By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, May 29, 2018
A member of the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) published a commentary last month, on April 26, headlined ‘DSA must reject rhetoric of regime change in Syria’. R.L. Stephens writes:
… we need to evaluate the resolution that DSA declare its support for ‘the goal of a democratic Syria rid of Assad’. This is a call for regime change. It is not the responsibility of socialists in the United States to set as their goal the removal of a foreign head of state from power…
It is a welcome commentary on this and other counts. The DSA is a large and growing organization in the U.S., so the statement’s reach is considerable. On Facebook, 647 people have ‘liked’ it. The writer is directly countering the political views of certain leftists in the United States and Europe who have become right-wing socialists by virtue of their support for, or indifference to, the growing efforts to violently overthrow governments coming into conflict with the major Western imperialist powers. The list of those countries and governments being targeted includes the capitalist governments of Syria, Iran and Russia and also the socialist government of Venezuela.
Another recent and welcome commentary on Syria is written by Canadian researcher and writer Greg Shupak. It is titled ‘U.S. out of Syria’ and was published in Jacobin on April 18. The appearance of the commentary in Jacobin is doubly noteworthy because the publication has voiced pro-regime-change arguments in its pages while carefully limiting opposing viewpoints.
Left-wing advocacy for regime change
Pro-regime change views have dogged the Western left ever since the eruption of civil conflict in Syria and its transformation into a regime-change war supported and financed by the Western powers and Saudi Arabia. Resulting divisions and disorientation on the left have weakened the potential for broad, antiwar actions that could challenge the regime-change chaos and humanitarian disasters created by imperialism in the Middle East and challenge the growing threats against the Venezuelan people and their revolutionary government.
R.L. Stephens challenges one of the tenets of the leftist argument for overthrowing the Syrian government, which is denial of the regime change intentions of U.S. imperialism. He writes:
The U.S. government has been performing regime change operations on and off in Syria since at least 1956. The U.S. and other powers engaging in anti-socialist sabotage and interventionism in Syria and the broader region helped set the stage for Bashar al-Assad’s revisionist and repressive father’s rise to power in the first place.
The current CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels is one of the largest covert operations since the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It should be completely uncontroversial in a U.S.-based socialist organization to firmly demand an end to any and all such meddling. Promoting regime change rhetoric undermines that demand.
A recent essay making the case for ‘left-wing’ regime change in Syria appears in the International Socialist Review, which is published by the International Socialist Organization in the U.S. Common to such texts, the book-length essay has exactly zero proposals for how peace may be won in Syria and how the reconstruction and renewal of the country may take place. Instead, it is claimed that a ‘revolution’ is taking place in Syria. But no program, leaders or leading political forces of this ‘revolution’ are named or described. It is a fairy tale of a construct.
The ISO has been one of the most vociferous of those leftists arguing in favour of regime change in Syria, notably in its online publication Socialist Worker.org.
Among the arguments made by the ISO is that far from seeking the overthrow of the Syrian government, the U.S. and its allies have actually been supporting it and helping to keep the government in power. This view is combined with laments that the U.S. does not provide even more weapons and financing to the ‘Syrian revolution’. Two writers in Socialist Worker.org lamented in a May 1, 2018 article: “Since the start of the uprising [in 2011], the U.S. has been hesitant to decisively support anti-Assad forces, most notably denying them anti-aircraft weaponry that would be necessary to combat the regime’s air war.” Who could have imagined seven long years ago when the regime-change war in Syria commenced that ‘socialists’ in the United States would end up advocating that the U.S. government supply weaponry to ‘rebels’ seeking the overthrow of the sovereign government of Syria?
The arguments of the new, right-socialists concerning Syria (comprising the near entirety of the past and present Trotskyist constellation, International Socialists and its ‘state capitalist’ theory fragments, and anarchists–as distinct from the right-wing social democracy that emerged in the era of World War One) are not limited to that country. When protests erupted in Ukraine in late 2013 demanding that the country break its economic ties with Russia and align itself with capitalist and imperialist Europe, the right-socialists termed this a “popular uprising”. When the Crimean people voted by referendum on March 16, 2014 to exit the new, extreme-right Ukraine and rejoin the Russian federation (reversing a top-down, undemocratic decision of the government of the Soviet Union in 1954 to ‘attach’ Crimea to Ukraine) , this was denounced by the right-socialists as a ‘Russian annexation’.
The deadly threat to the Ukrainian people and their national sovereignty by what came to be called the ‘Maidan revolution’ (or the ‘Revolution of Dignity’) was ignored or downplayed by the right-socialists. They made the false claim that the Ukraine conflict was a consequence of two ‘rival imperialisms’—the U.S. and Russia—fighting it out to dominate the country. They have shown utter indifference to NATO’s military buildup in eastern Europe and accompanying threats to Russia. The presence on Ukrainian soil of U.S., British and Canadian soldiers (in violation of the Ukrainian constitution which prohibits the presence of foreign soldiers barring formal agreement) goes unnoticed and uncommented.
The right-socialist default over Ukraine was preceded eight months earlier by support to the military coup in Egypt in July 2013 which overthrew the elected president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government. The Egypt coup was hailed as an outcome of a ‘popular revolution’ against Morsi. As for the Egyptian military seizing power, not to worry: the ‘revolution’ would soon oust the military, too (see statements of July 5 and July 15, 2013). That scenario was quickly proven wrong but was followed by a steadfast refusal to defend the victims of the horrific violence unleashed by the military and its counter-revolution become-undeniable.
Faulty arguments: Syria is not an inter-imperialist war
As welcome as it is, the commentary by R.L. Stephens uses flawed methods and inaccurate facts to make its case. He describes the war in Syria thusly:
The butchery of the civil war inside Syria, while driven by real antagonisms within Syrian society, has also been fuelled significantly by competition between larger powers hoping to maintain or disrupt the previously established balance of forces within the region.
Domestic left-wing opposition to the Syrian government under both Bashar al-Assad and his father has existed for decades, though it is not the driving factor in the present imperial war.
Apart from naming the United States, Stephens does not delineate who, exactly, are the countries responsible for the Syrian war. He calls the protagonists of the war, variously, “imperialist” and “imperial”. He does write, “The major, principal actors in the Syrian war have all committed war crimes. These include the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, but also the rebels, which have received illegal foreign support from the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other states.” It is fair to assume that the ‘Russia’ named here is deemed to be one of the ‘imperialist’ countries waging war in Syria. This is factually wrong on two counts.
One, Russia is not an imperialist country. Capitalist, yes, but not imperialist. There is a world of difference between the two. I made the case for why Russia is not imperialist and why that matters in a lengthy essay I co-authored 15 months ago.
Two, the origin of the Syrian war itself as well as Russia’s involvement on the side of the Syrian government defy a ‘U.S.-led imperialism versus Russian-led imperialism’ interpretation. In contrast to the U.S. and its allies, Russia is present in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government. Russia accepted that invitation not in order to defend imperialist economic interests in the country—those do not exist—but, rather, in order to prevent the regime-change chaos in the Middle East being stirred by the U.S. and its European and Gulf State allies from spreading any further, including to Russia’s own borders. Russia is effectively defending the sovereignty of Syria and its people.
A Russian withdrawal from Syria without an accompanying international peace agreement would be a disaster for the Syrian people. On the other hand, a withdrawal and end to intervention by the U.S./Europe/Israel/Gulf States axis would be a tremendous achievement for Syrian sovereignty.
Stephens further compounds the analytical error in writing:
While the particular circumstances in Syria are new, the question before us is an old one: whether or not socialists should take sides in conflicts between imperial powers. This is the question that split the international socialist movement down the middle when the First World War broke out in 1914 and many European socialist parties lined up with the ruling classes of their respective countries. I hope that a century later we have learned enough not to repeat that mistake.
The analogy to World War One is erroneous and does not help very much in sorting out a stand on the conflict in Syria. But as it happens, it is very useful, indeed, to reflect upon the era of World War One in order to better understand the conflict in Syria today.
The rise of anti-imperialist struggle
The imperialist slaughter of World War One was a war among the great powers of Europe to forcibly alter the division of the world in favour of one or the other contending sides. Who would control the labour and natural resources of eastern and southern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America? The rising imperialist United States joined the fray in 1917 to tip the final balance in its favour.
But the war stirred revolutionary opposition everywhere it cut its destructive path. The Russian Revolution of November 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918 are the two best-known examples of the social revolutions sparked by the war. But smaller countries, too, were engulfed by social and antiwar upheaval, before, during and after the war. Monarchies and governments were felled by mass upheavals in the waning years of the war and after in Austria-Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Iran, Mongolia and China, to name an incomplete list.
The world war stirred new conflicts but of an entirely different kind than imperialist war: these were conflicts in favour of national self-defense and self-determination by nations and peoples oppressed by imperialism. Upheavals in favour of national independence took place in the Middle East and neighbouring Iran and Turkey, and soon enough in China, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia.
Even greater changes occurred following the second, disastrous world war. Vast movements for decolonization and independence swept the entire world.
These past wars and mass struggles in favour of national self-determination and liberation are the examples which resemble today’s situation in Syria, not the two inter-imperialist wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45.
Socialists proclaim national self-determination
Resistance to colonial wars and defense of the rights of peoples under attack by imperialism became fundamental points of political principle for socialists during and after World War One. History has seemingly come full circle today as today’s imperialist countries are waging wars that resemble wars of recolonization.
The liberation struggles that emerged during World War One, especially within the Russian Tsarist Empire, placed on the world agenda the principle of national self-determination. The Russian Revolution pioneered this principle, achieving an astonishing record in its first decade. The record of the early Soviet Union is documented in the 1999 book The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-1923, by Jeremy Smith.
The Russian Revolution’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable considering the foreign military intervention and economic embargo that sought to strangle the country and overthrow the Revolution. The foreign military intervention lasted until 1921; the economic embargo did not loosen significantly until the Anglo-American axis in World War Two decided it couldn’t win the war against Nazi Germany without aiding the national defense effort of the Soviet Union.
The record of Russia and the early Soviet Union’s on national self-determination was codified in the early program of the Third (Communist) International at successive congresses following its founding in 1919. Researcher and author John Riddell summarizes this process in a December 2014 essay: How socialists of Lenin’s time responded to colonialism. He describes how socialists altered and adjusted their programs in response to rapacious imperialism’s attempts to carve up the world anew in 1914. His essay begins:
As the nineteenth century neared its close, revolutionary socialists were hostile to the world’s imperial powers and to their colonial empires, which then encircled the globe. They foresaw the overthrow of colonialism as a by-product of socialist revolution in the industrialized capitalist countries.
They had little knowledge, however, of the anti-colonial freedom movements that began to emerge at that time. It was not until the Russian revolution of 1917 that an alliance was forged between revolutionary socialism and the colonial freedom movement…
For the socialist movement that was built out of the ashes of World War One, support to national self-determination was more than an issue of democratic rights and anti-imperialism, important as those were. National self-determination was also deemed to be an essential measure to help unify the entire working class (including its peasant/small farmer/indigenous producer components) in a common struggle for a world of social justice (socialism). Yes, the principle of freedom and democracy was at issue, but so too was the issue of political strategy to win political power. Attention to political goals and strategy distinguished socialists and Marxists from non-socialist democrats in their support to self-determination.
The long, 100 years-plus history of anti-colonial and national self-determination struggle is an essential guide to the solidarity actions of socialists and anti-imperialists with respect to today’s Syria and Middle East. Here are demands that can guide an international antiwar and solidarity movement:
- No to Western and Turkish intervention in Syria. End the economic embargo against the country. Withdraw all foreign military forces, according to an internationally agreed peace plan for Syria and the Middle East.
- Democracy and national sovereignty for the Syrian people. National autonomy for Syrian Kurds. For international aid to assist the rebuilding of Syria.
- Solidarity with the Palestinian people. For a democratic and multinational Israel-Palestine.
- Support the democratic and socialist movement in Turkey. Free all political prisoners, including Selahattin Demirtaş, co-leader and presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, and Figen Yüksekdağ, past co-leader of the party. Full autonomy for the Kurdish people in Turkey.
- Support the anti-coup, pro-democracy movement in Egypt.
- End the Saudi/U.S. war in Yemen. End the threats and Western embargo against Iran.
Previously by Roger Annis:
No to imperialist regime-change intervention in Syria and the Middle East, Jan 6, 2017 (with Phil Courneyeur)