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Gordic knot of democratic revolution and geo-politics in Syria?

Answering the thesis of Yoav Bar

18. August 2012
by Wilhelm Langthaler

How to support the popular movement while refusing foreign meddling and confessionalist militarism.

Following is a response to Yoav Bar’s criticism “How to support the Syrian Revolution?” on the article “Democratic revolution against Assad AND the Gulf-backed forces”.

1) Popular democratic aspect dominant

Starting point of any position-taking on Syria is to refuse the purely geo-political thinking which is ravaging the left. They are employing a method ranging between imperial statecraft and reading history as a permanent conspiracy. The popular masses are per se excluded from playing a role. Actually we are faced with two sides of the same medal. The ruling elites always tend to exclude the masses while the pessimist subaltern intellectuals denounce these elites ruling out any historic intervention form below as well.

The Syrian rebellion has been a genuine democratic movement by the subaltern classes against the capitalist elite linked to the global order – very similar to their homologues across the Arab world. The movement started out peacefully calling for reforms inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. But they only got fire and blood in return. Armed self-defence has been the logic, necessary and legitimate step of development. The political responsibility for the armed conflict lays fully with the regime which proved totally unable to positively respond to the legitimate democratic demands of the masses.

So far the popular democratic momentum remains predominant. The street movement is still expanding drawing more and more layers and sections into the struggle for democratic rights despite the bloody repression. This remains true despite the tendency to militarization.

2) Geo-politics are there, indeed

Nobody can deny, however, that the Syrian revolt ignited an important geo-political conflict involving the entire world. Actually Syria today is the centre of world politics. As Damascus is the main state ally of Tehran, which on its turn is the main state challenge to the US-led global system, all the complex and contradictory levels, players and proxies of this system have their interest to get rid of the Assad regime in order to weaken the Iran axis.

Parts of the opposition, first of all the émigré one, has been volunteering to serve as agent of this system and its various expressions – with limited success also due to the strength and profundity of the domestic popular movement.

To take distance from these attempts, to politically fight these forces is decisive to maintain and strengthen the popular democratic movement. Only in this way its potential anti-imperialist character can be transformed into a conscious and explicit one. Only in this way the fruits of the popular movement can be secured from being reaped by others.

This has nothing to do with revolutionary purity taking distance from the fighting people on the ground. On the contrary to fight the (would be) foreign agents it is necessary to de-compose the Assad socio-cultural bloc, to de-construct its false anti-imperialist narrative which despite all odds continues to wield some influence.

To make clear that the democratic revolution can stand on its own feet, that it does neither need nor want foreign (imperialist) support is the main political pre-condition for victory. Only in this way the big majority of the Syrian people can be convinced to join in.

3) Foreign intervention?

The question of foreign intervention has been pivotal for the Syrian rebellion – despite the very fact that it did not take place to an extent changing the character of the conflict. The main driving force has been the democratic revolutionary movement and not foreign imperialist intervention as it had been in Iraq. Not even Libya was repeated for several interconnected reasons:

a) The US acknowledged its weakness which is being expressed by taking care of proxies avoiding the hubris of the Neocons. An Iraqi defeat needs to be prevented. Therefore Washington holds back also European would-be Bushes of the Sarkozy-type as the Syrian conflict is much more important than Libya.)

b) The powerful resistance of Russia and China as the US does not want to challenge the geo-political equilibrium which could mean another setback.

c) Not least the powerful popular movement which they do not control and which definitely is no proxy.

d) Turkey’s aspired role as regional Islamic leader does not allow a full scale military intervention devastating an Arab-Islamic core country. Neo-Ottomanism would vanish before it was even dreamt to the end. Turkish limited intervention can only by justified under an anti-Kurdish label along the model of the repeated interventions into Northern Iraqi Kurdish areas.

Also with the military escalation the US continues to rule out direct military intervention. In case of the imminent demise of the regime there might be some limited attempts and material support could also be stepped up. But the problem of lacking control by the US remains a limiting factor.

The only significant foreign support comes from the Gulf in form of money and weapons as well as the influx of Jihadists. Most of the support goes to either Salafis (which the US dislikes as they cannot be controlled not even by their backers) or the Muslim Brotherhood forces (which the Saudis dislike as they are not under their control).

4) Islamist Salafi danger?

It is absolutely true that the Islamist Salafi monster is being inflated against the entire Arab revolt and the resistance movements evoking widespread Islamophobia. Actually the Assad secularist narrative is very close to the one of Ben Ali and Mubarak and is well connected to the European one. In the paranoiac geo-political leftist thought Islamism as a whole is turned into a clear-cut pawn, a direct agent of imperialism which leads them to support all forms of secular capitalist dictatorships being integral part of the imperial order.

The main Islamist force is the Muslim Brotherhood, not only in Syria but across the entire Arab world. They are the moderate wing of the popular movement aspiring ready to co-operate with the US and its order though no more on the same conditions as under the ancien regime. The all Arab Tahrir revolutionaries will have to deal with them as an “enemy friend” as they are definitely part of but definitely ready to co-operate with the global system. Furthermore they have incorporated a good deal of Sunni confessionalism which is a permanent danger to the revolution. But this topic needs further elaborations which should not be developed here.

Regarding the Salafi Jihadists, who are indeed a political threat to the popular democratic revolution—they are neither a simple invention nor can they be neglected. As Abdul-Aziz Al-Khair, a senior leftist leader of the Syrian opposition, puts it very plausibly and calmly: “Among the armed opposition you have different political goals and different political attitudes. I believe many groups through the armed opposition declared they will be in favor of a political process on certain terms and conditions, while others would not respond to this. We have some Salafists, some Islamic extremists who have their own agendas. So, among the civil and peaceful opposition there are really connections with some armed opposition groups. And there is a common understanding among them not to harm the civilians and not to attack any infrastructure establishments. And it is only legal to use arms to defend lives and civilians.”

The danger is not that these forces take power on behalf of their Gulf backers – not even those really want this to happen. The real danger is that these forces wreck havoc on the revolutionary movement dragging it into a confessional civil war. Actually they are the greatest political help to the Assad regime as only pointing at this devil the ruling clique can maintain some consensus among its decaying bloc.

Let us remember the Iraqi example. The powerful mass armed popular resistance was able to eventually defeat the US occupation but the confessionalist forces on both sides were responsible that the resistance nevertheless could not win. Victory thus was aborted leaving a country still divided along confessional-communal lines.

“Salama Kaileh [another leading Syro-Palestinian leftist activist] does acknowledge the presence of forces supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states which wish to instigate sectarian civil war. But according to Kaileh this remains a politically marginal phenomenon which does not express the political and social demands of the popular masses.” In case the democratic rebellion does not success in facilitating a military coup d’état, “the Assad regime might fight until the end. This could lead to chaos and civil war if the opposition is not able to take control and unify the country given the interference of groups following foreign agendas.”

So the democratic revolution needs to be defended against the threatening spiral of confessionalism, militarization, civil war and foreign intervention. The armed struggle must be conceived as the continuation of the popular struggle not against it, as the confessionalist-militarist forces do. The armed struggle must help to convince the vast majority including the communal and confessional minorities and not to subdue them militarily – which will fail and produce civil war.

The confessonalist forces must be politically isolated and subsequently militarily sidelined. If it is true that the vast majority supports a democratic revolution then the confessional military forces are not needed even if that means to acknowledge that more time in needed. Militarist shortcuts do not work. They lead to defeat instead.

5) Coup d’état option?

It is true that none of the global and regional players want the full-fletched democratic popular revolution to succeed. Neither do they wish a Islamist Salafi victory.

Given the impossibility of direct regime change by military means they are looking for a coup d’état under their auspices. The Iraqi mistake of totally smashing the old state apparatus should not be repeated in order to avoid chaos. Different to the Neocons the current US leadership fears chaos as it would mean a further loss of control and hegemony.

But will it be possible for imperialism to harvest the fruits of the democratic revolution rebuilding a pro-imperialist regime out of the decapitated state apparatus, the Muslim Brotherhood and some liberals while the popular revolution is in full swing? The answer is a clear no.

One the other hand the democratic movement is politically not ripe for a full-fletched revolution bringing down entirely the old elites which would necessarily include a social aspect. If that was the alternative, a coup would be a danger and functional to stop the revolution. But the revolution is politically only at its very first stages fighting to avoid the descent into a confessional civil war.

A coup d’état against Assad is certainly not the central lever of the mass movement, let alone Russian pressure on Assad to leave in order to save the regime. But a coup d’état would be certainly in the interest of the movement. It needs to work within the army into such a direction. First of all within the army base there are certainly strong democratic aspirations. The mass defections indicate this. A military junta could not rule against the popular movement. It would certainly need to make substantial concessions paving the way towards a democratic transition – a half way victory for the democratic revolution incrementing its future possibilities.

The poplar mass movement could express itself more freely (like in Egypt) which as such would be a gain of greatest importance. A military de-escalation would ensue. The Salafi forces would be isolated as their armed struggle could no more ride the wave of the armed popular self-defence. Foreign interventionist aspiration could be warded of and so the danger of confessional civil war.

Even if such a transitional junta would not be fully democratic, would try to maintain a somewhat equilibrated foreign policy (not an openly anti-imperialist one) the massive presence and affirmation of the democratic movement would nevertheless mean a decisive blow for the global order pushing ahead the Arab revolutions.

6) Help from the devil?

No revolution can win against the unified world. It needs to take help as long as there are no strings attached or these strings can eventually be violated. This is certainly a question of relationship of forces. All the more the Gulf link with heavy strings attached indeed must be fought and cut being actually the main danger for the democratic revolution.

August 15, 2012