Syria: The Complicated Reality of the Struggle

Editor’s note: In posting this interview of Sami Ramadani by Samuel Groves of the New Left Project, I do not mean to be endorsing the analysis presented here, some of which makes sense to me and some of which is framed in a very rigid anti-imperialist language which misses the experience of people victimized by the regime as well as the complicated role of the U.S. and of Israel. However, there is enough here that merits consideration to have led me to want to call this analysis to your attention!

Between Imperialism and Repression

by Sami Ramadani, Samuel Grove

New Left Project
June 12, 2012

http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/between_imperialism_and_repression

[Sami Ramadani is a senior lecturer in sociology at London
Metropolitan University and has been an active participant
in campaign's against Saddam's regime and anti-imperialist
struggles for many years. In an in-depth interview, he spoke
to Samuel Grove about the dynamics of the conflict in Syria,
arguing that democratic resistance to Assad's brutal regime
has been eclipsed by reactionary forces, backed by Western
and Gulf states, with potentially momentous implications for
the Middle East.]

The upheaval in Syria is an enormously difficult subject for
Western outsiders to get a handle on. One of the reasons for
this is the sheer number of different interests jostling for
position and power, from both within and outside the
country. Let us start with the regime itself. Can you give
us a brief history of where the Al-Assad family came from
and the direction they have taken the country since they
came to power in 1970?

Following the magnificent peoples’ uprisings in Tunisia and
Egypt, toppling two entrenched dictators, there developed a
tendency not to closely examine the nature of the various
forces competing for political power both within the
opposition movements and the Arab regimes. Events in Libya
and NATO’s intervention there have alerted most people to
the dangers of hijacking the peoples’ struggle for freedom
by reactionary forces. A brief look at the nature of the
Syrian regime and its changing role in the region is crucial
in trying to understand the current conflict and the
reactionary forces’ success in hijacking the people’s
struggle for radical change.

Syria has been run by a ruthless, corrupt regime. Syrian
left activists have been on the receiving end of severe
repression since Hafiz Assad’s coup in 1970. It was after
that coup that Henry Kissinger described Syria as “a factor
for stability,” despite Soviet military backing for the
regime. Hafiz Assad’s regime, funded by the Saudi medieval
dictators, played a leading role in the 1970′s and early
80′s in weakening the Palestinian resistance. ¬†During the
1975-6 civil war in Lebanon Syrian troops sided with pro-
Israeli Phalange and other extreme right wing forces. The
regime, in return for US promises over the Israeli-occupied
Syrian Golan Heights and Saudi petro-dollars, also backed
the 1991 US-led war over Kuwait.

The Syrian forces’ presence in Lebanon had the full support
of the US and Saudi rulers and the tacit support of Israel.
It was only after Syria’s gradual foreign policy shift and
reversal of roles from enemies to allies of the Palestinian
and Lebanese resistance movements that the US and Saudi
rulers shifted their stance. They pursued an aggressive
campaign to force a Syrian withdrawal (1985) from Lebanon,
particularly after the 2003 occupation of Iraq. US forces
even killed some Syrian soldiers on the Iraqi-Syrian
borders.

In relation to the media coverage today, it is important to
note that, before Syria’s shift the media were silent about
the repressive nature of the regime. This is similar to the
their silence towards repression by a variety of ruthless
dictatorial allies. Today they talk of Sunni Saudi rulers
opposed to Alawite-Shia in Syria, but back then, the media
did not bother highlighting the fact that the Wahabi-Sunni
Saudi rulers were bankrolling the Syrian regime nor did they
push their sectarian poison. A similar sectarian coverage
unfolded in relation to Saudi-Iranian relations after the
1979 Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the Shah, a
favourite US ally.

The opposition to the Syrian regime was not confined to the
left, but included the Moslem Brotherhood, who led a popular
revolt in 1982 in their stronghold of Hama. The regime
crushed the uprising by bombarding the City and killing
thousands of people. Nevertheless, Arab nationalism has for
a century or more been Syria’s main ideological current,
developed in the struggle against Ottoman rule and, much
more deeply, against French colonial rule. Syria won its
independence from France in 1946.

The Brotherhood today are backed by the Qatari and Saudi
dictators, but the media rarely dwell on the irony of these
dictators championing democracy in Syria while crushing any
opposition to their rule and sending their troops to help
crush the people’s uprising in Bahrain.

In 1967 Syria was invaded and a strategic part of its
territory, the Golan Heights, was occupied by Israel. Since
then, successive regimes legitimised their rule partly by
working for or at least appearing to be actively trying to
liberate Syria from occupation. However, US promises of
rewarding Syria by forcing Israel to pull out of the
occupied lands came to nothing despite Syria’s compliant
policies.

Concurrently with the failure of the US to deliver on its
promises, a number of factors changed Syria’s role. These
include the rise of Iran as a formidable anti-US
anti-Israeli power, the Palestinian uprisings, the
unstoppable rise of the Lebanese resistance, led by
Hizbullah, leading to the liberation of southern Lebanon
from occupation and defeat of Israeli-Saudi-US backed
forces, the arrival of hostile US forces along Syria’s
borders with Iraq, and the rise of Iraqi resistance and
defeat of US forces in Iraq.

The Syrian armed forces and security apparatus, with its
multi-layer pyramids of informers, form the backbone of the
regime’s control over Syrian society. Much is made of the
sectarian nature of the Syrian regime and its reliance on
the Alawite communities. I think this is highly exaggerated
and ignores the much wider circles of support that the
regime has acquired, whether this support is active, passive
or of the `better devil you know’ type.

The powerful, mostly Sunni, merchant classes of Syria,
particularly in Damascus and Aleppo, have close links with
the regime. Indeed, the US-led economic sanctions are partly
directed at this merchant class to force it to shift its
stance. Sections of the middle and upper middle classes also
tacitly support the regime. Syria’s religious minorities,
including Christians who form 10% of the population, are
fearful of the Moslem Brotherhood’s social and cultural
agenda for Syria. They too would rather have the secular
regime than a state dominated by a Saud-Qatari backed
Brotherhood. Importantly, the Kurdish minority are also
fearful of the influence of Turkey on the Muslim Brotherhood
and the fact that the Syrian Free Army is headquartered in
Turkey, which has a horrific record of killing over 20,000
Kurdish people in Turkey. Millions of women also fear the
social programme of the Brotherhood.

In the context of the current conflict, the poor, the
unemployed and students who were supportive of the initial,
largely spontaneous protest movement are now much more
reticent, partly due to regime repression but primarily
because of their opposition to the NATO-Saudi-Qatari
meddling and the militarisation of the sections of the
opposition, particularly the Syrian National Council (SNC)
and the Free Syrian Army which are dominated by the
Brotherhood.

You describe the recent protest movement as ‘largely
spontaneous’. This doesn’t mean obviously that grievances
weren’t building up over a long period of time, however it
does suggest a lack of strong long term organisations of
resistance – as was the case in countries like Egypt and
Tunisia for example.

Left and progressive opposition to the Syrian regime has
been going on for decades, particularly after the 1970 Hafiz
Assad coup, which ousted the `left’ faction led by Salah
Jedid. That faction backed the Palestinian resistance
movements based in Jordan against the military onslaught
launched by King Hussein’s armed forces in September 1970.
Hafiz Assad, who was minister of Defence before the coup,
instantly appeased the US and Saudi rulers by siding with
King Hussein and starting a crack-down on all left forces in
the country.

The left in Syria was for much of the 20th century mostly
organised by the Syrian Communist Party. Founded in 1924,
the party was subjected to varying degrees of state
repression. Since the 1970′s the more militant factions
within the party and other left organisations and figures
have suffered imprisonment, torture and exile. However, the
party leadership’s docile stance towards more militant forms
of struggle within Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, and servile
support for the Soviet Union’s Middle East policies
gradually turned it into a party of sections of the
intelligentsia rather than a genuine working class party.
Perhaps the latter would have appealed to wider society with
a socialist programme that also reflected Syria’s neo-
colonial status and being part of the wider struggle in the
area against imperialism and Zionism. As it happened the
political vacuum was filled by the Islamic and nationalist
movements, including the Baath party, who champion the
Syrian, Palestinian and wider Arab nationalist causes. A
similar process happened in Algeria where Marxists initially
advocated the line of the French CP declaring that Algeria
would be free once France became socialist!

In the context of the current conflict, all the left forces
in Syria supported the initial protest marches that followed
the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The marches, which
started in Deraa on the border with Jordan, were also
supported by the Moslem Brotherhood. The demands of the
protest marches were focused on issues relating to
corruption, unemployment and democratic rights. Though large
scale marches were held across many cities it was
significant that no such marches took place in Syria’s
largest two cities, Damascus and Aleppo, where more than
half of Syria’s population reside.

It was also noticeable that the more NATO intervened and
militarised the protest movement in Libya the smaller mass
peaceful protests became in Syria. The marchers shrunk from
hundreds to tens of thousands and to thousands and less.
Obviously, regime brutality was a factor, but I don’t think
that fear played the biggest role. I think the main reason
is that most of the democratic opposition in Syria is also
staunchly anti-imperialist and naturally fearful of NATO and
Israeli plans for Syria. Events in Libya and, above all, the
bloodbaths in and destruction of neighbouring Iraq by the
US-led forces and the terrorist gangs, played the leading
role in making most of the Syrian democratic secular
opposition fearful of the consequences of the escalating
conflict. They could not fail to notice that while Iraq
burned Syria itself became home to a million Iraqi refugees.

On the other hand, the leadership of the Moslem Brotherhood
and opposition leaders based in Istanbul, Paris and London
have effectively utilised the publicity they enjoyed on all
Arab state-controlled media, particularly the Qatari-owned
Al-Jazeera. Events have also shown that years of planning
had gone into the funding and arming of parts of the Syrian
opposition.

Having lost Bin Ali and Mubarak in quick succession, US,
Saudi, Qatari and Turkish attention turned to Syria. The
massive uprising in Bahrain, headquarters of the US fifth
fleet, also sharpened their sense of danger and fear of the
people’s uprisings. Saudi and other Gulf sheikdoms sent in
their forces to help King Hamad crush the uprising, which is
still active.

Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and areas in Iraq became the centres
of the counterrevolution in Syria. Arms were smuggled into
Syria and the US-created Iraqi militia al-Sahwa backed the
armed `rebels’ and Libyan fighters were smuggled into the
battle zones. Terrorists operating in Iraq also joined the
“jihad” against the Syrian regime.

On the other hand, years of repression rendered the Syrian
democratic opposition too weak to lead the struggle in the
country. As organised forces, they are no match for the
counterrevolution’s vast resources. Their only hope was to
keep the protests peaceful and sustained. Like in Libya,
counter-revolution had other plans.

The left here has to also recognise that the regime does
have the support of most of the affluent middle classes,
particularly in Damascus and Allepo. The numerous ethnic and
religious minorities and large sectors of the female
population are also fearful of the socially reactionary
nature of the Moslem Brotherhood and the type of regime that
they might impose on Syria. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-
Zawahir’s call for armed Jihad to overthrow Assad’s regime
has also further frightened the population of a sectarian
conflict.

This puts us in a difficult situation. As left wing
activists we support the rights of people to freedom,
equality and self-determination. As activists based in the
imperial centres we are opposed to the actions of our
governments to deny people these rights. So our support for
freedom and equality and our opposition to imperialism tend
to go hand in hand. However the picture you are depicting in
Syria is tied to the implication that we cannot do both
these. Is it possible to support Syria’s democratic struggle
AND oppose foreign intervention? Or is this a luxury we
cannot afford?

You raise a very important question. Let me make it crystal
clear: it is vital for the left to always oppose both
imperialism and regimes that repress the masses. This is a
matter of principle that should never be abandoned.
Movements that abandoned one or other of these inseparable
objectives have committed serious and sometimes fatal
errors.

The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) is a good example in this
context. Within three decades, it shrunk from being a
formidable party of the working class, enjoying the support
of the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people in 1958-9,
to a pathetic grouping that probably received funds from
Saudi Arabia in 1991 in return for siding with US-led 1991
Gulf war, and protection-at-a-price from Barzani’s KDP from
1978-9 onwards. In practice, it betrayed brave chapters of
struggle against imperialism and domestic reaction with a
chapter of shame by serving the US-led occupation authority
in 2003. It abandoned the struggle for democratic socialism
in 1959 in the name of opposing imperialism and abandoned
the fight against imperialism from 1990 onwards in the name
of fighting for democracy.

Which of the twin objectives becomes the main focus of the
struggle is always in a state of flux. However, within the
context of an era of accelerated imperialist aggression and
wars, exposing imperialism and its exploitation of the
peoples of the world is always at the heart of the work of
the left. Imperialism is a manifestation of monopoly
capitalism that exploits the masses at home and abroad. The
left in the “imperial centres” has the added
internationalist duty of firmly upholding this task: to
always side with the oppressed peoples’ struggle against
imperialism and for self-determination. However, siding with
the oppressed masses also means backing them when they rise
up against domestic oppressors. These uprisings and struggle
for democracy are part and parcel of the struggle against
imperialism.

For me the complexity of the problem resolves itself in
determining whether the people’s struggle for civil rights
and social emancipation are clearly directed against both
domestic reaction/repression and imperialism. In Iraq and
Libya yesterday and Syria today, imperialism has succeeded
in exploiting the struggle for democracy and eclipsing the
progressive opposition forces. The left has to face the
facts and not sweep inconvenient developments under the
carpet. Syria today has NATO-backed armed groups, led by
Saudi/Qatari-funded reactionaries. Syria is a major target
of US-led imperialism to install a client regime or, failing
that objective, to plunge the country into a sectarian blood
bath. The duty of the left in Britain is to firmly uphold
and raise the banners high: “Hands off Syria”, “don’t Iraq
Syria”, “don’t Iraq Iran”, “It is for the Syrian people to
determine their future”…

Al-Jazeera is a news station that has developed a reputation
on the left for covering the Middle East (some would say the
news in general) with more sophistication and seriousness
than the mainstream media in this country. And yet you say
that in relation to Syria and Libya their role has been very
insidious. Can you explain how? Can you append to this your
impression of the British media’s coverage of Syria?

With very few and notable exceptions, it really doesn’t take
much to provide a more serious and reliable coverage of the
Middle East than the mainstream media here. With significant
exceptions, the media here echo the line adopted by the
Foreign Office on any particular event or country. A complex
array of ideological, political, social, economic and
commercial factors are at play in the way the media reports
on the Middle East and world affairs in general. “British
national interests” are perceived by media owners and
editors as being expressed by the Foreign Office, which is
seen as the neutral depository and slide-rule of the
“national interest”. No distinction is made between the
genuine interests of the British people and those of the
arms manufacturers and oil companies.

Coverage of Israeli policies, Palestinian people’s rights,
Mussadaq’s Iran (1953), Nasser’s Egypt (1952-1970), Qassem’s
Iraq (1958-1963), the murderous sanctions policies on Iraq,
the Iraq War, NATO bombing of Libya and the current covert
NATO intervention in Syria are examples of how the
mainstream media towed the line advocated by the government
of the day. Similarly, the ruthless and socially repressive
nature of the Saudi regime is glossed over, because the
Saudi medieval rulers are seen as important allies.

As it happens, Al-Jazeera had its own historical link with
the media here! The satellite broadcaster was launched in
1996 following the sudden collapse of the BBC Arabic
station, which was a joint venture with a leading Saudi
prince. The collapse followed Saudi insistence on monitoring
all broadcast material, forcing the BBC to pull out. The
Qatari rulers seized the moment and launched Al-Jazeera,
with scores of the BBC Arabic service staff on board, and
with the Qatari ruling family as the owners and political
custodians.

The dead hand of the assorted dictatorships in the Arab
world made all Arab TV stations be perceived, to varying
degrees, as purveyors of state lies, half-truths and, at
best, safe-reporting. The advent of satellite stations and
the Internet opened the doors for the Al-Jazeera to project
itself as the antidote to state censorship.

The more cosmopolitan and less vulnerable Qatari rulers, who
were at odds with the Saudi rulers, saw in Al-Jazeera a
vehicle for spreading their political influence. They gave
Al-Jazeera a free hand to report on the Arab and Muslim
world, while maintaining tight control on the Qatari state
TV station. But it was of course not allowed to report
negatively on the Qatari dictators or to investigate how the
current Qatari ruler deposed his father with US blessing.
Qatar became the headquarters of US military operations
throughout the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

One aspect of Al-Jazeera that does not attract much scrutiny
is the station’s tendency to negatively report on the Saudi
royal family and Saudi princes’ widespread financial and
property interests, which are hindering Qatari investments
and influence in the Middle East. The friction between the
Qatari and Saudi royal families became much more intense
after the Qatari rulers started showing keen interest in
widening their influence in the Middle East. Occasionally,
however, Al-Jazeera’s intrepid reporters on the ground upset
US military planners in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In response to Al-Jazeera, the Saudi rulers funded al-
Arabiya and other satellite stations.

The uprisings in the Arab world, especially in neighbouring
Bahrain, however, threatened all the ruling families of the
Gulf region. This prompted the Qatari and Saudi rulers to
make common cause in suppressing the uprisings in Bahrain
and Yemen while backing NATO intervention in Libya and
bankrolling sections of the Syrian opposition and working
for militarising the conflict in Syria. For they are aware
that militarising the conflict will not only facilitate
covert and possibly overt NATO intervention but will thwart
the progressive anti-imperialist forces’ efforts to lead the
people’s struggle for democracy and radical social and
economic change.

Al-Jazeera English targets a different audience but still
has to compete with other stations, particularly Iranian and
Russian satellite stations. But both Al-Jazeera Arabic and
English, along with nearly all Arab TV stations, target Iran
in a barrage of negative reporting, with a racist and
sectarian undertones against “Persian” and “Shia influence”
in the region. This aspect of Al-Jazeera’s reporting is
becoming increasingly important in the context of possible
Israeli or US attacks on Iran.

Permit me here to quote from an article I wrote last year in
which I referred to the role of Al-Jazeera within the Arab
uprisings:

“Though Al-Jazeera has now become the most influential
political tool of counter-revolution in the Arab world,
its role in Libya and the impact of the sectarian nature
of its coverage of the Bahrain uprising would have been
much less lethal had it not been for the massive
prestige and authority it had gained at the height of
the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. [...] This [has
given it] a unique position to influence events and
perceptions, particularly in relation to Libya, Bahrain,
Syria, Yemen and Iraq. [...]Although Al-Jazeera has
always had a sectarian undertone at an editorial level,
a marked shift in direction came when the Qatari ruling
family [...] buried their longstanding conflict with the
Saudi ruling family in the wake of the revolutionary
tidal wave reaching Bahrain [...]?The channel’s silence
towards the violent suppression of the protesters in
Bahrain, headquarters of the US fifth fleet, was backed
up by live interviews with Sheikh Qaradhawi, a very
influential Egyptian cleric and a guest of the Qatari
ruling family.”

Doing serious damage to the democratic forces in Syria, Al-
Jazeera has been trumpeting the Qatari and Saudi rulers’
calls for the militarisation of the conflict. It has given
voice to the pro-NATO intervention forces in the Syrian
National Council and the Free Syrian Army, who do not
represent a majority of the Syrian people and are dominated
by the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps more damagingly is the
way they suppressed the anti-intervention democratic
opposition voices in Syria.

How do you see this conflict playing out? Do you see a
victory for the reactionary forces as moving us closer to a
war with Iran? Is there still a potential for revolutionary
change in Syria?

Yes, I think that a victory for the Saudi and Qatari ruling
classes, backed by the US, will be a major setback for the
people in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and the entire
region. It will plunge Syria and the entire region into a
sectarian bloodbath, and will strengthen plans to attack
Iran.

In an alarming move pointing to future developments, a major
US-led military exercise is taking place in Jordan. 12,000
multinational forces from 20 NATO members and Arab states
are taking part in Operation Eager Lion 2012, the first of
its type in the region. US military sources do not hide the
fact that the simulation of amphibious landings and other
war manoeuvres were intended to be “noticed” by Syria and
Iran.

Syria is of pivotal importance not only due to its historic
role and strategic location but also because it is Iran’s
only ally in the region. Installing a pro US regime in
Damascus, or crippling Syria through severe sanctions,
terrorist attacks and sectarian civil war will apply further
pressure on Iran to either concede to US demands or be
attacked.

I think that Iran’s nuclear energy programme is not the
major US concern, especially given that the CIA itself has
admitted that there was no evidence that Iran was working on
producing nuclear weapons. Iran is a formidable regional
power, and one of the world’s largest oil producers, which
happens to be implacably opposed to US and Israeli policies.
Its policies run counter to US plans and have created
problems for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq and for Israeli
policies in Palestine and Lebanon.

Following the uprisings, the Saudi and Qatari rulers are
being encouraged by Washington to strengthen their influence
in the Middle East by restoring their lost influence in
Syria and Lebanon. In the latter, defeating Hizbullah (and
its Christian and left and nationalist allies) is the main
objective. They are trying to drag Hizbullah into another
Lebanese civil war. Al-Jazeera and Arab states’ media have
been conducting a prolonged and intense racist and sectarian
campaign against Iran, portraying it as the main enemy and
accusing Syria and Hizbullah of being stooges of Iran.

This is not to argue that the counterrevolutionary onslaught
will be successful. The people of Syria are overwhelmingly
opposed to political and social change in their country that
is funded and backed by the dictatorships of Riyadh and
Doha. Women, most of whom enjoy vast social rights compared
to Saudi women, ethnic and religious minorities and the
democratic left in Syria are a formidable force against
Saudi-Qatari-funded forces and are opposed to calls for NATO
intervention. Militarisation of the conflict and resorting
to terrorist attacks are signs of failure of the reactionary
forces to gain mass support for their line. However, the
struggle of the anti-imperialist left and other democratic
forces in Syria, as in Iraq, remain difficult and very
complex, due to the brutality of and corruption-ridden
regime on the one hand and the intervention of NATO and
Saudi-Qatari rulers on the other.

Years of repression by the dictatorships, backed by colonial
and imperialist powers for so many decades, has
organisationally weakened the left and other democratic
forces. It is obvious that with Saudi-Qatari backing, the
leaderships of the Brotherhood and Salafi forces are, in the
short term, reaping the fruits of the uprisings. These
forces have always played a dual role amongst the poorest
sections of the population, giving voice for their demands
while acting as a lid on the more politically and socially
radical demands of the people. At critical times, as in
Egypt, Iraq and Syria today, they have played a counter-
revolutionary role and were accommodated by imperialist
powers.

However, the uprisings in the region have unleashed massive
popular energies that bode well for the future.

In the short term I am quite pessimistic about radical
democratic transformation in Syria. I think that is no
longer possible in the current phase of the struggle,
because of the weakness of the left organisations and the
foothold gained by the reactionary forces in the country.
But longer term the uprisings across the Arab world are
laying new foundations for the left to organise and prepare
for the protracted battles to come. The masses have flexed
their muscles in an unprecedented way. I think their
triumphs and setbacks are massive schools for the new
generations to develop more effective means and
organisations to lead the struggle forward.

[Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist.]

 
tags: War & Peace   
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