“Some people never learn.” That’s the conclusion one reaches from reading the shameful coverage of the unrest in Syria by the plethora of ostensibly ‘left’ groups in the United States. In the same way that groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) revealed their heinous liberalism in regards to Libya, this chorus of ‘left’ groups have joined again in defense of the Syrian opposition movement, who began protesting President Bashar al-Assad’s government in late March.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of articles like “Repression and defiance in Assad’s Syria”–written for Socialist Worker by ISO member Yusef Khalil on April 25, 2011–is that it echoes the ISO’s bogus position on Libya, which granted de facto support to NATO’s imperialist invasion. Although we’ve come to expect this from a ‘left’ group that called the collapse of the Soviet Union an event that “should have every genuine socialist rejoicing,” their continued embrace of the West’s line on the Middle East demonstrates that the ISO is not a legitimate anti-imperialist organization. (1)
A close examination of Syria yields three important conclusions: (1) Marxist-Leninists and anti-imperialists should unequivocally support President Assad’s government against the US-funded opposition, (2) President Assad’s government is the most progressive state in the Middle East, and (3) the ISO’s position rejects Leninism and offers de facto support for imperialist aggression towards Syria.
Western ‘leftists’ embarrassed themselves on Libya.
The NATO invasion of Libya greatly embarrassed ‘left’ groups throughout the West. Predominantly white and petty-bourgeois in class character, this loose association of liberals masquerading as socialists and academics supported the Libyan opposition movement against the government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from the moment it broke out. Indeed, President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicholas Sarkozy have the ISO to thank for pioneering the slogan they trumpeted in their April 14th pro-war op-ed: “Gaddafi Must Go!” (2) (3)
Despite tremendous evidence to the contrary, these ‘left’ groups extolled the revolutionary character of the rebellion and foolishly downplayed the possibility of Western imperialist intervention. Immanuel Wallerstein, a favorite academic for many ‘left’ groups in America, wrote an article that would be particularly hilarious to read in retrospect if it wasn’t so tragically wrong. Entitled “Libya and the World Left,” Wallerstein writes:
The second point missed by Hugo Chavez’s analysis is that there is not going to be any significant military involvement of the western world in Libya. The public statements are all huff and puff, designed to impress local opinion at home. There will be no Security Council resolution because Russia and China won’t go along. There will be no NATO resolution because Germany and some others won’t go along. Even Sarkozy’s militant anti-Qaddafi stance is meeting resistance within France. (4)
Among his many errors, Wallerstein confuses his primary and secondary contradictions. He writes that “The issue therefore is not Western military intervention or not. The issue is the consequence of Qaddafi’s attempt to suppress all opposition in the most brutal fashion for the second Arab revolt.” (4) Thus, Wallerstein concludes, “despite the call of the hawks for U.S. involvement, President Obama will resist.” (4)
Wallerstein’s article is an embarrassment. In fact, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was correct in warning Gaddafi of imperialist intervention. Obama did not “resist” the imperialist desire to invade Libya. Russia and China did “go along with it,” at least insofar as they refused to veto the UN’s no-fly zone resolution; the same resolution that Wallerstein said would never happen.
If only Wallerstein was an anomaly! Socialist Worker, the ISO’s newspaper, published a slew of anti-Gaddafi articles in the days leading up to the NATO invasion. Bending over backwards to justify the Libyan rebels’ cause, Socialist Worker re-published an article with the absurd title, “The West’s fear of Qaddafi’s fall,” on the front page of its website. (5) Like Wallerstein, the article tries to argue that NATO’s threats are only political posturing because Qaddafi’s government serves the interests of imperialism. Also like Wallerstein, NATO’s invasion completely discredited the article’s content.
Additionally, a nearly incoherent March 9th Socialist Worker editorial entitled “The US is no friend to Libya’s uprising,” argues that NATO would only invade Libya because it felt threatened by the popular uprising. It reads:
Libya is one link in a chain of popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world. The region-wide rebellion has left the U.S. scrambling to respond to the toppling of its longtime allies in Egypt and Tunisia–and the possibility that other U.S.-backed dictatorships, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, could also succumb to revolt. Intervention in Libya would provide the U.S. government with a golden opportunity after the setbacks it has suffered. (6)
The ISO took an erroneous “third way” position in Libya, claiming to denounce the imperialist invasion while simultaneously arguing that the current Libyan government “must go.” (3) Unable to acknowledge that the Libyan rebels were actively working in the interests of Western capital, they write in the same editorial, “That’s why we stand with those in the Libyan rebellion who call for the U.S. and other Western powers to keep out.” (6)
Regardless of whether any such rebels actually exist, the facts are in:
- The Libyan rebels systematically target black African migrants by maiming, torturing, and lynching them. (7)
- The Libyan rebels met with Western leaders, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and were formally embraced by imperialist countries like France and the US. (8) (9)
- The Libyan rebels are tied to al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups that, incidentally, have historically committed acts of terrorism against the Libyan people and were militarily opposed by Gaddafi. (10)
- The Libyan rebels have the blessing and tactical support of Western finance capital, demonstrated through the willingness of international banks to freeze Gaddafi’s assets and loan money to the rebels. (11)
- The CIA has and continues to work closely in Libya alongside the so-called ‘rebels’. (12)
Time and time again, these so-called ‘leftists’ get into bed with reactionary tools of imperialism. Nearly any group that opposes the laundry list of governments that the ISO opposes can count on the organization’s support, provided they can turn out at least a couple hundred people to a protest. President Chavez was right about Libya because he understands imperialism. Western ‘leftists’ embarrassed themselves because they don’t.
Social Advances in the Syrian Arab Republic
From its founding in 1973 by the Syrian Arab Socialist Baath Party, the Syrian Arab Republic immediately began supporting the Palestinian national liberation struggle and combating Israeli geopolitical hegemony. A steady influx of Palestinian refugees escape Israeli apartheid and emigrate to Syria, where they enjoy living conditions “better than in any surrounding countries because, unlike in Lebanon and Jordan, healthcare, education and housing are accessible to Palestinians in Syria.” (13)
Palestinians are not the only recipient of Syrian assistance. The Assad government has consistently used its border to assist the Lebanese national liberation struggle by providing resources and tactical support to Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Syria welcomed the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees dislocated by imperialist war and extended the country’s social programs to them. (13)
While Syria is not a socialist country, the nationalist Assad government has exercised the nation’s right to self-determination by nationalizing Western firms and factories, using the nation’s wealth for radical social programs, including “guaranteed health care, living standards and education.” (13)
Additionally, Syrian communists play an important role in the government and are allowed to organize separate from the Baath Party. Unlike the experience of communists in Iraq–who faced repression from the Baath state, led by President Saddam Hussein–Syria’s two communist parties are leading members of the ruling National Progressive Front, and have representation in the People’s Council of Syria.
Unrest in Syria is the product of Western imperialism & intervention
Although some small protests began in January, it took until late March for the unrest in Syria to seriously attract the world media’s attention. Recent cables released by Wikileaks, however, confirm that the West has played a leading role in the Syrian opposition for years. The US State Department “secretly financed Syrian political opposition groups and related projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-government programming into the country.” (14) This US-funded channel, Barada TV, has had a central role in dispersing anti-Assad propaganda and “is closely affiliated with the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based network of Syrian exiles.” (14)
The Wikileaks cables confirm that “money was set aside at least through September 2010,” which proves that regime change in Syria is the official policy of the Obama Administration. (14) That Barada TV emboldens and functions as the organizing arm of the Syrian opposition is a testament to the centrality of imperialism in this so-called ‘uprising’. Whether some of the individuals in the Syrian opposition have legitimate grievances with President Assad’s government or not, this movement functionally advances the aims of imperialism: to remove a popular anti-imperialist government in the Middle East.
Given the Assad government’s support for the Palestinian and Lebanese liberation struggles, the West understandably views Syria as a threat to hegemony in the Middle East. However, Syria has never fit into the crude Islamic fundamentalist threat that the US uses to fuel the war on terror. Unlike neighbors like Iran, Syria is a secular state that explicitly protects the rights of Muslims and Christians alike. Nevertheless, the West viciously opposes Assad’s government and fears its acquisition of nuclear power, indicated by Israel’s 2008 bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility.
Had Syrian unrest reached a boiling point two weeks earlier than Libya, NATO might have directed its attention at toppling Assad’s government rather than Gaddafi’s government in Libya.
The ISO is wrong on Libya and Syria.
As soon as the Syria protests grew to the point of attracting media attention, the ISO began cranking out articles denouncing Assad’s government and supporting the so-called ‘popular resistance’. Ignoring the facts–that the Syrian opposition is funded and orchestrated by the US–Yusef Khalil of the ISO wrote in an April 21 article for Socialist Worker:
The demonstrators are demanding freedom, democracy, justice, equality and the creation of a civilian government. They are also demanding the lifting of the Emergency Law, legalization of multiple political parties, an investigation of all those involved in killing peaceful demonstrators and an end to government corruption. There is very little trust in the government or its official news agency anymore, even among its own supporters. (15)
The last sentence is particularly telling since the implication of “little trust in the government or its official news agency” is that some other news organ has garnered the trust of the Syrian opposition, namely Barada TV. Indeed, the vicious smear campaign from this US-funded TV channel would undermine some people’s trust in the government because its objective is to topple the Assad government. Why does this article from Socialist Worker, published four days after Wikileaks revealed that the US was funding the Syrian opposition, mention nothing about this blatant violation of national sovereignty?
Khalil’s article reads like something he wrote while he was researching Syria for the first time. Periodically, he slips into reporting facts that are clearly inconvenient to the bogus narrative he tries to paint, which he timidly tries to refute. He admits that Assad’s government has “given support to Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements against Israel,” and has “positioned Syria in alliance with Iran as an obstacle to U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.” (15) His response is to call these actions “contradictory and self-serving.”
However, Khalil’s article takes a bizarre (and opportunistic!) turn when he tries to explain why Syria’s support for Palestine and Hezbollah is “contradictory”:
Syria only supports resistance against Israel from abroad. It does not allow any arms smuggling or attacks against Israel across its own borders. Even when it does support anti-Israel forces, the Syrian government demands a monopoly on the resistance. (15)
Perplexedly, Khalil contradicts decades of ISO polemics against nearly every armed insurgency in the Third World. (16) Moreover, an interview with frequent Socialist Worker contributor Gilbert Achcar by ISO member Paul D’Amato, the managing editor of the ISO’s International Socialist Review accuses Syria of the opposite: “Syria is still very much involved in Lebanon, of course. This is also one of the problems with Hezbollah’s strategy: its links with Syria. Most of the forces in the opposition are pro-Syrian forces—all of them actually.” (17)
D’Amato seemed to like what Achcar was saying. His next question about Hezbollah is more of a leading statement: “And they [Hezbollah] want to make Lebanon a protectorate of Syria…” Achcar responds:
Yes, of course. They use this kind of rhetoric. And unfortunately it is credible because of the fact that major chunks of the opposition are made up of completely rotten pro-Syrian forces. That’s a huge problem, quite far from the way some people on the left worldwide have romanticized Hezbollah during the war. (17)
What an opportunistic criticism for Khalil to make! The ISO does not support Hezbollah or the other national liberation groups supported by Syria, yet they denounce Assad for not supporting these groups enough. Khalil understands that the facts don’t support his conclusions, so he opportunistically pivots away from the ISO’s position to levy a critique of Assad’s government.
In another article four days later, Khalil writes:
There is a shift in consciousness underway in Syria towards revolutionary conclusions. It has yet to reach the tipping point achieved by Tunisians and Egyptians, but the trajectory is unmistakable. In city after city, in town after town, the protesters are calling for the downfall of the regime. (18)
Once again, the article mentions nothing about Wikileaks revelation of overwhelming US support for the opposition movement. Additionally, Khalil mentions nothing about the wave of pro-government rallies that took place simultaneously with and dwarfed the size of the opposition’s protests. (19) The omission of these facts reveal that the ISO is more concerned with maintaining theoretical consistency with its bankrupt Trotskyite-Cliffite views of countries like Syria than it is with a thorough analysis of the material conditions.
Assad’s government has substantial popular support
The material reality is that Assad’s government is incredibly popular among the Syrian masses. In a recent interview with Russia Today, Anhar Kochneva, the director of a Moscow-based tourist firm in Syria, said of the Syrian opposition:
Not even once did I come across anyone who would in any way support these riots; and mind you, in the line of my job, I deal with all sorts of people. There are many vehicles with the president’s portraits driving the streets throughout the country – ranging from old, barely moving crankers to brand new Porsches and Hummers. You can’t force people into hanging up portraits. It means that people, irrespective of their status and income, support the president rather than the rebellion. (20)
Kochneva goes on to describe the pervasive level of media manipulation related to the Syrian unrest:
On March 29, I saw a rally in Hama to support the president – indeed, many thousands of men and women, with their children, and entire families went out. The streets were flooded with people. It was quite a shock to see Al-Jazeera presenting rallies in support of the president as if they were protests against him. (20)
The Western media and its corporate allies in al-Jazeera function in tandem with imperialist governments to shape public opinion, both in the Middle East and the West. Kochneva notes that Secretary of State Clinton “stated that if Syria cuts its relations with Iran and withdraws its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the demonstrations would stop the next day. They don’t even bother to keep secret the hand instilling riots in Syria.” (20)
The Revolutionary Left versus the ISO
Immediately Venezuela, Cuba, and the bulk of the Latin American revolutionary left have denounced the unrest in Syria and explicitly stated its opposition to foreign intervention. (21) Furthermore, the Syrian Communist Party (Bakdash) released an unequivocal statement of support for Assad’s government, denouncing the unrest as “reactionary forces,” whose aim is:
to exploit the deplorable incidents and to fuel unrest in various parts of the country, using an insidious method to attract the masses, mixing demands and slogans for democratic freedoms with the demands and slogans that are clearly retrograde, obscurantist, and provocatively sectarian in character, directed against the idea of secularism and the spirit of tolerance which have historically been distinctive features of the Syrian society. (22)
When President Assad lifted the country’s Emergency Law–a measure of internal defense against Israeli aggression–the Syrian Communist Party “expressed its support for the decisions and directions of the national leadership of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, among the most important of which in the political sphere are the lifting of the state of emergency, the drafting of a law for political parties, and the reform of the media law.” (22)
In the United States, the WWP and the PSL have both released statements condemning imperialist intervention in Syria. Why hasn’t the ISO?
For all their Trotskyite roots, the ISO does a poor job reading Trotsky. In an interview with Mateo Fossa from September 1938 called “Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation,” Trotsky explains anti-imperialism surprisingly (and ironically!) well:
In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. (23)
When the ISO claims that the Syrian opposition is “demanding freedom, democracy, justice, equality and the creation of a civilian government,” they fall into the ’empty-headed’ pitfall of “reducing world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between [Assad’s government] and democracy.”
Trotskyism is alien to Marxism-Leninism, but it’s nowhere near as alien as the ISO’s bankrupt Cliffite ideology. Time and time again, their lines play into the hands of imperialism and betray the organization’s liberal political orientation. Socialist Worker continues to act as a preview of Obama’s talking points a week later.
Revolutionary leftists must support Assad’s government against Western intervention, including the funding of the Syrian opposition.
(1) Socialist Worker, September 1991; Quoted by Workers Vanguard, No. 866, March 17, 2006, “Parliamentary Cretinism ISO Goes All the Way with Capitalist Greens,” http://www.icl-fi.org/english/wv/866/isogreen.html
(2) Obama, Cameron, Sakozy, The New York Times, April 14, “Libya’s Pathway to Peace,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/opinion/15iht-edlibya15.html?_r=1
(3) Socialist Worker, February 28, 2011, “Rallying for the Libyan People,” http://socialistworker.org/2011/02/28/rallying-for-the-libyan-people
(4) Immanuel Wallerstein, March 15, 2011, “Libya and the World Left,” http://www.iwallerstein.com/libya-world-left/
(5) Richard Seymour, February 24, 2011, “The West’s fear of Qaddafi’s fall,” http://wwww.socialistworker.org/2011/02/24/western-fear-of-qaddafis-fall
(6) Socialist Worker, editorial, March 9, 2011, “The US is no friend to the Libyan uprising,” http://socialistworker.org/2011/03/09/no-friend-to-libyan-uprising
(7) Al-Jazeera, February 28, 2011, “African migrants targeted in Libya,” http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/02/201122865814378541.html
(8) BBC News, May 6, 2011, “Clinton meets Libyan opposition figure Mahmoud Jibril,” http://bit.ly/mTBmcD
(9) Turkish Press, March 21, 2011, “France formally recognizes Libyan opposition group,” http://www.turkishpress.com/news.asp?id=364929
(10) Praveen Swami, Nick Squires, Duncan Gardham, The Telegraph, March 25, 2011, “Libyan rebel commander admits his fighters have al-Qaeda links,” http://bit.ly/eyYolD
(11) Alexander Cockburn, April 15 – 17, “What’s Really Going on in Libya?” http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn04152011.html
(12) CNN Wire Staff, March 30, 2011, “Source: CIA operating in Libya, in consultation with opposition,” http://bit.ly/lZjl2R
(13) Sara Flounders, Workers World, May 5, 2011, “Events in Syria – Which Side Are You On?” http://www.workers.org/2011/world/syria_0512/
(14) Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, April 17, 2011, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by WikiLeaks show,” http://wapo.st/fzASak
(15) Yusef Khalil, Socialist Worker, April 21, 2011, “The Syrian Revolution spreads,” http://socialistworker.org/2011/04/21/the-syrian-revolution-spreads
(16) Freedom Road Socialist Organization, “Revolution in Colombia: ISO Stands on the Wrong Side,” 2008, http://www.frso.org/about/statements/2008/isocolombia.htm
(17) Paul D’Amato, International Socialist Review, Issue 52, March – April 2007, “Interview with Gilbert Achcar Lebanon and the Middle East crisis” http://www.isreview.org/issues/52/achcar.shtml
(18) Yusef Khalil, Socialist Worker, April 25, 2011, “Repression and defiance in Assad’s Syria,” http://bit.ly/f8m43b
(19) Reuters, March 29, 2011, “Syria mobilizes thousands for pro-Assad marches,” http://reut.rs/f1J87K
(20) Russia Today, April 29, 2011, “Western media lie about Syria – eyewitness reports,” http://bit.ly/m4YZZZ
(21) Rodolfo Reyes, Cuban Ambassador, Published in Monthly Review, April 29, 2011, “Cuba Opposes Any Foreign Interference in Syria,” http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/reyes040511.html
(22) Syrian Communist Party (Bakdash), Published in Monthly Review, March 25, 2011, “Regarding Syria,” http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/syria180411.html
(23) Leon Trotsky, September 1938, “Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/09/liberation.htm