Part III of Syria, Turkey and the Arab revolt
by Wilhelm Langthaler
Despite the undeniable historic anti-imperialist traits of the Baath regime (support for the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance, block with Iran) these are by far outweighed by the anti-imperialist momentum represented by the popular uprising in the entire region.
First stage: peaceful and anti-interventionist
When the democratic movement in Syria started, inspired by the advances in North Africa, there was the hope for quick victory as with its precedents. But the Assad regime refused to take the same road as his homologues in Tunisia and Egypt. The succession of Assad junior had evoked hopes for reform, but they have been frustrated since. All during the last decade the Baath apparatus did not allow them. Why then should they do so now? The only strong explanation for this total inability to respond at least partially to the democratic mass movement is the sectarian Allawi character of the Baath regime encapsulating itself.
As in the other Arab countries the Islamist forces played no driving role in this first stage of the revolt. Essentially the motive force was politically, culturally and socially a milieu similar to that in Tunisia and Egypt. The political demands were the same as well. There has been a strong consensus for remaining peaceful, avoiding civil war, against sectarianism and first of all against foreign intervention.
In this first stage imperialism and especially Israel remained hesitant. Assad formally was their enemy but a calculable and rather toothless one. Meanwhile the Arab revolt seemed incalculable and out of control. While Saudi Arabia is the main promoter of the anti-Iran axis, Riyadh feared the popular revolution at her borders even more. Turkey herself was the architect of the détente with Assad and Iran. So Ankara took the back seat generally embracing the democratic movement but waiting to see how Assad would manage the difficulties. A difference from the Libya experience was that the imperial centre initially did not go for regime change by armed means as the neocons had asked for half a decade ago. The reason is simple: they did not have any favourable alternative at hand.
A direct military intervention as against Libya is still unlikely:
• Assad is not as unreliable and unserious in his relations as Qaddafi was. Beyond the Allawi sect he got the support of the business elite and the passive acceptance by the Christian minority. Internationally Assad is backed by Iran as well as the UN Security Council members Russia and China. An attack would have an enormous impact on the world system within a situation of increasing western weakness. Politically a western military attack could even be of political help to Assad, allowing him to pose as the defender of national sovereignty in a much more credible way than Qaddafi did. An attack even could reverse the political advantage gained in Libya.
• An attack could produce a sectarian civil war also spilling over into Lebanon. In Iraq the sectarian civil war seemed to be at first a US strategy but later turned out to be detrimental to US interests. That close to Israel the US would dislike provoking civil war with unpredictable outcome unless there is no other viable way.
• One of the central western allies, Ankara, would probably be against such an intervention as it would be forced into a central role. Politically the AKP regime cannot afford to appear as an appendix of NATO imperialism.
• There remains a certain military overstretch of the US.
One should not confuse the position of the western corporate media with that of the western regimes. Western media has been set on “humanitarian imperialism” for the last two decades. This is all the more easy in continental Europe where states usually refrain from participating in US aggressions. As compensation they happen to outpace everybody in moral bellicosity.
Certainly there is general congruence between the regime’s media and its policy. But it lies within the system that this congruence is not always total. The state chancelleries a) know that they cannot intervene directly by military force and b) that they have no reliable alternative because the street movement will be difficult to control as it is driven by popular forces hostile to imperialism.
They limit themselves to the spiral of sanctions trying to force Assad into a compromise with the movement. They hold few assets in hand as there is no significant openly pro-imperialist force within Syria – which is different, for example, from Libya.
Turkey as a model and main player
For many in the Arab world Turkey is a model to emulate especially for the MB trend. The AKP anticipated the triple demand of the Arab spring thus pre-empting a revolution.
1) They granted more democratic rights and combined a secular system with Islam.
2) They provided social development while maintaining not only capitalism but also leaving the capitalist elite and their interests essentially untouched.
3) They embarked on a more independent foreign policy (Iran, Gaza etc.) without breaking with NATO.
For a period of after all more than a decade the AKP was able to meet urgent popular demands while remaining within the frame of the imperialist system. They were able to avoid the revolutionary turmoil raging in the Arab world. It is not the scope of this article to discuss the sustainability of this model – we dare to doubt. But we are very sure that for the Arab world the Turkish model is not feasible. On one hand neither the domestic nor the global socio-economic pre-conditions are provided – differently expressed, they are close to catastrophic. On the other hand the elites proved totally unable and unwilling to embark on comparable reform and also their western masters did not advice them respectively. So the masses had to embark on a revolutionary path which cannot be easily switched off.
Actually the outflow of Turkey’s new role was a détente with Syria (as with Iran) in offset to the traditional western line. But the popular revolt completely changed things and subsequently also Turkey’s approach had to be altered.
Like with the other centres of the Arab revolt Ankara had to take side with the Syrian popular movement. (Even Iran, which is in alliance with Assad, was forced to moderate it support for Assad calling upon him to undertake reforms for the very same reason.) If Turkey wants to maintain its pre-eminent role in the region as a model it absolutely needs to go along with the Arab spring.
The embrace of the movement coincides with western foreign policy but not necessarily with the same intention and first of all it cannot follow the same methods. It was no accident that Turkey was reluctant regarding NATO’s attack on Libya. Ankara needs to avoid appearing as a henchman of the US. This is even a precondition of its political intervention.
Turkey is following its own ends. It is aspiring to become the leading power of the region – an approach which has been dubbed neo-Ottomanism. For this purpose Ankara cannot remain an appendix of the US, the EU or NATO but needs to defend the independence and self-determination of the region in the spirit of the multi-polar global design. The Turkish regime will try to use the Arab spring in this sense and not along the western interest to reproduce regimes as much dependent and subservient as possible.
Regarding its comprehensive intervention into the Syrian events, Turkey needs to go along the described path. A Libyan-type NATO intervention is therefore not possible. It needs to be a limited, softer one even if it employs military means (although for the time being they do not know how to be at the same time effective and soft). It will not be imperialist in the western sense. They will neither intend nor be able to impose a pro-imperialist regime as the US tried in Iraq.
The Turkish intervention (political, economical, culturally and military) certainly has an impact on the Syrian popular movement, trying to shape it according to Turkish interests. It is directed against the social revolutionary and anti-imperialist fraction of the movement while favouring the liberal fraction of the MB. But Turkish intervention will not alter the general character of the Syrian popular movement.
Therefore the revolutionary anti-imperialists need to oppose Turkish intervention and criticize Turkey's local Syrian allies. But it is no reason to abandon the popular movement all together let alone change sides, switching over to defend the Assad regime. As long as the democratic revolt remains the driving and dominant force we need to fight for its victory.
The Assad regime
Let us one moment assume that the Assad regime is really attempting to defend Syria from an imperialist takeover. Given its international isolation it would urgently need to rebuild consensus among its own people, regain popular support, respond positively to the popular democratic demands. This is what the people hoped for after the succession from father to son one decade ago and also at the onset of the current popular movement. Some factions of the left even tried to organise dialogue conferences between the movement and the regime.
But the regime did the exact contrary and proved totally unable to make concessions. It resorted to increasing repression and is drowning the revolt in blood. It is unwilling to embark also on the slightest democratic reforms. Thus the hopes of the people eventually got frustrated and very few people continue to insist on reforms, while most have come to the conclusion that the only way out is to topple the regime.
To close our thought experiment: if the regime really was engaged in an anti-imperialist struggle its measures would actively drive people into the arms of the enemy. Without the support of important sections of the lower classes self-defence against imperialism at least in medium and long term ranges is impossible.
Anti-imperialism against the popular masses can indeed occur under specific conditions. Sometimes it can even survive for a longer period of time – and revolutionary anti-imperialists need to defend them against the imperial centre. But in the presence of a powerful mass movement against the imperial order across the region things need to be re-evaluated and weighed. Despite the undeniable historic anti-imperialist traits of the regime (support for the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance, block with Iran) these are by far outweighed by the anti-imperialist momentum represented by the popular uprising in the entire region.
We have been exposing that the regime is based on a neo-liberal capitalist elite like in the rest of the Middle East. They are faced with a social revolt by the lower classes, despite the fact that due to the severe repression the social aspect is poorly politically represented. The democratic aspect plays an overwhelming role which, however, does not change the overall class character of the uprising.
Maybe the main reason why the regime is still in power or could not go for partial withdrawals like in Egypt or Tunisia is its confessional armour, which is pushing the country on the brink of sectarian civil war.
More than its regional homologues Damascus insists on being guardian of secularism against the Islamist danger. However, everybody knows that Assad’s rule is based on the Allawi sect enormously driving confessionalism. The more the conflict with the regime escalates the more also the sectarian civil war does. Allawis and Christians are being compacted with the regime, which excludes the possibility of orderly withdrawal of the regime. Assad tries to link the fate of his own Allawi sect and to a lesser extent also of the Christians to his regime.
Assad bears the full political responsibility for pushing the country into sectarian civil war, which plays in the hands of imperialism (see Iraq). He is also preparing the political ground for foreign military intervention. The difference from Libya is that Qaddafi did not dispose of the sectarian armour and the oil rent remained in the hands of even fewer people than the profits of the Syrian oligarchy.
Second stage: descent into civil war
Meanwhile we are coming close to one year down the road of the uprising. The hopes for quick victory have vanished. The regime seems to keep the support of important sections of society.
Two important changes can be observed: a step by step militarization of the conflict and a growing call for foreign intervention – two aspects linked to one another.
One could be astonished that diehard leftists have continuously insisted the Syrian opposition use peaceful means. History teaches that revolutions, without taking up arms, without forcefully toppling the ruling elite in general, are doomed to fail. Especially the current evolvement of the Syrian events seems to testify for the accuracy of this assumption.
But the more the conflict gets violent the more it gets sectarian. And the more blood is shed the more it evokes the call for a foreign military intervention. The moderate forces and also those inclined to Sunni sectarianism search for a shortcut to avoid or circumvent a full-fledged revolution, which can only be also a social one. This is especially true for the MB and its Turkish and Gulf protectors.
Assad’s ruthless repression, however, turned any peaceful demonstration into a kind of suicide commando. Hundreds if not thousands of democratic activists of the first stage have been killed so far. It is clear that there is a limit to self-sacrifice. It is understandable if the movement turns to armed self-defence against the state slaughter. It is not possible to continue street demonstrations that regularly leave dozens of participants dead.
Then there is the growing phenomenon of mass defections from the armed forces that is politically expressed in the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Despite the fact that they pledged to refrain from offensive military action the FSA’s appearance is adding to the militarization of the situation.
From a revolutionary anti-imperialist point of view the escalation needs to be tuned down as much as possible while respecting the right to self-defence. The main task for the time being is to increase consensus, to politically decompose the army and to more and more politically isolate the regime. It is all about to prepare for a general insurrection combined with a military coup with a faction of the army. But the time is not ripe yet. The revolution still needs time to grow and to stand on its own feet. Also to politically confront the pressure for foreign intervention, a line of de-escalation is necessary.
The opposition and the Syrian National Council (SNC)
The Syrian opposition movement has been and still is manifold, however, reflecting the general democratic character. The main differences occurred over the legitimacy of foreign representation and whether a reform programme is viable or the regime needs to be toppled all together. In the first phase there was consensus over the refusal of foreign military intervention.
Similar to the other countries of the Arab revolt the uprising was neither inspired nor controlled by Islamist forces despite a general reference to Islam as a symbol of identity. As was the general trend in the region, the Islamists had to follow suit and accept the democratic spirit which tends at the same time to multi-confessionalism. This is especially true for the MB whose more liberal trend embraced the movement.
As the formation of a political representation inside the country was repressed and made impossible by the regime, the building of a front outside became a necessity. But it is also clear that the relationship of forces outside is different and to the detriment of the social revolutionary and anti-imperialist forces. The MB is the only force with an organised network including established contacts to western power. The very fact that they nominated Burhan Ghalioun, an intellectual with leftist anti-imperialist credentials, needs to be interpreted as a reflection of the relationship of forces within the movement. Without the left the Islamic forces cannot move and will definitely not be accepted as the leadership.
There is, however, a shift coming about with the second phase of the movement. The inner democratic grassroots leadership has been eliminated. There is an obvious trend to militarization favouring better organised Islamic forces. The latter tend to favour foreign intervention for support. Given the strong repression one can imagine that there are many people within the movement who want to stop the bloodshed by foreign pressure, including Turkish military power. At least they regard it as a lesser evil also because Turkey is not regarded as a western imperialist force.
The social revolutionary anti-imperialist forces remain on the ground, continue to defend the refusal of foreign intervention and insist on steadfastness. The Syrian revolution can succeed without the support of foreign powers but it needs more time and sacrifices not all are ready to give. They search for the easiest way out.
That the SNC is gradually giving in on the question of foreign intervention reflects this development. Still it does not call openly for a military intervention but insists on the political isolation of the regime, sanctions and protected zones. But the trend is clear. By which means can protected zones be established? Only by foreign military force!
Does that mean that the SNC and all those who follow a similar line have become instruments of Turkey or even the west? Or does that mean that from an anti-imperialist point of view Assad’s regime needs to be supported as it would defend the sovereignty of the country?
To make it clear right away: From an anti-imperialist point of view the SNC’s line must be refused and the insistence on the own strength of the movement continued. But in which form can this criticism to the SNC be expressed? Are they traitors or a leadership not able to continue the revolutionary struggle?
The SNC did not capitulate like the Libyan anti-Qaddafi leadership. They try to use the projection of foreign power in a limited way with the intention to keep the upper hand – whether this will work is another question.
Are we in on the verge of an imperialist intervention like in Libya or even like in Iraq or will we be faced with an intervention on a neo-Ottoman line? Will a pro-imperialist regime be installed or something similar like in Egypt or Tunisia, which is more democratic, more responsive to the popular demands but which for the time being remains within the frame of the global system and definitely within capitalism?
One could imagine even the paradox scenario where a Turkish intervention might save some remnants of the old regime (for the sake of re-stabilising the situation) while a full-fledged popular revolution would raze it completely to the ground.
After all, we should not forget that there is still a revolutionary popular movement at work with a powerful influence struggling for power (this is not comparable with the Libyan situation). Any force intervening will have to cope with that. Turkey will neither be able nor willing to openly repress the movement. Thus the movement will certainly remain a decisive factor.
So there is no reason to cede the support for the popular movement, focusing on its revolutionary anti-imperialist wing, which came into a difficult situation. The SNC & co must be criticised for its opportunism but not attacked as henchman of imperialism, which they are not.
Actually it should not come as a surprise that the popular masses want to take the easiest road, the less costly one – at least as it appears to them. They are not referring to imperialism as they did in Eastern Europe. They are hoping for the help of a local power which is trying to pose as an alternative to imperialism. Both in Egypt and Tunisia they essentially did the same thing on a domestic level. The revolutionary process has only started and people need to make their experiences. Maybe they need to test the Turkish offer in order to overcome it. So we are only passing through the very first step of the democratic revolution, which is doomed to continue as imperialism is also economically unable to stabilise the situation.
Certainly the most favourable scenario would be that the revolution succeeds in Syria exclusively on its own forces. But even if the old order it toppled with Turkish help it would most probably not mean extinguishing the democratic character of the movement. (Look to Egypt: also there the movement was unable to prevent the military from reassuming power with the help of the MB. It took them half a year to respond but the popular movement definitely remains a factor.) It can, however, not be excluded that the situation will degenerate into an imperialist intervention. Then we will have to re-adjust our position. But this for the predictable future is not a probable variant.
The PKK and its milieu are convinced that the SNC and the entire Syrian popular uprising are at the service of Turkey against the Kurdish interest. Meanwhile some pan-Arabist milieus are equally convinced that the uprising wants to split the country mainly using the Kurds to weaken the Arab people in imperialist interest.
Contrary to both of them we strongly believe that democratic rights for the Kurdish people (including the right to self-determination) is a powerful instrument for the success of the revolution and opposed to both Turkish and imperialist interests.
The Kurds have been oppressed for decades and have responded by fighting for their rights. They have been reluctant to join the Syrian popular movement as its position on Kurdish rights was not obvious. By granting them full rights the popular oppositions would secure Kurdish adhesion and foil the project of the regime to set the minorities against the democratic movement. At the same time supporting Kurdish rights it is the most powerful political tool to keep Turkey away, as Ankara wants to avoid any democratic precedence for their own Kurds.
To argue for the right to self-determination for the Kurdish people does not contradict the need to fight for the unity of Syria and not even against Arab or Middle East unification. Formal unity means nothing and is prone to break apart under imperialist pressure. Unification is only strong and sustainable if it is freely and voluntarily chosen. Now the Syrian Arab people have a great historic opportunity to unify with the Kurdish people creating precedence for the entire Arab region. They should grant them the right to self-determination inviting them at the same time to join a new democratic Syria. The pan-Arab political project can only be revived with this democratic approach. Otherwise it remains an ideological chimera de facto helping imperialism to split the people of the Middle East and setting them against each other. To foil this plan the dominant nation, which is the Arab one, must take the initiative. The smaller minorities will follow as soon as they experience their rights as being granted. Otherwise they tend to become instruments of imperialism against the popular anti-imperialist struggle – but not against the Arab ancien regime, which tries to exploit a totally hollow pan-Arab past.
December 27, 2011