By Roger Annis, Nov 12, 2016
The following is a lengthy essay.
Odd and downright dangerous commentary concerning the war and humanitarian disaster in Syria is being voiced in alternative media for some time now by groups recognized as left-wing. Their argument is that it is Russia which is responsible for the carnage in Syria, not the imperialist countries that have dominated the Middle East for the past century and, in the recent history, have wrecked Iraq and Libya and backed the dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf states.
Three recent examples of articles making this argument are:
- ‘The Western left and the Syrian war‘, by Corey Oakley, Red Flag, Oct 27
- ‘Will the left hear the cries from Aleppo?‘, by Ashley Smith, Socialist Worker.org, Oct 19
- and ‘Standing against barbarism‘, by Gilbert Achcar, Socialist Worker.org, Oct 27 Achcar is a voice of Trotskyist groups in Europe grouped in what they call the ‘Fourth International’.
Red Flag is published by the Socialist Alternative group in Australia (not related to the groups in Canada and U.S. of the same name). Socialist Worker is published by the International Socialist Organization in the United States. The two were once leading constituents of an international association called the ‘International Socialists’. It has splintered into pieces in the past decade.
The authors make three arguments:
1. There is no imperialist regime-change agenda in Syria. The U.S. has “no clear strategic orientation” in Syria and is content to see the government of President Bashar Al-Assad remain in power. It is “imperialist” Russia and its allies Iran and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon who are responsible for much of the death and destruction in Syria. Russia is engaged in a high-stakes contest against “competing” imperialists to take control of Syria, part of a plan to expand its economic presence throughout the Middle East.
2. The Syrian conflict arises from the efforts of the Syrian government to suppress a “popular revolution” that began in 2011. This “revolution” continues to this day. Although the organizations, leaders, program and governing institutions of the claimed revolution are never named or described, we are assured that these exist.
3. Finally, there is lament that the imperialists have not done more to assist the overthrow of the Syrian government. For example, we read in the aforementioned Red Flag article:
Despite expressing, at various times, sympathy for rebels and hostility to Assad, the U.S. has at almost every stage hindered efforts to overthrow the regime.
CIA officers in Turkey, nominally in place to assist arms supply, in many cases in fact prevented the flow of weapons, particularly heavy weapons, to rebel forces. U.S. and Israeli pressure has been key to the ongoing refusal of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia to provide crucial anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition. [Emphasis added.]
Or in the words of the article by Ashley Smith: “But contrary to the claims of some on the left, the U.S. withheld critical military support, for example blocking a shipment of anti-aircraft weapons that could have undermined the regime’s military advantage.” [Emphasis added.]
There is accompanying silence by the authors and their affiliated organizations over the grim civil war and political repression being waged by NATO-member Turkey against the Kurdish people of Turkey, Syria and Iraq and against democratic society as a whole.
Silence also prevails over the criminal sanctions against Syria by the U.S., EU and UN. These sanctions have killed countless Syrians, including children, and have made life much harsher for millions.
The reason for the gaping silences is that the sanctions regime as well as Turkey’s longstanding goal of overthrowing the government in Damascus are inconvenient facts amidst the fantasy claims that Western imperialism has no wish to overthrow the Syrian government and subjugate the Syrian people.
Similar obfuscation has been evidenced over events in Ukraine beginning three years ago, where a movement known as ‘Maidan’ culminated in a coup d’etat that overthrew the elected president of the country in February 2014. An extreme-right government came into power and unleashed a civil war in the east of the country where the population rejected the coup. The same leftist groups denied the character of the Maidan movement as it evolved rightward. They identified with the anti-Russia prejudices underlying Maidan.
Eight months before the Ukraine coup, many if not most of the same groups welcomed a military-fascist coup in Egypt that overthrew the elected President Mohamed Morsi. They said not to worry about the military regime that replaced Morsi—it, too, would soon be swept away by the same “revolution” that overthrew Morsi.
In all three cases—Syria, Ukraine and Egypt—we see a willful turning a blind eye to the machinations of imperialism and to the extreme-right movements acting on imperialism’s behalf. In Syria, this degenerated further into outright support to the extreme-right forces that are waging a “revolution” against the Syrian government and its president. The focus of that clash today is in and around the city of Aleppo.
In all three countries, the movements aiming to overthrow the existing governments were either right-wing from their origin or they became so over the course of events as right-wing forces (along with the ‘deep state’ in the case of Egypt) muscled their way onto the streets and took control of events. This is not to deny that genuine social and political concerns motivated protesters in all three countries. Concerns were especially pronounced in Ukraine, which is today one of the poorest countries in Europe and where membership in the European Union offered a tangible outlet for workers to improve their conditions by working in another EU country. But it is right-wing, not left-wing, solutions which ultimately predominated.
The self-proclaimed leftists have been oblivious to facts, going so far as to join the imperialist propaganda bandwagon that blames Russia and its president for destabilizing Ukraine and Syria and for violating those countries’ sovereignty.
“Revolution” in Syria?
The facts of what has taken place in Syria since street protests erupted in early 2011 are contested across the political spectrum. They are very much misrepresented. Here are some sources which readers can consult to gain a balanced overview:
* Stephen Kinzer of the Boston Globe summed up U.S. media misrepresentations in an article in February 2016: ‘The media are misleading the public on Syria‘.
* Tim Anderson of the University of Sydney, Australia has published a book (January 2016) titled The Dirty War on Syria: Washington, Regime Change and Resistance. The introduction is here and provides a good summary overview of what has taken place in Syria during the past five years. (The book has since been published in Arabic, German and Swedish.)
You can view a recent, 70-minute interview with Anderson on KenFM, a widely viewed freelance news program in Germany. This article by Tim Anderson from October 2015 and this radio interview with him in May 2016 are similarly informative.
* Another new book on Syria, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East, is briefly reviewed here by Charles Glass in The Intercept on Oct 29. Glass is a veteran reporter on Syria. He is no friend to the Russian intervention in Syria, nor is the author of the book Glass reviews. All the more noteworthy, then, are Glass’ description in his review: “By mid-2012, [author Christopher] Phillips writes, the [Syrian] opposition was divided into no fewer than 3,250 armed companies. All attempts at unifying them failed, in part because local warlords sought loot rather than national victory and the outsiders [Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states] refused to coordinate their policies.”
* Speaking of stepped-up intervention by the U.S., this lengthy article in The Washington Post from April 2011 is a reminder of the longstanding U.S. efforts to foment regime-change ‘opposition’ in Syria. These are the very regime-change efforts that the ‘leftists’ argue did not and do not exist.
* Robert Parry, editor of Consortium News, reminds readers in a recent article of the support which U.S. government agencies have been providing to Al Quaeda affiliates in Syria. He explains in the article introduction: “A curious aspect of the Syrian conflict – a rebellion sponsored largely by the United States and its Gulf state allies – is the disappearance in much of the American mainstream news media of references to the prominent role played by Al Qaeda in seeking to overthrow the secular Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.” Parry’s critique of U.S. mainstream media could apply to certain alternative media as well.
* John Wight explains in a Nov 2 article, ‘Understanding Aleppo‘, that the drawn-out fighting in Aleppo perfectly serves U.S. designs on establishing a permanent occupation in eastern Syria. He says a U.S. drive to take the city of Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of ISIS, can be expected once Mosul falls to a U.S.-led coalition in northern Iraq.
The leftist authors’ interpretation of the situation in Syria amounts to a cover-up of the imperialist, regime-change intervention. It is coupled with a claim that Russia is an “imperialist” power intent on controlling Syria or destroying the country in attempting to do so. But ‘Russian imperialism’ is merely a phrase employed the leftists with no attempt to substantiate it.
Superficially, the phrase may seem to have substance. After all, Russia is the largest country by territory in the world. It has a powerful military (albeit one whose size and reach is dwarfed by that of the United States).
As well, the portrayal of Russia and the Soviet Union history by Western propaganda lends itself to the ‘imperialist’ descriptor. We are bombarded interpretations of the Soviet Union-become Russia as a threatening, expansionist and totalitarian entity. Yes there were periods of authoritarian rule during Soviet times and also in Russia during the 1990s. These lend credibility to images of ‘Russian imperialism’.
But the ‘Russia as imperialist’ argument doesn’t correspond to fact. The leftist authors and their respective publications never make the slightest effort to document their claim. ‘Russian imperialism’ is used, quite simply, as epithet. Nothing more.
As a phraseology gimmick, the claim of ‘Russian imperialism’ meets some success because there is huge default across the political spectrum in analyzing what, exactly, became of the constituent republics (including Russia) of the Soviet Union following its collapse in the late 1980s. In place of serious analysis, however, indifference or crude anti-Soviet and anti-Russia prejudice has reigned in much of academia and across much of the political spectrum, from left to right.
In the past two years, I have written or co-authored four articles arguing why it is wrong to describe the Russian economy as imperialist. The most substantive of those articles was published in March 2016, co-authored with my colleague Renfrey Clarke; you can read that here. You can also view a presentation I made on the subject in May of this year.
Our argument, in a nutshell, is that Russia’ economy is fundamentally different than the imperialist economies of Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia. Yes, it is, indeed, a capitalist economy and it is therefore marked by a deep divide between rich and poor citizens. But at this stage of its development, it is not driven to export vast sums of capital abroad to exploit labour and natural resources. Many other characteristics of Russia also belie the label—the tiny size of its finance capital (compared to imperialist countries), the relative underdevelopment of many of Russia’s economic sectors, its defensive foreign policy, and so on.
Why does this specific controversy matter? Because we can easily become lost by looking vainly for some ‘imperialist’ economic and geopolitical ambitions driving Russia’s political and military intervention in Syria and its stance towards events in Ukraine. U.S. writer and activist Phyllis Bennis, for example, writes in a lengthy statement on Syria published on October 31 that “the United States and Russia are fighting for global and regional positioning, military bases, and control of resources” in Syria. She says Russia is fighting alongside the U.S. and EU countries “to the last Syrian”, as though Syrians are oblivious to the sovereignty of their country and are unaware of who is (Russia) and who is not (U.S. et al) upholding it.
As a matter of fact, amidst the horror of the fighting in Aleppo today including the use of car bombs and chemical weapons by the right-wing (‘jihadist’) militias, Russia and the Syrian government continue to observe a halt to their aerial bombings and continue to insist on all-party talks to arrive at a political settlement to the conflict. A promising start to a settlement was made in February 2016 but that was scuttled by the U.S. proxies (see my article ‘Ceasefire is an opportunity for Syria and for the world‘, March 8, 2016).
Once pre-conceived prejudices against Russia are cleared away, it becomes glaringly evident that Russia’s and Iran’s interventions in Syria are aimed at preventing imperialist, regime-change chaos from striking down yet another sovereign country in the Middle East (Syria) and then moving on to threaten others.
It is beyond the scope of this commentary to analyze how matters have come to this over Syria, Ukraine and Russia among the left organizations in disarray. In the case of the ‘Fourth International’ Trotskyists, their decline is decades in the making. It is rooted in the ultraleftism which marked Trotskyist doctrine at its inception and then deepened in the decades that followed.
In the case of the fractured International Socialist current, the decline goes back to its founding, anti-Marxist doctrine following WW2. That doctrine held that the Soviet Union had become something called ‘state capitalism’. The IS world outlook was summarized in its slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism”. This was a utopian construct, divorced from the actually existing class struggle in all its complexity, contradictions and ofttimes disappointments.
The right-wing inclined founding doctrine of the International Socialists was further laid bare by its hostility to the Cuban Revolution of 1959  and to the other anti-colonial revolutions that shook the world following World War Two. A string of revolutions broke the chains of imperialist domination—in China and Korea during the 1950s; Algeria and Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s; and Central America and the Caribbean in the later 1970s.
Today, very hopeful revolutionary processes are continuing in three countries of Latin America–Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Other countries such as Nicaragua have benefited from this, winning unprecedented national sovereignty. But in keeping with its traditions, the latter-day IS current is remarkably uniform in refusing to welcome these developments.
During the 20th century, in the developed capitalist countries and in many countries in Latin America (not including Cuba and its closest allies), ultraleftism and related ideological disarray became dominant in Marxism. This has continued into the 21st century. Meanwhile, in Russia and eastern Europe, Marxism emerged greatly weakened from the Soviet experience. (I leave a description of Asia to those more knowledgeable than I on that part of the world.) These weaknesses are bequeathed to Marxists today and oblige us to undertake a thorough renewal of Marxist doctrine if it is to remain relevant.
The stakes in Syrian events
The dispute among leftists over events in Syria may resemble a doctrinal dispute of little consequence. But the confusion, disarray and right-wing impulses is not limited to small left-wing groups. A recently published essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, is a confused ramble resembling the articles of our aforementioned leftists, attacking what is called a “pro-Assad left” and offering precisely zero by way of solutions to the Syrian conflict.
Appalling mayhem would follow any victory of the imperialist regime-change drive in Syria. Ethnic and religious minorities would be threatened with slaughter. Prospects for peace in Israel-Palestine would be further dimmed. There would be grave implications for the security and national sovereignty of the people of Russia and Iran because imperialism would be emboldened to expand its regime-change ambitions.
A defeat in Syria would encourage the threats by NATO against Russia in eastern Europe as well as NATO’s trampling of the sovereignty of Ukraine, Romania, Poland and the Baltic states. NATO’s presence in those countries is already a grave affront. The significant expansions of military spending underway in all the NATO countries (and also in Japan and Australasia) are the gravest threat of all to the needed responses to the global warming emergency.
Unfortunately, the militarism drive of the imperialist countries meets too little resistance. That’s why progressive forces need to be crystal clear on what is taking place in Syria and then act accordingly.
We also need to raise alarms about the threat of nuclear war. Incredibly, the world is being dragged down the path of nuclear confrontation against Russia as the United States embarks on a trillion dollar-plus renewal of its nuclear arsenal. On October 27, the U.S. and its closest allies voted against a resolution at the United Nations general assembly setting out a path of negotiations for nuclear disarmament. The resolution passed, by a vote of 123 in favour, 38 against and 16 abstentions, but in Canada and other aggressor countries, the vote was barely reported, or not reported at all, in lamestream media.
Some very good examples of ‘what to do’ in response to all this have occurred in Britain. Antiwar and anti-nuclear weapons movements have scored important achievements in limiting British intervention into Syria, lifting the lid of secrecy surrounding the disastrous regime-change intervention in Libya, challenging the plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed ‘Trident’ submarines, and so on. Even in the United States, the Obama presidency is obliged to take account of antiwar opinion thanks to hard work by antiwar activists. The new president inherits this difficult (for him) circumstance. Much more needs to be done along these lines.
So let’s get on with building broad-based, political and antiwar movements. Let’s mobilize like never before to:
* Stop the war and foreign intervention in Syria. End the sanctions against the Syrian government and people. All-party talks are needed to arrive at a political settlement for the country’s future, including recognition of national rights (autonomy) for the Kurdish people. The broad statement issued by the U.S.-based Hands Off Syria Coalition should be supported and popularized.
* Stop the repression and rise of fascism in NATO-member Turkey. Mobilize in solidarity with the Kurdish people under attack, in particular solidarity with the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). It is the third largest party in the Turkish national assembly and is effectively being banned by the authoritarian regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
* Stop the war in eastern Ukraine. Demand that Ukraine and its Western backers implement the 13-point Minsk-2 peace agreement of Feb 12, 2015.
* End economic and political sanctions against Russia and Crimea. The sanctions are based on a false premise and they heighten the danger of a NATO military attack against Russia.
* End the arms race. Direct arms spending to social needs and to meeting the global warming emergency head-on.
* Abolish nuclear weapons. Support the roadmap to nuclear disarmament projected by the resolution of the ‘First Committee’ of the United Nations as approved by the UN General Assembly on October 27.
To win a world without war, working class people—workers, farmers, youth, oppressed nations and Aboriginal peoples–need to organize to win political power. On that foundation, we can begin to build a new society, step by step, founded on principles of social justice and ecological harmony.
 My extensive writings on the July 2013 military-fascist coup in Egypt and its aftermath can be read here. Concerning Ukraine, I have written extensively on the subject and I co-edit the most extensive source of news and analysis in English–the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond, which was founded in October 2014.
Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver BC. He compiles his writings on a ‘A Socialist in Canada’. He is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publishing note: The above article was submitted for consideration to four online, left-wing publications in Canada and the United States. All four declined to publish it. That is unfortunate because the article will likely have a smaller circulation than it deserves.
My thanks go to three colleagues who provided invaluable editing suggestions for this article as well as to the editors of Rabble.ca. who, while not necessarily agreeing with what I write on Ukraine, Russia and Syria, have declined pressure to silence my blog there.