Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Syrian Endgame: Bye Bye Bashar?

Who won't celebrate the (probably nasty) end of Bashar al-Assad's rule in Syria? This is a regime that has suppressed pretty much all forms of internal dissent and democratic participation and ruled with an iron fist for the better part of the last 40 years. There are no independent trade unions, no independent media. There are secret police, pro-regime militias ready to kill all opponents and torture chambers aplenty. When last there was a revolt against this stifling regime, in Hama in 1981, it ended with the regime bombarding the civilian population, killing somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people.

This is a vile regime that deserves to be sent to the ashcan of history. And the sooner the better. Luckily, it looks like that day is growing closer with the present offensive by rebel forces in Damascus and elsewhere, following the spectacularly successful operation against the Syrian cabinet that left the Defense Minister, Deputy Defense Minister (and Assad's brother-in-law), Assistant Vice President and Minister of the Interior dead (and celebrations in the streets). But it has been (and will continue to be for some time) a hard and blood struggle. Back in February I compared the Egyptian and Syrian revolution and wrote the following:
In Syria, [as opposed to Egypt, the] process of "gestation" only really began a year ago with the first protests against Assad's regime. Of course there have been struggles and uprisings in the past - most notoriously the uprising in Hama in 1982 that led to a massacre of somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people. There are opposition movements and parties as well. But the brutal suppression in Hama led to decades of quiet relative to Egypt where there was no comparable massacre (though there was certainly repression, torture and even extra-judicial killings). There is also an important component that is a side effect of the pressure of imperialism and Zionism on Syria. Syria is a "pariah state", which doesn't tell us anything about its character - democratic, liberal, or authoritarian - only that it doesn't bend its knee with suitable rapidity to American whims and Israeli bullying. That pressure - just as in Cuba, Iran or other countries that have historically resisted US imperialism - creates pressure for a "union of necessity" amongst progressive and nationalist forces. The present movement has to therefore achieve the first condition of Lenin's formula - the undermining of the unity of the ruling class - as well as uniting the broadest section of the population against the dictatorship of Assad, undermining the idea of there being any union of necessity with the Assad regime in order to resist imperialism. It seems that this is beginning to take place and even to gather steam as the incredibly brave Syrian people continue to broaden and deepen their revolution in the face of regime brutality. It is likely, then, that when Assad finally goes out the revolution will begin in an entirely different place, with much deeper networks of revolutionary mobilization than in Egypt (though the exact character of those networks, their connection to the workplaces, their political program for the democratic development of the nation, etc. remains to be seen).

In the seven months since I wrote those words the process of regime decomposition - measured by a loss of cohesion, growing defections from the lowest to the highest levels of the state machine - has proceeded apace. As well, the revolutionary leadership and movement also seems to have matured, both in terms of organization and politics. For several months the Syrian National Council, darlings of the west, were able to use the prestige of their international supporters to make ideological inroads into the movement. But the growing confidence of the revolution inside Syria (where the SNC has little presence), combined with the craven careerism of the SNC's leading figures and willingness to go cap in hand to the USA and Europe in return for foreign intervention, undermined their base inside the country. The recent conference in Doha of SNC types was marred by literal brawling and was boycotted by the Free Syrian Army and the Local Coordination Committees, which provide the political and military leadership on the ground. There are no longer any calls for foreign military intervention - the revolution feels its own strength and doesn't feel the need for it any longer.

Will the Syrian revolution win? Will the present offensive lead to the collapse of the regime? Who's to say but there can be no doubt that the uprising has matured and is making every effort to storm the heavens. Even if they don't bring down the regime this time or with this push into Damascus, Syrian Ba'athism will be forever changed, its prestige damaged, its state weakened.

There are those on the left who are blinded by the Assad regime's putative anti-imperialism and "progressive" character. Others who can't see past the fact that the Americans (contra the Russians) are saying things in support of the opposition - or, rather, saying things against Assad w/o supporting the opposition within Syria. Or the fact that the sectarian Gulf monarchies want to see the overthrow of a Shiite dominated regime that has been a thorn in their side. These leftists draw the conclusion that to support the revolution in Syria (or to be making a revolution in Syria) is to be "objectively" in league with imperialism. Of course, the old "objectively" tag was always used by Stalinists to smear opponents of their crappy politics and there is no shortage of that type of politic floating around the left, sadly. But it is worth answering the claim here in brief.

First off, there has never been a modern revolt in which imperialism has not tried to turn it to its advantage. The German Kaiser tried to aid the Irish rebellion against British rule. Did that make the Irish rebellion not worth supporting? Germany sent Lenin and other leading Russian revolutionaries back to Russia through its territories in the hopes of weakening their World War One enemy. The classic film Lawrence of Arabia is precisely about the British using the just discontent amongst the Arab population to help defeat the Ottoman Empire in World War One and replace it with their own, which was then overthrown by the anti-colonial revolts that were supported by the Soviet empire as it tried to weaken their American/British competitors in the region. Imperialism is always maneuvering to its advantage.

Does anyone really think that the Russians give a damn about Syrian self-determination - rather than their strategically important Mediterranean naval base in Syria (the only presence that Moscow has in the Middle East)? Or that the Americans care about democracy - as they back the Saudi suppression of the movement in Bahrain?

Whoever thinks that revolutions should wait until the moment in time when imperialism won't try to take advantage of their revolt is telling the oppressed to wait till the Kingdom of Heaven arrives on earth. It will never happen this side of the worldwide destruction of imperialism.

To be frankly honest, I think that half of the problem - besides the nostalgia for a "progressive state" like the former Soviet Union (cough, cough, Gulags, cough cough) - is that the left is infected with xenophobia and Islamophobia. The Syrian revolutionaries say Allahu Akbar and don't sing The Internationale. They want to see revolutions that are steeped in the European Enlightenment tradition and discourse, which sound and look European. Get over it. Marxism has a place in the Arab revolts - and the growing importance of a labour revolt in Egypt's continuing revolutionary process speaks to this - but it won't sound and look like Bastille Day or May Day necessarily. If it is to be a living revolutionary process, it will have to be rooted in the day to day experience and culture of the indigenous populations in the Middle East. As a Marxist, I celebrate that. Ideologies that isolate themselves from the influx of fresh experience and change become dogma - perhaps comforting to repeat to yourself like a rosary in tough times but not much use for changing the world.

Long Live The Syrian Revolution!

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