the border has remained quiet” while Lieberman declared Israel always prefers it when the central regime in Syria is controlled by Assad.
Meanwhile, when Trump came to power he cut off whatever small amount of support the US was still giving to some of the Syrian rebels (btw, this US support under Obama already had the proviso that they must use it only to fight ISIS and not Assad); Trump also cut off all the aid the US under Obama was providing to civil society in the rebel-held zones; and Saudi Arabia, once it got stuck in its own brutal war in Yemen, also junked the Syrian rebels and MBS went to Moscow to form an oil alliance with Putin.
In 2018, the US-backed United Arab Emirates and Bahrain re-established relations with the Assad regime, joining Egypt which already had them, soon followed by Jordan, Morocco and Oman; it is virtually the identical list to those who have re-established relations with Israel. In both cases, Saudi Arabia remains more cautiously and quietly in the background in support of its allies.
Tell me again then – which is the “US-backed” and “anti-US imperialist” side in all this?
Sure, you may not remember all the mass of details I just provided, but what is obvious is that any attempt to make sense of it based on geopolitical camps is obvious nonsense.
But this mess does make more sense if we look at this in class terms – of course Israel and the reactionary Arabs regimes, and the US, opposed the overthrow of a regional dictatorship by a democratic revolution, because that danger could spread to the rest of them! The fundamental agreement among all of them was the end of the revolution, just that they chose different tactics.
Therefore, the relationship between US and Russian imperialism in Syria was also entirely different to how it is over Ukraine. While there was occasional low-level rivalry, fundamentally they worked together: the US, Russia and Israel shared the Syrian skies for years with “de-confliction” mechanisms as Russia bombed the rebels, the US bombed ISIS and Israel bombed Iran-backed militia. Always safe was the Assad regime.
So how does this relate to Ukraine? As I understand, I’m not here to give the whole history of the Ukraine conflict, though I’m happy to go into my understanding of it in discussion. But I’ll say a few things related to the geopolitical versus class themes in order to initiate discussion.
Russia launched a brutal, illegal and murderous invasion of Ukraine. I don’t think anyone denies that as such.
Putin’s stated aims are the erasure of the Ukrainian state and nation, which he believes has no reality, and is only the result of a Communist plot hatched by Lenin to destroy the Russian Fatherland. Putin is trying to re-create the Tsarist Empire, not the USSR as is often heard.
The Ukrainian people have fought back in an enormous grass-roots mobilisation at every level of society, in a way that has surprised the world. On that, I will quote Ukrainian socialist Daria Saburova, on March 14:
“But if kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and other cities are resisting the Russian army, although it has a very clear military advantage, it is because, in the face of this invasion, a vast popular mobilization has risen up which goes far beyond the state apparatuses, even in the Russian-speaking cities. This mobilization takes multiple forms: in Energodar and in other cities, unarmed people go out to form human chains to prevent the advance of Russian tanks; in the already occupied cities, in Kherson and Melitopol, large demonstrations took place to protest against the invader. In other cities, territorial defense groups and self-organized solidarity groups ensure the security and supply of populations. According to the words of a friend who remained in kyiv, everyone is involved in one way or another in the solidarity groups through thousands of specialized Telegram channels: it is a question of organizing distribution points and the delivery of food, medicine or other basic necessities, in particular to isolated and vulnerable people; find or offer accommodation; request or indicate the availability of places in cars to evacuate people to Western Ukraine. Each city offers a list of places (churches, gymnasiums, restaurants) that can accommodate refugees and people in transit free of charge. The Telegram channel “Help to leave” now has 94,000 members, drivers and passengers alike. All these initiatives are horizontal and do not depend on the State: a symptom both of the bankruptcy of the Ukrainian State, taken aback by a war of such magnitude, but also of the outpouring of solidarity and resistance of the people Ukrainian against the invader.”
If you want to support the Ukrainian working class, you need to begin by supporting this actual struggle they are waging right now – the struggle to defend their families, communities, towns and cities against this imperialist invasion and the horrific war crimes it is imposing on them. To declare neutrality is to declare indifference to Ukrainian people suffering from any number of Bucha-style massacres.
The issue that arises, and where most disagreement will occur, is whether the Ukrainian people, fighting a life and death struggle against this invasion, are entitled to receive whatever arms are necessary to defend their country, from whatever source willing to provide them, regardless of the motivations of those providing them.
Our answer is “yes, they do,” whereas the opposing answer is that, because those providing them are mostly US and other western imperialist states, we must oppose this provision of arms; and indeed, if the Ukrainians receive these arms, it makes them merely a “proxy” of US imperialism or of NATO in a “proxy war” between US and Russian imperialism.
This is of course a key difference between Syria and Ukraine – while in Syria the geopolitical argument was entirely mythical, as I’ve shown, in Ukraine the US and other western states have actually provided Ukraine with a vast number of arms, including masses of weapons that were explicitly denied to Syrians: in particular, Ukraine has made good use of the hundreds of anti-aircraft missiles provided to clear its skies, whereas the US ensured for 8 years that the Syrian rebels never got even one.
So yes, there is a clearer geopolitical division, with western imperialism supporting Ukraine’s resistance to conquest by Russia. There are exceptions of course – geopolitics still has its hiccups. For example, Israel initially refused to condemn the invasion, and only under US pressure came out with a weak condemnation, but far-right pm Bennet still refused to name Russia, and banned his ministers from naming Russia. It refused to co-sponsor a security council resolution to refer it to the general assembly, refused to allow Baltic states to send Israeli arms to Ukraine, and refused to allow the provision of its ‘iron dome’ technology to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates consistently abstained in resolutions to condemn Russia, and have reportedly been refusing Biden’s phone calls, and are rejecting calls to pump out more oil to make up for embargoes on Russian oil.
Nevertheless, the basic West v Russia dynamic is there.
Should Ukraine therefore be denied the right to defend itself and its people? Let’s be concrete. The anti-aircraft missiles have prevented hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian deaths if warplanes had been allowed to rain death on towns and cities; I think we should at the minimum agree that defensive weaponry should be supported.
We do not support a no-fly zone in which western states would need to directly intervene to shoot down Russian aircraft, for obvious reasons; more generally, we oppose direct intervention. But precisely because there is none – and indeed, this is precisely the line that the US government has drawn from the outset – this remains Ukraine’s war for survival.
It represents an extraordinary level of arrogance for people sitting comfortably on computers in the West to fight to deny people being bombed in their homes the right to arms to defend themselves, or to declare their own, extraordinarily heroic, struggle to survive, as I described above, a “proxy war” for someone else.
Finally, this geopolitical position often ends up supporting what is in essence the Monroe Doctrine. Supposedly, we leftists should be concerned with the alleged “security concerns” of a nuclear-armed superpower, but not the security concerns of its much weaker victims. They explain, in blatant apologetics of the Tsar’s Russian Empire, that Ukraine and other nearby countries used to be Russia’s backyard, so of course it has interests there. They often raise the question – what would the US do if Mexico were to sign a security treaty with Russia or China? Their implication is that the US would invade Mexico. Perhaps. But silly me – I always thought we were opposed to the Monroe Doctrine. I always imagined that in such a scenario we would be opposed to a US invasion of Mexico. Apparently now we would need to be considerate of US “security concerns”.
Now, there are so many more questions – the actual US aims, the real Russian aims, the question of negotiations and compromises, the question of the previous conflict in the Donbas and so on – but I’ve spoken for too long and they may arise in discussion, so that’s it from me for now.