Monday, February 20, 2012

Syria: no to Assad, no to foreign intervention! by World to Win News Service plus an interview with Hassan Khaled Chatila

13 February 2012. A World to Win News Service. The US military has "begun to review potential military options" in Syria, according to The New York Times (12 February). An unnamed American military official told this authoritative newspaper,

"We're looking at a whole range of options, but as far as going to one course of action, I haven't seen anything." The report says the "possible options" that would be considered include "everything, from doing nothing to arming rebels to covert action, airstrikes or deploying ground troops."

This admission comes as the US is already backing various forms of intervention in Syria, including Turkey's efforts to use Syrian military opposition elements to form an army under its control, and the money and arms allegedly pouring into the country from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are almost undoubtedly backing fellow Sunni Islamic fundamentalists, as they have everywhere else.

The US followed an often ambiguous policy toward Syria for many years, working to isolate and weaken the regime while also recognizing its importance in preserving the status quo in the region at times when that has been a prime American goal. Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez crushed the revolutionary Palestinian movement then centred in Lebanon in the 1970s, enforced peace with Israel despite the Zionist occupation of Syria's Golan Heights since 1967, and supported the US during the 1991 invasion of Iraq. 

When the Syrian revolt broke last March, inspired by similar spontaneous revolts that toppled Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali, the US did not support its main demand, the fall of the regime. Instead Washington called on Assad to implement economic and political reforms meant to appease the movement while making it easier to pull Syria into the US orbit.

That revolt, Salameh Kaileh, a prominent Arab Marxist from Palestine living in Syria, told AWTWNS in an interview last August, was unleashed by the middle strata in the countryside. In smaller provincial cities, it now involves all social classes, including the merchants and local capitalists, Kaileh said.

"There are reasons why Damascus and Allepo haven't moved," he said at that time. "First, the concentration of security forces there makes any protest very difficult. Further, these two cities have benefited from economic changes during the preceding period. Thus we've seen Aleppo profit from the economic opening to Turkey and Iraq. Damascus, for its part, has profited from development of the service and tourism economy. But nevertheless in these two cities there are many poor sectors who are starting to move."

This situation has been complicated by the danger of the revolt being dragged down and degenerating into ethnic and religious conflict. The regime draws its core forces mainly from among Alawi (a branch of Shia Islam) clans with support from Christian forces, a configuration whose domination of the country was inherited from the French occupation. The revolt has been   mainly rooted among the Sunni majority, as well as Kurds. Unforgivably, the regime has also enjoyed the support or neutrality of almost all of Syria's so-called left, which unlike in Tunisia and Egypt have played little role in the mass movement.

The revolt has often raised slogans and made gestures emphasizing the unity of the Syrian people against the regime, while it has been the regime that has most fanned the sparks of ethnic conflict to pose itself as the only alternative. But clearly the regime is not alone in seeing the potential of conflicts among the people as a way to achieve reactionary goals.

It was not until 18 August that Washington called for Assad to go. This was not because the Obama government had suddenly found out how bloodthirsty the Syrian regime is. There had already been five months of massacres of unarmed civilian demonstrators, and for years the US had turned over prisoners to Syria precisely in order that they be tortured. But the US saw both necessity and opportunity in the current situation.

As Kaileh said, the US was now seeking regime change, but a controlled regime change, hoping to avoid unleashing uncontrollable forces, including the masses of Syrian people themselves, that might lead to an outcome that would destabilize the whole US-dominated structure of region, including the regimes in neighbouring Turkey and Jordan.  

"Following the Tunisian and Egyptian model, this change (sought by the US in Syria) would not be a radical one but a change within the regime itself", Kaileh said. One possible form would be a split within the power structure, particularly the armed forces and a coup, spurred on by or even possibly brought about by foreign military intervention.

The necessity was to step in a resolve a situation – a popular uprising – that imperilled American interests. The opportunity was that it had become possible to envisage taking out a formerly stable regime that formed a bloc with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Palestinian Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, posing serious problems for the US and threatening its reactionary regional allies. It is no coincidence that the US's eagerness to bring down Assad comes amid heightened US threats to attack Iran and/or back Israel in attacking it.

Even as the popular revolt in the Middle East and North Africa continues to acutely challenge some of the existing regimes and forms of imperialist domination, and the genie of the peoples' awakening has been released from the bottle, instead of giving in to the popular will and or even retreating slightly, the US has worked to advance its interests amid these turbulent waters.

To the so-called Tunisian and Egyptian models has now been added the "Libyan model" in which the US and the European powers (acting both in concert with the US and also out of rivalry with the US and each other) basically invaded (if mainly from the skies) and brought down the Gaddafi regime. This show of force was meant not only to assert control of Libya but also proclaim and maintain regional dominance in the face of both the peoples and other rivals, including Russia and China.

The foreign interference and stoking of civil war by the US and its allies in Syria is exactly the kind of thing the UN supposedly exists to prevent. A few years ago the US blustered threats against the Assad regime for interfering in Lebanon and demanded that the UN step in. For the US, UK and France, the question is not what is morally right or legal according to international law but what serves their imperialist interests.

Now that these powers have taken the opposite position regarding Syria: outside interference can be justified because Assad is "killing his own people". Further, if it is true that forces linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq are now fighting in Syria, this is not unrelated to the Gulf states' backing of other Islamic fundamentalist forces there. The point, for the West, is that their interference (or moves backed by them) is good, while anyone else's is an excuse for... Nato intervention. 

As Robert Fisk pointed out in the UK Independent, one particularly sharp illustration of the hypocrisy of the US and Europe is that the absolute monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now portrayed as the region's best champions of "democracy" in Syria. The fact that the Saudi regime sent in troops to put down a rebellion by the Shia majority in Bahrain and is shooting Shia demonstrators in Eastern Saudi Arabia has been politely overlooked.

The increasing importance of the alliance between the US and the reactionary Gulf states – driven by the dread that the "Arab Spring" inspires in them all – is exemplified by the fact that they were able to change the position of the Arab League overnight, from one of at least apparent neutrality toward the Assad regime to putting forward a stunningly arrogant and detailed plan for what should happen next in Syria, beginning with a transfer of power from Assad to others within his regime, with or without a military coup.

The Arab League has called for a "joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission" in Syria, but this isn't about peace. It called for providing "all forms of moral and material support" to opposition forces, but this isn't about helping the advance of what has been the main thrust of the people's revolt so far, an end to oppression.

What it resembles more closely is the 19th-century "gunboat diplomacy" when Western powers used their warships to force those local governments not already under colonial control to comply point-by-point with an imposed agenda. The fact that these demands come from Arab mouths does not change the fact that the US wrote the script, or at least gave it the green light. How could the Gulf monarchies threaten Syria without the spectre of Western gunboats (and aircraft and armies) looming just behind them?

With the pretext that Saddam Hussein was "killing his own people", two invasions separated by a decade of murderous sanctions not only led to the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of people but also plunged the Iraqi people into as dark a night as they have ever faced before, a situation very unfavourable for revolt. Then, on the same pretext, came the "Libyan" model, in which a regime that had become highly compliant with Western (and especially British and Italian) interests was brought down amidst the unleashing of all sorts of reactionary interests and forces, making life in Libya today as great a hell as ever before.

Right now the US is in no position to mount another large-scale invasion, thanks not to any sudden change of heart but the way the American projects in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned out. On the other hand, the kind of "cheap" war in Libya (cheap to the US and other Nato members, not to the Libyan people who are still paying a horrendous price) may not be possible in Syria, where the last five months of revolt have shown that the regime reactionary does have a stronger social base as well as a real army.

American strategists (see, for example, Foreign bemoan the fact that an "air exclusion zone" would have little affect in Syria, where the regime hasn't been using war planes, and that air power cannot be applied to aid anti-regime forces because to the extent that combat is going now, it is in densely populated cities. "What is presented as an alternative to military intervention [on the ground] is more likely to pave the way to such intervention once it fails," Marc Lynch warns in that publication.

Will a coup provide them with a solution? That's one possibility, but Syria is not like Tunisia and Egypt, whose militaries were closely tied to and trusted by the US and not totally identified with the regime in the public mind. The Syrian military has run up huge blood debts with major sections of the people.

We can't predict what will happen – how the US and its allies might try to solve their dilemma and make a grab for Syria. But we should know by now, after all that we've seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and so many other places, that what the imperialists are capable of is sometimes worse than we can imagine – and the results of their intervention are always disastrous for the people.

            - end item-
(For more about the Syrian revolt, see the interview with Hassan Khaled Chatila in AWTWNS110516)

Following is an edited version of an interview with Hassan Khaled Chatila, a Syrian revolutionary living in Europe.
It is circulated by A World to Win News Service, based in Britain. They write: “Although we have done our best to faithfully represent his views on the questions addressed here, they remain his own.”
The balance of forces among the opposition now favours counter-revolutionaries, because [under current circumstances] the militarization of the movement against the regime favours international interference. Alongside the unarmed protests in the streets there are now significant armed actions. But there has not been much change in the political consciousness of the mass movement, which remains a spontaneous revolt whose unifying goal is the fall of the regime. Now street slogans call for armed action to achieve this.
The head of the Free Syrian Army [formed by officers and soldiers who left the regime's armed forces] has been calling for foreign intervention since early on. It’s not clear who they are. It seems that the name actually covers several armed groups aided and sheltered by Turkey. Because there is no real organization and little political unity among these army deserters, they are often act more like armed gangs, carrying out looting and rape. The FSA [claims its purpose is to] protect demonstrations in the cities from government attack. Their tactics are bad – they shoot at government soldiers who return fire and kill civilian protesters. Their real strategy is to militarize the clash between the movement and the regime so as to provoke foreign intervention.
Politically and ideologically the mass movement is not mature enough to achieve a democratic and nationalist state, because of the absence of a revolutionary left. The reactionary forces among the opposition seek to bring to power a military regime that could be even worse than Bashar al-Assad. In Egypt, the US wants the army to protect the state and keep peace with Israel. The issues in Syria are more complicated, because of its relations with Iran, Turkey, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The US wants the forces backed by Saudi Arabia to dominate in Syria and keep politics out of the hands of the people, who tend to support the Palestinians and the resistance to Israel, and are generally anti-American – much more so in Syria than in Egypt. Because of its relations with all those forces, Syria can play a key role in the region.
Since the death of [Egyptian President] Nasser in 1970 and the defeat of the Baathist left [associated with Nasser] in Syria around that time, Saudi Arabia has come to be the predominate country in the Arab world. [The weakening of the Saddam Hussein regime and its fall with the 2003 US-led invasion accentuated this situation.] Bashar’s father Hafaz had good relations with the Saudis in some periods, though later they cooled. Both regimes want to avoid war with Israel and the US. Rami Maklouf [Syria's wealthiest businessman, a cousin of Bashar and pillar of the regime] is infamous for having once said that Syria’s stability requires a stable Israel.
The Syrian National Council, an organization of opposition forces in exile in Europe, the US and Turkey, wants to be recognized as the representative of the people. It has no presence in Syria. Its chairman, Bourhan Ghaion, is a French citizen and teaches at the Sorbonne. Its spokeswoman has long worked for the European Union. Their official programme calls for the fall of the regime, a democratic republic and no political confessionalism [politics organized by religious groupings]. Its main forces comprise economic liberals, other secular forces and the Moslem Brotherhood. They are very actively soliciting foreign intervention. Their representatives are going from capital to capital to bring about foreign military intervention but they do very little inside the country.
The SNC has issued statements condemning the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah, and calling for a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian problem.
Some Moslem Brotherhood members seek what they call a “civil state”, a deliberately vague formulation that doesn’t make it clear whether that state would be Islamic or secular. In other words, all citizens would be equal, but it seems that they would not accept a constitution that does not define Sharia [Islamic law] as the source of all law. So there are significant differences among the members of the Syrian National Council.
While the Council is backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and, implicitly, Europe and the US, it has no control over the Free Syrian Army.
There is also the non-revolutionary Syrian left, which is still seeking “a solution with and through” the Assad regime. This means change from above, not below. Their goal is to be part of a new government. Their influence among the people is limited, especially since they are widely reviled as agents of the regime. The various Local Coordinating Committees include people from the more revolutionary left and Arab nationalists.
The “Friends of Syria” meeting to be held in Tunis 24 February may be very significant. [This entity is being built on the model of the "Friends of Libya" under whose auspices Nato intervened in that country – in the present case, the purpose is to by-pass the need for a UN Security Council resolution to authorize foreign interference in Syria.] It was called by France’s President Sarkozy and backed by the [pro-US, Islamic-led] Tunisian government. There seems to be some differences among these “friends” about which Syrians to invite.
Opinion in the street is constantly changing. Some people carry banners hailing the SNC and calling for foreign intervention. In contrast, the 17 February demonstrations were called “the Friday of Resistance”, with the view that the people should rely on themselves.
The opposition to the regime from within Syria’s “political class” has come to be divided between a left that emphasizes the political and social rights of the people but is cut off from the masses, who have no confidence in any of the traditional political groups, and a neo-liberal right that demands foreign intervention. Both are in favour of globalized economic development in Syria and both fear the people.
The divisions among the people on religious/ethnic lines have been exaggerated abroad. There are people from all the religions and ethnicities on both sides. The 17 February “Friday of Resistance” brought several welcome developments in the capital. They hold the potential for bringing about another reversal in the relationship of forces between the armed opposition forces and the people’s movement.
[Until now the anti-regime movement has not shaken Damascus and Aleppo, as it has poorer provincial cities. Protests in Damascus have mainly been confined to the less well-off, mainly Sunni suburbs. The anti-regime protest that broke out in a popular suburb of Damascus 17 February spread to Mezze, an area of government and corporate offices and residences not far from the presidential palace. Alawites make up a large percentage of the population of Mezze – and the regime has drawn much of its core support from Alawite clans. Assad's troops killed three protesters in a small demonstration in Mezze on Friday. The next day, after their funeral, a small march swelled into at least many hundreds as men and women from the neighbourhood joined in.]
If the people were left to themselves, I don’t think there could be a civil war among the people. But the situation is complex, and foreign intervention could lead to a reactionary, ethnic/religious-based civil war. In that case, Syria could explode, with enormous consequences for the surrounding countries where all these ethnicities are represented.
As of now, no one in Syria today has a real revolutionary strategy. Activists are doing everything on a day-to-day basis.

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