Nothing Left in Syria? Why the Western Left Hasn’t, but Should, Support the Armed Resistance

by Joe Morby on October 13, 2012

“There are only 2 sects in #Syria: Those who support freedom and those who support the regime. We want a civil and democratic country for all.”

Developing Situation, Developing Attitudes

The general response of much of the Western left to the Syrian crisis seems to have turned full circle since the beginning.

To begin with, there was a guarded support for the initial popular protests and demonstrations as a continuation of the ‘Arab Spring’, but this became ever more tentative as the Libyan uprising reached its bloody climax. Wary of the mounting threat to its power, the Syrian regime engaged in strong suppression, murdering protesters and imprisoning many more; at this early stage it was described as a ‘crackdown’ on protests rather than an uprising, much less a revolution. During this time we were still learning of the various groups that were emerging in Syria, and so fears of sectarianism or Islamism were not voiced particularly loudly; these would come later as excuses for inaction were running out.

Shocked by the murder and sheer brutality of the ‘crackdown’, disillusioned soldiers defected from the army and formed a defensive militia, the Free Syrian Army, their stated mandate initially being the protection of protesting civilians. Shortly, they began to mount defensive and then offensive manoeuvres against the regime’s forces; an armed resistance had formed, and its intention was to remove the Assad government from power.

Support for the Syrian uprising amongst the Western left remained, but it was now outpaced by anti-intervention rhetoric; material assistance for the rebels, in any shape or form, would be only abetting the nations who provided it as they jockeyed for geopolitical position and control. The role of the left was therefore to continue to offer ‘support’ for the rebels’ cause without endorsing any move by imperialist foreign powers to intervene (any highlighting of the Russian and Chinese assistance of Assad as evidence of foreign meddling or imperialist influence, in contrast to the aims of NATO, was not generally entertained for long). Reports of government atrocities and attacks were often deliberately placed in doubt by a disingenuous questioning of every account’s veracity, even when this defied simple reasoning,  the implication being that Syrian rebels may have faked the shattered bodies of protesters buried in their blood-soaked flags, or falsified whole sections of towns destroyed by artillery (Phyllis Bennis, writing on Red Pepper, says that ‘anti-Assad propaganda remains dominant’ – as if after the thousands dead, tortured and fled we would need to lie about him!).

“We want arms, not useless talk.” Sign from “We want arms; not Diplomacy Statements” Friday, October 5, 2012.

All throughout this time many leftist sources in the West argued that assisting the rebels would ‘militarise’ the situation, to the eventual gain of the imperialist powers, and that the best recourse lay in the ‘third way’, offering ‘support’ for the ongoing strikes and protests but opposing any military move that might make use of Western assistance. (‘Support’ here did not mean physical assistance through arms, logistics or equipment, but general solidarity — benign wishful thinking to boost the protestors’ cause. But this kind of support is not much use against tank shells; instead, it is a strange kind of solidarity that, in practice, is near indistinguishable from actual indifference.)

Although it was clear from the outset that no one wanted direct Western military intervention – not the rebels themselves nor reluctant Western leaders – the debate quickly presumed that this was all that was being mooted, essentially answering a question nobody asked and obfuscating the issue of material or military assistance. When talking about Western involvement, words like ‘support’, ‘assistance’ and ‘intervention’ were often used interchangeably and without explicit definition, so that opposition to one was assumed to mean opposition to all.

The conflict intensified as the embattled regime dug its heels in and the rebels, clear that they would be spared no quarter, became ever more resolved to topple Assad. The long-awaited United Nations (UN) endeavour, the ‘Annan Plan’, failed ignominiously, as did the UN-brokered attempt at a cease-fire.

In both cases the UN failed to recognise the reason why, that is that the regime wants to kill people as a means of maintaining control by fear and collective punishment and in the hope that, if enough civilians are killed in certain areas, the general population will themselves eliminate the uprising, or at the very least be scared off from joining it. Certainly the rebels realised that the repression would not end there. Let us not forget that, as a young man, Bashar would have watched his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad kill some 30,000 people in the city of Hama, using tanks and bombs, for standing up to his rule; having seen the lack of penalty for his father, it was no doubt easy for Bashar to re-enact the carnage on that city exactly 30 years later.

The government was by now quite openly deploying indiscriminate heavy artillery and air attacks. The murderous shabiha militias, a mix of viciously pro-Assad fighters and suborned thugs, now worked in tandem with the government forces to commit some of the conflict’s most notorious massacres, including that at the now-infamous village of Houla (despite the overwhelming testimony of survivors the credulous line that the massacre had been conducted by the rebels themselves was strung out for weeks in the mainstream press, only now being quietly laid to rest following a damning and definitive report by the UN). The pressure on Western powers to support the rebels increased considerably, as did the rhetoric against such assistance from much of the left.

The abiding concern was still that by arming the rebels the West would be facilitating the downfall of Assad and ensuring the accession of a pro-West, pro-imperialist government that would pave the way for belligerence against Iran and open the floodgates to rampant neo-liberalism and monopoly capitalism. The difference with the earlier position was that now the rebels themselves were increasingly being painted as reactionary, unstable, un-revolutionary, or extremist. If the rebels were accepting assistance from the West, then they were now ipso facto pawns of the West, and therefore of imperialism, and as such should be actively opposed rather than supported.

Where this failed to convince, other excuses against assistance were proffered. Prophecies of sectarian pogroms and Taliban-esque Islamists taking power now became prominent in arguments against Western assistance. The presence of some foreign fighters, including some who had participated in the downfall of the Ghadafi regime, led to some sources portraying the entire armed uprising as a kind of illegitimate terrorist endeavour (thereby echoing the official line of propaganda being promulgated by Syrian state-run media). In more academic circles doubts were cast as to whether the uprising could be considered revolutionary in any sense anyway, as it had not mobilised enough from the working or industrial class and was looking decidedly bourgeois. Others doubted that it could be considered ‘popular’. All in all, the uprising, now tied in with an armed resistance, was now not to be backed.

(Some examples of the mainstream Western left response to Syria can be found here, here, here, here here and here; this is by no means an exhaustive list.)


The general summary of these reactions is that, from the beginning, much of the left used every excuse fathomable to avoid the unpleasant truth that a) Syrian civilians are being killed in their thousands and b) if the people of Syria are to stand up to the slaughter, they are going to need military assistance, that is, Western assistance. A quite reasonable wariness of imperialism has been allowed to outweigh the far more pressing urgency of stopping state murder on an industrial scale. Much of what I have read and heard online and in print from leftist circles has ungallantly ignored (or at the very least sidelined) the human devastation, the thousands murdered (30,000 by some recent estimates), the mass of refugees fleeing Syria or their mistreatment in neighbouring countries, the complete destruction of towns and villages, the widespread use of torture, including on children – and replaced it with cosy, unconcerned, semantic arguments over what constitutes a revolution, which neighbouring country is most in the pocket of the U.S., or who is supposedly fighting whom in the ‘proxy war’.

There is no sense of urgency. Lofty attempts are made to complicate what, on the ground, is actually a very simple situation, that of state murder and collective punishment and a popular resistance against it. The intention of all this is to essentially filibuster the question of outside assistance until either the uprising falls exhausted under Assad’s military machine, or devolves into a sparse, fractured insurgency reminiscent of Lebanon’s deadly civil war.

The Western left’s initial position, that giving technical or military equipment to the rebels would ‘militarise’ the situation, gave scant regard to the violence that was clearly going on; certainly any scenario that involves an army with guns murdering others is militarised already, by definition. Assad had already shown by then, to the tune of several thousand dead and many others tortured or imprisoned, that he had no qualms about harming the unarmed; indeed, that was his purpose. If the right to self-determination, surely one of the fundamental tenets of leftist thinking, means anything, it must mean the right to defend oneself from a rapacious, indiscriminately-murdering fascist force; therefore, to have the means to assist these people at your disposal only to deny them is to admit either support for the aggressor or indifference to his victims. The only other defence is that of much of the left – that you are opposing assistance on the pious basis that to do so would compromise your stance against imperialism, a position that is easy to hold when one is not being bombarded by artillery.

But what of the plans of imperialists? The insidious, self-serving nature of Western interventions, particularly those of the U.S., needs no introduction and is well-documented. We know from the U.S. embassy cables released on Wikileaks that the U.S. has been meeting and funding pro-democracy opposition groups for some time before the Arab Spring, hedging their bets with them whilst also engaging (somewhat ineffectually) with the Assad government. One can rest assured that if the U.S. offers any assistance to an opposition movement it will certainly be angling for a future that sees its own interests protected and promulgated, be it the expansion of its hegemony in vital parts of the world or merely the promotion of its own brand of neo-liberal hyper-capitalism that it exports and insists upon wherever it can.

But achieving these ends is by no means inevitable, and even if it was, it is still a good deal more attractive than being slaughtered. Also, they would at least have the benefit of occurring in something approaching a democracy, where imperialistic desires could conceivably be defeated or curtailed; here we have the advantage of already knowing the U.S. techniques.

So much for the “pro-NATO” Syrian rebels
After all, it was with U.S.-led NATO assistance that Ghadafi’s regime in Libya fell, and although the process has not always been smooth that country recently enjoyed a handover of power from the National Transitional Council to a newly, and democratically, elected government (an event that went by with little fanfare from the left. Since then the imperialist-controlled client regime has yet to appear. At times one almost senses a resentment from some on the left that Libya didn’t descend into the barbarous maelstrom or Islamic caliphate that had been predicted as a result of the intervention there – such a scene would have at least vindicated their opposition to outside assistance). And as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, it is democracy in the Middle East that poses the greatest threat to U.S. concerns; the decision of whether or not to adopt or reject a pro-U.S. stance should belong to the Syrian people alone.

The level of control the U.S. is assumed to have in this situation has, however, been overstated, sometimes to the level of paranoia. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) seems to be often described simultaneously as too fractured to be reliable and yet somehow coherent (and credulous) enough to be co-opted by the U.S.; it is also described as a political force when it is really a military force that, by its own admission, has no political intentions outside of the ousting of Assad. Writing in response to some pieces indicative of the typical reaction of the left from noted anti-imperialist John Rees, the blogger Richard Seymour was given the closest thing to an online pillorying for suggesting, on his Lenin’s Tomb blog, that ‘the armed contingent is too diverse, too localised and too disarticulated to be a proxy army, or simply a force of reaction as some claim’. This point and others he made in that same article are demonstrably true, but were shouted down for not supporting the orthodoxy.

The U.S. has a long history of using purported humanitarian concerns as a pretext for invasion or regime change, all in the hope of replacing whatever government displeases them with one that is more conducive. The left have traditionally identified these pretences and exposed the ulterior motives at play.

But I argue that the case in Syria is different – there clearly is a great humanitarian concern, and if the Syrian people are to experience any end to Ba’athist repression then the regime must go, and if the Syrian people can bring this about quicker with NATO support, then we should press for it now; we can worry about energy contracts after the overwhelming ugliness of the regime has been removed.

Ideological Excuses

One reason that some on the left oppose the Syrian uprising is that they believe that Syria, under the Arab socialist Ba’ath Party, is a pillar against U.S. hegemony that needs to be defended against capitalist-world interests (for examples of this, see the collected statements of George Galloway, although I flinch to think of him as ‘left’). These thinkers are reluctant to see Assad or the Ba’ath Party go, as they fear a profligate, U.S.-controlled puppet-state taking its place, to the detriment of the region and anti-imperialism in general. Now, the idea of keeping Assad in power as a bolster against NATO interests is just an extension of the dangerous premise ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and ignores the nature of the Ba’athist regime; it seems baffling that, for all the atrocities and the thousands dead, Assad should still not be seen as the greater enemy currently threatening the Syrian people. Supporting resistance to Western imperialism is admirable, but not if it involves allowing mass murder – to do so would be essentially asking the Syrian people to die for our beliefs. It may be considered noble to sacrifice oneself for a cause, but it is contemptible to expect others to do so for you.

Another source of reluctance, that Ba’athism is a kind of useful experiment in socialism, is also misleading. The land reforms and nationalisations that characterised its initial implementation of Arab socialism are long forgotten, as is its definition as a ‘socialist state’ in the 1973 constitution. Economically, the regime uses state capitalism to benefit only those in the ruling cadre, and any lingering vestige of social considerations have been swept away by Assad’s neo-liberal reforms in the last decade. The protests that sparked the crackdown were, like those in other Arab Spring countries, as much a reaction to growing inequality as political suppression.

Polish fascists rally for Assad. If even they can understand he’s one of them, why can’t we?

For all its talk of nationalisation, state supermarkets and consumer price caps, Ba’athism is essentially fascism, and Syria, under Assad, is a fascist state. As usual, it is as telling to see which words are not used in debating Syria as those that are. It is interesting that many commentators have avoided using that word, ‘fascist’, to describe the Syrian Ba’athist regime, yet that is essentially what it is: a nationalistic, authoritarian, militarised one-party state whose leaders foster a large personality cult and are not indisposed to meting out violence on those that dissent or oppose them (it was even able to allow the extremely fascistic, swastika-waving Syrian Social Nationalist Party into its coalition, before even they turned against it). This differentiation is crucial, as would the left be so opposed to supporting the uprising if the regime was openly described as a fascist regime? That would indeed be a tall ask. And yet, each time the opportunity to describe it as such is missed it allows Assad to coat himself with another layer of legitimacy.

There are doubts as to whether the uprising can be considered ‘popular’. Evidence for this would be that strikes and labour movements have not played as large a role as in other Arab Spring countries such as Tunisia and Bahrain. But this is hardly surprising, given that Syria has some of the worst workers’ rights in the world; collective bargaining hardly exists, and strikers can face severe penalties, including hard labour sentences. Even the act of organising is difficult, as all workers’ groups are mandatorily enrolled in the state-run General Federation of Trade Unions, which holds the power to nip any inconvenient motions in the bud.

What popular revolution looks like.

Certainly the regime considers the uprising popular — realising, like Ghadafi, that the greatest threat to its power comes from the people themselves, it has embarked on a bloody programme of collective punishment, meted out on defenceless civilians with the intention of discouraging ordinary people from even thinking of joining the opposition. This is why it deliberately targeted bakeries in Aleppo, killing people waiting for bread. This is why it uses tanks and airpower to decimate towns and villages whether rebels are present or not. This is why it fires on refugees attempting to cross the borders into safety. This is the thinking behind the massacres, conducted by hand, such as those that occurred in Houla and Daraya. There is no plausible military use for these atrocities, just the cold process of deterrence and suppression by fear.

If popular support dwindles, it will be because the regime’s tactics are working, terrorizing people into rejecting the rebels and the uprising for fear of the government’s vengeance. It does not help that the Syrian uprising feels so desperately alone, without much in the way of even supportive statements or solidarity from the rest of the world (and certainly not enough in the way of material support – rebel fighters have had to withdraw from some parts of Damascus due to ‘lack of ammunition’). After the intervention that led to the ousting of Ghadafi, many Syrians doubtless hoped a similar response would come to their assistance; they pressed on with their revolution, but have found themselves without the decisive military support they need to win.

With regards to the idea that the uprising need not be supported as it is not a ‘revolution’, one can straight away say that in order for there to be a true socialistic revolution the Syrian people need to be in an environment where they can meet, discuss, protest and organise without being murdered or arrested en masse. The first strike removes the dictator and the suppressive security apparatus; after that, the people are free to open a debate on socialistic progression, form unsuppressed worker movements, and organise properly. The notion that the armed resistance should not be supported simply because it is not explicitly socialistic (the FSA’s purpose is primarily to remove the Ba’athists) is too callous to be entertained.

The FSA         

One of the more ‘practical’ excuses for not supporting the uprising is wariness of the Free Syrian Army, the main force fighting Assad. Increasingly, the coverage of the conflict has started to dwell  more on the occasional excesses of the rebels (such as the summary executions of captured combatants) than the overwhelming atrocities being committed, as an end to themselves, by the regime’s forces (tellingly, the usual verification disclaimers often disappear when the subject is rebel atrocities rather than government ones). Aside from the absurd need to ‘balance’ a clearly unbalanced situation (coverage does not suddenly become ‘impartial’ by exaggerating rebel barbarities, or by dubiously construing both sides as equal forces), this bias serves to placate the consciences of those who have decided not to support the rebels.

In evaluating these atrocities we must again look at the language being used. The ‘Free Syrian Army’ is a specific body with its own command structure, tactics and objectives. The ‘armed Syrian opposition’ refers to anyone outside of the government forces who has taken up arms, be it against Assad or not; other than the FSA, this includes local militias, Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and any groups of jihadis or foreign forces that are not under FSA control. Too often, the former term is used as an umbrella for the latter, which it is not; arming the FSA does not mean arming al-Qaeda. And in a country where the rule of law has disappeared in many areas, criminal acts and personal revenge attacks should not be assumptively blamed on the FSA unless there is evidence for it.

This is not to say that the FSA has been faultless. We know that some FSA rebel atrocities have occurred – Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Council have documented cases of summary executions, kangaroo courts and prisoner mistreatment and have rightly impressed the need to recognise and denounce these crimes, as a measure of moral consistency. However, unlike the regime’s forces, these clearly reprehensible acts are the exception, rather than the rule, and go against the wishes of the FSA command (Amnesty International have welcomed the calls for restraint, particularly those recorded in videos, that the FSA leaders such as Abdul-Razzaq Tlass have issued to quell such cases. The importance that we in the West place on such incidents has not been lost on those who seek our assistance).

A valid counter would, of course, be to point out the FSA leadership’s sluggishness in dealing with these violations. But if the West were to engage with the rebels, there could at least be an opportunity to impress extra vigilance against such vigilantism, especially as a precondition for continuing assistance; let the prerequisite for our support be adherence to our rules of engagement, openly-reported and transparent. This would be more likely to happen if any Western assistance was overt and openly admitted, as the politicians authorising it back home would have something to lose; at the moment, what little Western assistance there is is being given tacitly and quietly, not least because Western governments fear condemnation, much of which would come from the left. All in all, rebel violations should be a cause for concern and a point of order between the West and the FSA, but should not eliminate our support for what is essentially the only supportable force fighting to end a regime that is hell-bent on mass murder.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

All those things we fear – the abuses, sectarianism, reprisals, Islamic radicalization – will only get worse as both sides become more embattled and desperate. The greater engagement we would get with the rebels through supporting them would allow us a hand in curtailing and discouraging those aspects of their action that disturb us so. It would also help prevent problems after the fall of the government, as if and when the regime does fall, the country may very well need assistance in containing sectarianism or militant Islamism. In a recent interview with al-Jazeera, Malik al-Kurdi, deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army, impressed this need for assistance: ‘The crisis in Syria is turning into a civil war. If the international community does not intervene to find a solution, the situation in Syria will become so difficult. The problem is not the collapse of the regime. We probably need another two months to take the regime down. The problem is what comes afterwards.’ He acknowledges problems with separatist groups and within his own ranks, and emphasizes that they need support: ‘We need the world’s help right now – and after the regime has fallen.’

The inability of the FSA to fully equip its men has led to disillusionment with its leadership and resentment amongst its ranks. The lack of weapons has led to the use of home-made arms that are doubtless less predictable and more dangerous to use (we can also expect a greater use of improvised explosive devices, as these, unlike ’professional’ weapons, can be home-made).

As the FSA’s resources, and therefore their effectiveness dwindles, new rebels are increasingly being drawn to groups like al-Qaeda, who seem to be better supplied than them, or the al-Nusra Front, who have openly admitted an Islamist agenda. Their influence is increasing as people lose faith in the poorly-equipped FSA, leading to worrying issues of security, as witnessed by al-Jazeera journalists in Syria. This state of affairs, where people desperate to fight Assad are turning to notorious terrorists for assistance, should highlight the need to bolster the legitimate opposition, as allowing extremist groups such as al-Qaeda to gain ground can only lead to more sectarianism and more indiscriminate killing; again, it is Western inaction that assists this.

Which side are you on?

Syria is increasingly portrayed as a kind of volatile powder-keg of belligerent sects, with Assad acting as the ‘glue’ that holds them all together; surely, removing him would unleash chaos? The uprising however, is not sectarian in intent or composition. The FSA is naturally composed mainly of Sunnis (who make up 70% of the population) but encompasses Syrians from all over, even including some Christians and Alawites; of the groups fighting in Syria it is surely the least sectarian, due to this diversity. Our media is too quick to portray Arabs as a kind of belligerent species that will resort to violence at the drop of a hat, with religious variations being exaggerated until one assumes that any Shia and Sunni would automatically hate and attack each other at the first chance. Certainly, if left to fester under the sole influence of radicalists, the uprising and any post-Assad situation will take on an Islamist or sectarian nature. This can be countered by the plurality of democracy, the kind of society that the uprising is striving for and will only get if properly bolstered, lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the strategic choice is between democracy and dictatorship, and that despite the fear-mongering over Islamists they should not dominate the debate.

The left must also guard against one of the main prejudices that often hang over events like this (thankfully, it is not one that originates from the left, but one that is evident in wider society; however, the left is not immune to it). It is the impression that this is somehow ‘normal’ for Arab politics, all par for the course for the Middle East; it is not normal, anywhere. There should be no such thing as moral relativism, it is only a platitude to excuse our inaction, a shroud to cover our indifference; it is also an indication of anti-Muslim prejudice. If one employs the thought experiment of imagining this crisis occurring in a non-Muslim Christian country, then the current position seems unthinkable – imagine your reaction if it were Manchester or London being bombed, instead of Homs or Hama! Or if it were the arrondissements of Paris where children had their throats cut, or where fathers were forced to watch their daughters raped, before being raped themselves (as the regime has been documented as doing).

What argument for inaction could you accept then?

Similarly, the left should also reject the response that it is just a ‘Syrian problem’, or, as Mehdi Hasan wrote for the Guardian, that ‘the sad truth is, it is not our job to topple Assad’ – it may not be our ‘job’ but it should certainly be our concern; the ideals of the left, to promote freedom from tyranny, social and political equality, and a just society are empty if it is not.


A common feature of some leftist commentary is the assertion that the resistance is already being covertly controlled by the U.S., either directly or through its allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia (both no doubt interested in reducing Iran’s strength in the region). We do know that the FSA has received some arms and money from the Gulf, and that Britain and the U.S. have admitted offering ‘non-lethal’ support, and the resistance may have been crushed already were it not for the support and shelter it has received from neighbouring Turkey.

What the ‘Friends of Syria’ have not offered, however, is decisive support. There have been no heavy arms for the rebels, no ‘safe zone’ for the civilians. The fact that the FSA is currently so under-equipped leads one to question the sincerity of the U.S.-led support; similarly, the lack of any move towards a buffer zone, even after 30,000 dead, shows that there is no real political will to intervene even for humanitarian purposes, let alone to support the uprising.

What would be the response from Assad’s allies if NATO were to intervene? And what would the effect on casualties be? We know that the Assad regime has received support from Iran, and that Russia has continued to send arms to it, including helicopters; the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has also been sending fighters and advisers. In a way, the situation on the ground has already escalated, and the rebels are already having to deal with these elements. The real issue is whether outside players, Iran in particular, would escalate its involvement if NATO were to use airpower, either for a no-fly zone or an assault on Assad’s air capabilities. In the case of a no-fly or buffer zone, this would be unlikely; the NATO action would be seen as a defensive and humanitarian gesture rather than an offensive manoeuvre and would have input from Turkey and the Gulf States to boost it politically. Turkey may well be the one to lead on this, as the burden of Syrian refugees is forcing its hand towards intervention; along with France it has been making the right noises but is awaiting U.S. support.

The case is less clear if airpower was used offensively against the Assad forces; Iran is no stranger to puffed-up bluffs of belligerence, but it might just stand by its threat to send its own airforce in if Assad was attacked. The best chance of defeating Assad without regional escalation, it seems, lies with the armed Syrian uprising itself.

Would any of these measures lead to more casualties in Syria? With the majority of daily deaths now being due to indiscriminate air and tank attacks, it seems likely that any imposition of a buffer zone would save lives; however, offensive air attacks would undoubtedly endanger civilians (as was seen during the offensive part of the Libyan intervention). Arming the uprising with more decisive weapons will probably ramp up the violence, but if assistance is to be of any meaningful military use it must be decisive; it is the elongation of this conflict that is costing lives, rather than the firepower of the rebels. Certainly the worst eventuality would be a Syria where no-one steps in, left to suffer a deadly, internecine war of attrition while the world trips over its own feet in its haste to disassociate itself.

How much support is there for outside support or intervention? As mentioned before, there is no desire for any outside invasive force from any wing of the Syrian opposition, but that does not mean there is no call for any assistance. Certainly, the FSA wants to receive as much support as possible, their concerns being practical and military; their primary problem is their current lack of resources. The Syrian National Council, after some initial ambivalence, has asked for international intervention on a humanitarian basis;  meanwhile, the opposition coalition of the National Co-Ordination Committee has firmly opposed any such move. Of the protesters and activists who have embodied the non-military uprising, their attitude towards intervention is displayed in the titles given to their days of unrest: 28th October last year saw the “Friday of No-Fly Zone”, 16th March was the “Friday of Immediate Foreign Intervention”, and 10th August was the “Friday of “Arm the FSA with Anti-aircraft Weapons”- no ambivalence there, it seems. The deciding vote must lie with the embattled people of Syria, for while there may be some amongst the opposition who do not want to see increased support or intervention, one thing is clear: each time we see a tear-stained face asking why the world is doing nothing, we can be sure that it is action and not rhetoric that they are clamouring for.

The Left and Pragmatism

It must be understood that the Syrian conflict is not going to go away. Should the uprising fail, Syria will be subjected to an almighty clampdown, as only a brutal, authoritarian state can do (and already did, in Hama 30 years ago, continuing with mass arrests, torture and murder even after all resistance had been crushed). Should it peter on in a weak, unassisted way, the regime’s victims will merely pile up high enough to block the sun. If it does triumph, it will need assistance in keeping Syria stable. The one thing that should be clear is that Assad and his government cannot stay in power. Already illegitimate enough by years of intimidation, suppression and rigged ‘elections’, the act of conducting warfare against one’s own people is enough to remove any shred of legitimacy or validity; there could be no future engagement with such a body, and it would be contemptible to insist the Syrian people remain under such misrule.

The Western left, if it stands for anything, has to stand for basic human dignity and freedom from tyranny, control and repression, especially when conducted by a state against its own citizens. The left cannot afford to be tied to barbarism; in any case, it should be incompatible with one’s essential humanism to accept a regime such as Assad’s in favour of even an imperialist-influenced democracy. If it helps, you can call it the lesser of two evils. It is not a case of being right or wrong, merely of recognising that the struggle against fascism in all its forms is essential, and that if lives are to be saved from a repression that will not stop, then support must be given to those opposing Assad. One can worry about their inadequacies, and take issue with their direction, but if they are all that is standing up to the murderous regime then they must be assisted against the greater danger.

Let us make it clear that such ‘assistance’ should not mean any kind of Western invasive force — on this everyone on the left is agreed, and nobody, including those fighting for their lives in Syria, is advocating that. ‘Assistance’ here means anything that can help the rebels in their struggle against the Assad forces short of Western armies- that’s time, money, equipment, communications and logistical help and humanitarian supplies. But primarily, it also means decisive weapons; there is no point in pretending that an armed uprising can go far without reasonable armaments.

There is a lot that could, and must, be done. The French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has raised the possibility of setting up no-fly zones over certain areas, an idea that Turkey has also floated; those still reticent about the FSA should seriously consider this as a humanitarian endeavour.  Similarly, any attempt by Western governments to provide humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees sheltered by bordering countries should be encouraged and indeed insisted upon. We should, of course, try for a peaceful removal of the regime at the same time, however dictatorial regimes rarely acquiesce easily and Assad, sheltered politically by Russia and China (those two bastions of human rights!), shows no sign of this. A focus on dialogue is admirable, but ignores the nature of regimes such as this, that, like Ghadafi, will not cede power without a fight. Assad has been able to stop his murderous campaign of collective punishment and seek genuine dialogue with the uprising at any time, but he has refused- complete annihilation of all possible opposition is the regime’s plan, just as it was in 1982. This highlights the difference with the deposed leaders of the Arab Spring; Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh and even Mubarak stepped down when the internal pressure (particularly from within their own military ranks) became too much, and long before their respective uprisings came anywhere close to the present situation in Syria; the Ba’athists, like Ghadafi, refuse to concede an inch of their power and are well-experienced in the brutish methods of maintaining it by force. In the meantime then, Orwell’s dictum stands: ‘Despotic governments can stand moral force till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.’

Bickering and swiping will not help. In a response to the Richard Seymour piece mentioned earlier, an article on the ‘What’s Left’ blog facetiously mocked the idea of supporting the Syrian uprising: ‘If supporting Syria’s rebels meant anything at all, Western leftists would be making their way to Turkish border towns to offer their services to the Free Syrian Army.’ It is to our great shame that we have not. What we can do, however, is shift the political mood here in the West to one that is conducive to allowing our governments to provide meaningful assistance. Currently, our governments are free to coast through this situation as there is little perceived support for the Syrian cause, and therefore no incentive to get involved in any meaningful way.

There have been many on the left who have already voiced their discomfort with the ‘mainstream‘ left reaction and have raised concerns similar to those raised here; Nikolas Kozloff on al-Jazeera (also highlighting Hugo Chavez’s support for Assad), Jess Hill on GlobalMail.orgRichard Seymour, Alex Callinicos writing on and articles on OpenDemocracy and have all showed support for the revolution or have expressed discomfort with the left’s response (even if they don‘t all agree on the way forward). This debate should continue, but it must also consider pragmatic ways forward and look at the balance of consequences, between allowing the opposition to be actually backed or remaining inactive.

The left is still reeling from its inability to prevent the war in Iraq, and it is conceivable that this has led some on the left to disengage with foreign policy for fear of re-living the impotence of the last decade. Unfortunately, one does not ‘make up’ for Iraq by stultifying the legitimate and popular efforts to remove another (also Ba’athist) dictator, and supporting the overthrow of Assad does not invalidate one’s opposition to the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein a decade ago. The stonewalling, and then opposition to the Syrian uprising is sadly indicative of a shift of priorities in internationalism amongst some members of the modern left, with the focus moving away from support and solidarity for foreign causes to mere opposition to U.S. and Western policies. It has moved from being proactive with foreign causes and movements to merely reactive to whatever NATO is doing, with debate only seeming to exist as responses to Western policy. A symptom of this has been a limitation of the topics at the forefront and a lack of interest in areas and issues where NATO and the U.S. in particular are not involved; without any imperialist policy to react to, there is too often nothing to say.

This reluctance to ‘make the first move’ may be a defensive habit the left has developed as a result of seeing supported causes ‘go bad’ (a mindset that could be traced back to dismay and disillusionment over the Soviet Union), a consequence of misleading moral relativism, sheltered pacifism (anyone promoting total pacifism in a situation like this should observe a fox in a henhouse), or it could be a lethargy brought on by an inability to change things; either way, it is costing the lives and efforts of uprisings such as those in Libya and Syria, and also the standing of the Western left itself, whose support for uprisings like this could once be counted upon but now, it seems, must be carefully courted. As a result, the left often fails to provide any cogent or pragmatic ways of dealing with events such as Syria, as it dithers and agitates over U.S. policy; in the meantime, more focused actors literally get away with murder.

Support the revolution or continue scabbing. The choice is yours.

Lack of pragmatic support for popular uprisings and tacit admiration for speciously-socialistic dictators will be to the left’s undoing. We run the risk of alienating the most vital movements going on today for the sake of the temporary discomfort of realising that sometimes, in special circumstances like these, NATO’s assistance can be useful and even necessary, even if it should be used sparingly. It would therefore be very much harder, when the bloodied movements win their hard-fought struggles (as eventually they must) to engage and work with them for true socialistic progression; for who, having spent their every effort opposing assistance to a movement, could then look them in the eye and ask to be a part of their future?

Joe Morby is a freelance writer based near London. His areas of interest include imperialism, revolution, race and Latin American/ Caribbean socialism. He read Physics at the University of Bath.

Further reading from The North Star:

{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

Arthur October 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Basically positive but the references to the Western left are self-contradictory. By definition people who support fascist dictators murdering their people are NOT on thel left. A useful term is “pseudo-left”.

More importantly, these people are largely irrelevant. Western inaction is not related to any fear that the pseudo-left could mount some kind of anti-war movement. The were proved incapable over Iraq.

Articles should be directed at overcoming mainstream apathy fears, uncertainty and doubts. Both the efforts in doing so and any success in doing so will also incidentally demolish the pseudo-left far more effectively than taking them seriously by arguing with them as though they actually mattered.


Brian S October 13, 2012 at 2:39 pm

A good, well-argued piece. These basic truths can’t be stated too often. I could quibble over particular points (in places it tends to underestimate the danger of sectarianism, but it gets the key point right – that the main danger of sectarianism comes from the asymmetry of the struggle, and the prolongation of Assad’s killing, which western inaction can only make worse.) I’m not sure there’s much value in discussing the fine points of intervention – there isn’t going to be any movement on this front before the US election, and even then its far from certain what will be on the table. The only forms of “no-fly zones” that are seriously under discussion are narrow strips along the Turkish (and possibly Jordanian) borders, which would be handy for Turkey, since it would would allow them to off-load the refugees currently on their territory) but wouldn’t be of much use to anyone else.The French have hinted that they might accept something a bit more substantial, but laid down such strict conditions that they are basically asking the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad before they will consider providing serious support.
I guess the real question is what we on this side of the debate can contribute (we could start my agreeing a decent label for our position – I’m sick of referring to the other shower as “anti-imperialists”): at the moment all I can see doing is trying to prevent some kind of spurious “anti-interventionist” consensus” being claimed that might get in the way of anything useful being done.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp October 13, 2012 at 7:27 pm

My suggestion for a label: the pro-revolution by any means necessary camp. The “anti-imperialist” crowd is going to sit this one out, screaming about an invasion that will never happen, meanwhile Russian and Iranian imperialism send weapons, money, and boots on the ground to slaughter civilians and revolutionaries alike.

As for what we can do, I’ve outlined some of that here:

The biggest hurdle the Free Syrian Army faces now is a lack of arms, and the biggest problem for the Syrian people is this coming winter. We can help with both by doing fund-raisers for the organizations that are doing work on these issues, as well as traditional activities like teach-ins. We have to break down the isolation of the Syrian community in the West with deeds and actions.


Arthur October 13, 2012 at 9:19 pm

“Revolutionary democrats” is the traditional label. One cannot become a communist without first of all being a revolutionary democrat but it still has a broad mainstream resonance. The pseudo-left are neither revolutionary nor democrats.

“Pro-revolution by any means necessary camp” is both more unwieldy and less accurate.

I’m inclined to agree with Brian that serious western intervention is unlikely before the US election (if only because that isn’t far off), However timing is also up to Turkey, not just the US.

Uniting with the Syrian community for teach-ins and fund raisers is certainly the way to go – with an emphasis on reaching out to the mainstream urging serious intervention as they are already doing.

It is counter productive to keep talking about “an invasion that will never happen”. The mutterings from Turkey that it might well happen are more helpful.


Brian S. October 14, 2012 at 8:27 am

@Arthur Its never counter-productive to stay realistic. The only reason Turkey will intervene beyond some wrist-slapping for bad Syrian targetting is to offload the refugees or rein in the Kurds.There is some new talk of a UNIFIL centred UN “peacekeeping force” – but first there have to be some sort of peace.
But I support the proposals for concrete actions.


Arthur October 14, 2012 at 10:44 am

Turkey is already intervening by openly allowing the FSA to operate from and be supplied through Turkey. This is not minor and commits Turkey to FSA victory. I can’t predict what will happen or when, but I’m confident about urging others not to rule things out (and its obviously counter-productive to do so while advocating them).

Yes, my enthusiasm for intervention may increase a danger of unrealistic expectation. But I also think its unrealistic to think that either side can win in the short term or that others can afford to just let it drag on for the long term. So it follows that eventually there will be serious intervention to end it.

Compared with Libya the process is incredibly slow. But the political commitments have been made and unlike Libya there simply isn’t the urgency created by the possibility of imminent defeat. It isn’t like Africa where the world has stood by while millions get killed. Nor is it even like the 1990s when Europe stood by for a long time during the balkan wars. The world has moved on and events in the region are highly visible.


Anthony Abdo October 13, 2012 at 3:33 pm

The idea that US antiwar activists should be calling for US ‘help’ (what is really going to be direct overt entry into overthrowing Assad as opposed to the Pentagon’s current covert war) to overthrow the present Syrian government instead of calling for US troops to get out of Turkey, Jordan, Libya, and the rest of the Muslim World is just absolutely appalling. What is this obsession that Rightward drifting US marxists (mainly from the ex Trotskyist School) seem to have with small fry people like Assad and Gaddafi? Why is it that they have no time to make any real effort to build an antiwar movement outside the control of the Democratic Party types but can spend their days and nights focusing on leaders in other countries who the US government wants overthrown?

As a marxist myself, I am ashamed that so many people that have come out of the same political tendency of the past as myself today are now turning themselves into only marginally ‘Left’, Social Democratic sheeple for The Empire. Certainly this is a hard turn away from a position that the old time socialists of the SWP had during WW2 days, when their leaders went to jail opposing their own government’s imperialism. This group of humanitarian imperialist Lefty ex-Trots today would have been calling for comrades to get on board to help denounce the evil Hitler instead of trying to fight their own government’s plans for world domination.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp October 13, 2012 at 7:29 pm

“What is this obsession that Rightward drifting US marxists (mainly from the ex Trotskyist School) seem to have with small fry people like Assad and Gaddafi?”

These small fry dictators slaughtered 30,000 of their own people. If we don’t help them defend themselves, our tradition is the exact opposite of revolutionary. If you want to thwart U.S. imperialist, help topple Assad and establish a bourgeois democracy in Syria; it’s what the U.S. and Israel fear most.


Arthur October 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Bush didn’t fear bourgeois democracy in these countries and even the more traditionally “realist” imperialists in the Democrats strike me as merely dragging their feet (in embarassment at the contradictions with their hostility to Bush) rather than actively inclined to prop up the dictatorships like previous US administrations.


Anthony Abdo October 14, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Your idea, Pham, that it is the job of US Left activists to go around supporting the overthrow of dictators in other peoples’ countries that our own capitalist Empire government here at home in the US is targeting is not international solidarity at all. Overthrowing our own imperialist military machine would be that solidarity, but Pham, you strikingly show about absolutely little personal effort invested in trying to do such.

Pham wants us to topple Assad alongside the Pentagon and then what, Pham? …on to Tehran to help topple that government for the D.C. imperialists as well? This is a whole complete perversion of the idea of showing international solidarity with peoples abroad. Instead of -Down with the US Military!, Pham is pushing -Up with the US Military! effectively. Then Pham will ultimately calling for us to solidarize ourselves with an attack on capitalist roader China because he wants that government overthrown as well???? not to mention Russia because Putin is a bad man and soon….


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp October 14, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Everywhere the Pentagon puts a minus you turn it into a plus and call it Marxism. It’s quite amusing.


Louis Proyect October 14, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Let’s not forget that Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s bodyguard, spoke in favor of Sharansky and Solzhenitsyn in the pages of Intercontinental Press in the 1960s and 70s when NATO’s nuclear missiles surrounded the USSR. Or consider this:
Trotsky was so eager to accept the offer of the Dies Committee to
testify that I had always assumed that he did so. If he had, he would
most certainly have been a “friendly” witness. He didn’t have to say a
single word and the Dies Committee didn’t have any mechanism to compel
his testimony, yet all he wanted was a list of allegations made about
him to the committee by Browder and Foster and a list of questions so
that he could get his documents ready. The claim that Trotsky was in any
way a potential “hostile” witness is simply untenable.

This is not to say that Trotsky approved of the politics of Martin Dies
of the nature of the committee’s work. Rather, he hated Stalin and was
anxious to use any mechanism available in the war of words (and ideas)
against Stalin.

I have typed up the Matthews-Trotsky cables of Oct. 12, 1939, which are
now available on the Early American Marxism website.

(XX) “Exchange of Cables between J.B. Matthews, Chief Investigator of
the House Special Committee on Unamerican Activities in Washington, DC
and Leon Trotsky in Mexico City, October 12, 1939.”

On October 12, 1939, the chief investigator of the Dies Committee in
Washington, DC extended an invitation to Leon Trotsky to give testimony
before HUAC in Austin, Texas, “a city designed with a view to your
personal convenience.” Trotsky’s visa and security were to be handled by
the committee. Matthews stated that “The committee desires to have a
complete record on the history of Stalinism and invites you to answer
questions which can be submitted to you in advance if you so desire.
Your name has been mentioned frequently by such witnesses as Browder and
Foster. This committee will accord you opportunity to answer their
charges.” Trotsky accepted the invitation that same day “as a political
duty” in a collect cable to Matthews. He sought similar travel
permission for his wife, said to be intimately familiar with his papers;
a list of questions so that he might collect documents for his reply;
and “exact quotations from depositions of Foster and Browder concerning
me personally.”


Anthony Abdo October 14, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Somehow, you, Pham, and all the others who support these US Empire regime changes think that who the US government is supporting, why, and where is somehow irrelevant??? That’s your own personal basic silliness and lack of thought though. It is relevant despite you being apparently congenitally unable to see that! What is only relevant to you in assisting other societies to protect themselves from US imperialist intervention is whether or not you find that you can be able to cheerlead the leaders of these countries there or not. If you dislike the leaders of these countries, your socialist solidarity for national self determination simply evaporates into thin air. Puf! GONE.

If you think that you can cheerlead for other countries’ government leaders, as many cheerleading revolutionary tourist mindset ‘marxists’ have done in the past cases of Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, BUT cannot now bring their cheerleader selves to do in Libya, Syria, and ultimately Iran, then you make a big deal about how you are supposedly exercising international solidarity by your supposed opposition to war on others by your own US capitalist class. It is all bullshit though, since you are merely cheerleading for the leaders in these select countries. You seem to believe that it is beside the point this simple and basic matter of what your own national capitalist class is up to. However, you are playing simpleton here for the masses, rather than trying to build momentum to stop YOUR (yes YOUR) US army from doing in their dirty works abroad for the capitalist class at home. You try to pick and choose your pretend solidarity with other nationalities, depending on whether you like the leaders of them, not depending on whether your own capitalist class is attacking them.

All your cheerleading is utterly conditional and creates no possibility for building any real anti- militarism movement in the US since the average US citizen can see through the fact that you take no principled stand to stop the US military at all from intervening inside other countries to overthrow other governments that the Empire doesn’t like. To the contrary! The population sees right threw you.

If you are for the overthrow of these governments, then you are out there loudly making propaganda for that, just right alongside the imperialist propagandists who are doing the exact same thing. The US working class observes that, and your lack of principled stand FOR non interventionism by US troops and against the US government operating in other people’s countries shows them that you have little principles for anything at all, since non interventionism in the affairs of others is a key point in what real democrats (which real socialists are) actually stand for. The common folk of the US, that are not pro imperialist Right Winger types, support that idea of non-interventionism but you, the supposed socialist leaders, do not!


Theodor Voelkl October 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm

the Baath Regime has to fall.Rebellion is justified.arms are the last means to achieve it.
but than the problems start. what is the meaning of Fascism regarding the Assad dictatorship?who are the forces having the arms right now? what is there ideology? who are there backers?is Islamism a progressive ideology?does have the popular movement a say in the actions of the armed groups?why do you see only 2 camps,the west and the Syrian regime backed by Russia and China?don’t You think that Turkey,Saudi Arabia,Qatar are able to play their own games?in the end,”political power comes out of the barrel of a gun!” the main problem is the non existence on the field of civil war of a popular armed a secular left I will never support a Islamist organization. what happened to the idiot comrades who supported the Khomeini movement ?
You do not give the driving forces,the organizations (Muslim Brotherhood the recognition that they are determined,political,have a program and act like a party of cadres. and the y have the support of wealthy sponsor countries and some western powers.for You the people of this kind of countries have no identities.they just revolt.
At the moment there comes only this example in European History up to my mind:when in the 30th the Fascists in Austria took up arms against the Dollfuss dictatorship, should the left support them ? of cause not , but there was a strong working class movement (organized) in arms too as a third force.there were them to support .
for supporting armed struggle in Syria please give me a secular fronts address.
there is no humanitarian intervention of imperial powers. there is only help for the fight against a common enemy. and as far as I see there are only 2 examples in the history of the 20th century where a dominating radical force were able to cope with the conditions. the “Tito Yugoslavs revolutionaries”and the Communist Party of China.
in Syria at the moment I just see the future in more killed comrades,from both sides,the result will be a huge step back. and our aim should be to help every person or comrade individually.the left which is not killed by the Baathists by now will be killed by the Islamist next time.
we are not moving forward, and please give the remaining left the chance to doubt.


Arthur October 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm

“What happened to the idiot comrades who supported the Khomeini movement ?”

They went on to become the current pseudo-left in all its glory – and they STILL support the Iranian regime and oppose the Syrian revolution BECAUSE the Iranian regime opposes it.

There’s no way for a secular left to exist if it won’t fight fascists.

Yes any intervention by imperialist powers will be aimed at fighting a common enemy rather than merely humanitarian.

Wanting them to fight a common enemy rather than not fight it is a no brainer.

Confusion and doubts about that are the result of a long time not thinking at all.


Arthur October 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm

PS I cannot speak for others here but I do give organizations like the Muslime Brotherhood the recognition they deserve. As in Egypt I think the most positive outcome plausible in free elections after defeat of the dictatorship is a majority for such parties, just as free elections in Iraq resulted in a majority for Shia islamist parties (and free election in the USA result in a majority for Republicans and Democrats). There are no prospects whatever of proletarian revolution in any of these countries without first establishing democracy. One should not need to explain to anyone living in a Western democracy that it doesn’t quickly result in proletarian revolution either. Its simply necesary and a vast step forward compared with autocracy.

This stuff is elementary and people who don’t get it are simply not capable of getting anything more advanced. Pretending that they are “left” despite not wanting to fight for democracy was always untenable and has become completely ludicrous.


Aaron Aarons October 14, 2012 at 11:37 pm

Please point to a single proletarian revolution anywhere that grew out of bourgeois democracy. Russia? China? Vietnam? Cuba? The proletarian revolution in Spain in 1936 was aborted because the workers were convinced by their leaders to give power back, in stages, to the “democratic” bourgeoisie after they, the workers, had defeated the fascist coup in most of the country.

Pretending that you are “left” while supporting imperialist or pro-imperialist bourgeois “democracy” was always untenable and has become completely ludicrous.

BTW, I do support the resistance of the Iranian state to imperialism, including any measures of asymmetric warfare that they may use against the imperialists.


Brian S. October 15, 2012 at 9:00 am

@AaronAarons re bourgeois democracy etc. Its certainly true that socialist revolutions have not historically grown out of bourgeois democracies. But that’s because they took place in states where bourgeois democracy had not taken root (indeed that’s one of the main reasons why they took place there) – and democratic demands and aspirations played a central part in the popular mobilisations that produced them. It must be said that their historical track record in terms of human liberation is not exactly inspiring (despite some important accomplishments en route). And the world has moved on in the near-century since the classical “Bolshevik” model was formulated. The plain fact is that we don’t have a viable historical model for the transition from capitalism to socialism. I think our only starting point can be the actual struggles that the oppressed throw up in trying to resist their oppression. And for the most part those struggles will be centred around democratic demands, and the initial achievments of such movements (if they manage to win victories) will be advances in democratic rights and institutionalised “democracy” (as I’ve said previously, discussions I deliberately avoid the phrase “bourgeois democracy”). That doesn’t solve their problems, but it may lessen their burdens and produce a more favourable battle ground for pursuing the struggle.
Exactly what such a process will produce I’m not sure – but I am certain that there is no road to socialism (or anywhere benign) that passes through support for dictatorships deploying murderous repression to hold back democratic movements.


Aaron Aarons October 16, 2012 at 9:45 pm

The main democratic right that will be struggled for on the way to socialist revolution will be the right of the poor majority to take back the land and resources that have been expropriated from them in the past, and sometimes are still being expropriated from them, by domestic and foreign capital. This will often involve violent struggle against the agents of “democratically elected” governments, as happened in the water wars and gas wars in Bolivia about a decade ago, as the FARC in Colombia has been trying to do for many years, as Maoist-led indigenous people as well as less political peasant farmers have been doing in India, etc.. The greatest ideological obstacle to such struggles has been and will be the belief in the legitimacy of elected governments.


Aaron Aarons October 15, 2012 at 1:14 am

Arthur writes:

Yes any intervention by imperialist powers will be aimed at fighting a common enemy rather than merely humanitarian.
Wanting them to fight a common enemy rather than not fight it is a no brainer.

Imperialism is the main enemy of the human species and of life on earth. Right-wing political Islam is the number-two enemy, at least in that part of the world. Secular authoritarianism, when it is not supported by imperialism, is a relatively minor problem for the world in comparison with the first two. Fights among those anti-communist forces are fine provided they don’t result in strengthening the greater enemy among those who are fighting.


Brian S. October 14, 2012 at 7:56 pm

@Theodor. I assume your questions are meant sincerely, so I’ll try to respond to them seriously. If you read through the posts on this site over the last several weeks you’ll find almost all of your questions addressed.You accuse us of ignoring the composition of the opposition – but there are many discussions of that on this site. And that is exactly what you do – you reduce the entire movement to the Muslim Brotherhood: not a word about the FSA,its various regional commands, the local coordinating committees,the popular committees that have sprung up in many areas to administer liberated towns and villages. In fact the MB has been marginalised for most of this struggle – only recently has it acquired some leverage. The Syrian revolution did not begin as an “Islamist” movement, and it is not predominantly one today. Indeed, the core of the FSA has repeatedly voiced their hostility to extreme Islamist groups (why is it you haven’t bothered to inform yourself of that fact?)
And what do you mean by “Islamist” – certainly most of the fighters regard themselve as muslims , and draw support from their religion in a desperate situation. So what? Do people lose their entitlement to international support because they are Muslims, in your view? People rising against oppression have often marched behind religious banners (try Russia 1905, Ireland throughout much of its history, Omar Mukhtar in Libya, etc, etc, etc.) and no revolutionary worth their salt has ever seen that as a barrier to supporting a just cause.
You say you want “the chance to doubt”. I have no problem with that – but first you should make the effort to inform yourself about what is actually going on. (You could start by reading the posts on this site.)


Morris October 14, 2012 at 2:18 pm

It’s ironic that the same people who advocate US support of the FSA, refused to not only support the Iraqi resistance, but even the right of Iraqis to resist US occupation. Could it be, because the Iraqi resistance was opposing the U.S., whereas the FSA isn’t? If so, I believe the term for this condition is called “social patriotism.”

Those who support US military intervention in Syria, to be consistent, will have to support the same in Iran, and if they opposed the US invasion of Iraq will have to reverse their previous position.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp October 14, 2012 at 3:04 pm

I’m not one of those people since I supported the Iraqi resistance. We used to run pro-Iraqi resistance articles in the soldiers’ newspaper I helped start during the early years of the American occupation.

And no, Iran and Syria are not the same. You can’t just lump all the countries of the world together under the banner of “Foreignstan” and have the same conclusion for each case. War is politics by other means and no two wars are identical.


Anthony Abdo October 14, 2012 at 8:10 pm

So what happened to all your supposed support for the pro-Iraqi resistance? More people are dying in Iraq still daily than in Syria even, and you are pretty damn mum about that reality, Pham. And where is all your ‘support’ for the Yemen resistance to US imperialism, or the resistance fighters of Somalia who are fighting the Pentagon machine?

I personally tried to mention the US sending troops heading into US occupied Jordan this week and my comments didn’t seem to even get put online??? though all my words were really saying is that the US had troops in Jordan and that socialist marxists should oppose that.

In point of fact, also… the US itself is occupied by the Pentagon, is it not? I hear nary a bleep from this site about any of that. As many many of us US civilians go towards our graves with this pittance of Social Security given out to us as crumbs by the Empire, the US military welfare- warfare machine people get retirement as early as age 38, and most end up with 2 or 3 pension payouts together in their retirement years. You don’t even talk about any of this here at North Star, now do you, Pham. You are not really anti US military machine at all. Your North Star blog lack of engagement with these issues of our own US occupation by the military machine is rather blatant and easy to see.


Arthur October 14, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Not something to be proud of. Nor was opposing NATO involvement in Libya. They are all different situations, but it was the same pseudo-left that instinctively stood with the worst enemies of progress. In the course of breaking with them it will be important to actually understand not only how pointlessly futile and unsuccessful it was but also how bizarrely stupid and reactionary it was to support the vicious criminals who were fighting the Iraqi people just as the Assad regime is fighting the Syrian people (but with even more openly sectarian mass murder of civilians).


Aaron Aarons October 14, 2012 at 11:56 pm

This from somebody who supported not only the imperialist gang-bang of Iraq starting in 2003, but the successful, murderous, imperialist effort to restore the power of the oh-so-democratic Kuwaiti royals in 1991. (I don’t know offhand exactly what Arthur and his friend Patrick Muldowney (patrickm) had to say about the even-more-murderous embargo against Iraq that continued from 1990 until 2003, but I’m confident that any criticism of that embargo was tied to support for direct military action instead.)

And, no, supporting attacks on U.S. and allied forces is not the same as supporting sectarian attacks against other Iraqis, even if some of those who carried out one kind of attack also carried out the other. Nor is support for the wildly successful attack on the CIA station in Benghazi ( also support for anything else the same unknown attackers may have done.


Pandora October 14, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Perhaps we could view US assistance to the FSA the same way Marxists view the state?: A sad necessity which we should exploit for the common good until such time as we can leave it all behind.


Louis Proyect October 15, 2012 at 10:03 am

@Aarons: Please point to a single proletarian revolution anywhere that grew out of bourgeois democracy.

Your argument is with Marxism basically. Whether you ever understood Marx in the first place is questionable but if you ever did, somewhere along the line you broke with his ideas (and Lenin and Trotsky for that matter.) In 1848, Marx and Engels did not make “proletarian revolution” a litmus test. The task facing proletarian revolutionaries was the end of feudal rule and any other obstacles to bourgeois democracy. For example, Marx made a speech on free trade in 1848 that included this observation: “The most favorable condition for the worker is the growth of capital. ” As many intelligent people understand, the Arab Spring has many of the same characteristics of the European revolt against absolutism of 1848. Aarons is obviously not one of them.


Aaron Aarons October 16, 2012 at 7:18 pm

2012 is not 1848, and Marx was wrong about a number of things in 1848 that he understood later. For example, IIRC, Marx at that time supported British imperialism in India and Ireland. Also, the statement that “The most favorable condition for the worker is the growth of capital” only makes sense if one first accepts the conversion of a human being into a proletarian (by enclosures, etc.). Moreover, the growth of capital even just up to 1848 involved the immiseration at best and the physical liquidation at worst of more human beings than the entire population of Europe in 1848.

The Marx who inspires me is the one who wrote, as the last sentence of Volume 1, Chapter 31 of Capital:

If money […] “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.


Theodor Voelkl October 15, 2012 at 2:10 pm

I follow the development of the revolution in Syria from the beginning and the politics in the middle east much longer.but I admit that during times of war it is hard to verify information,especially when all the big powers and their media and secret services are using the channels of information.people from Syria whom I trust do also provide sometimes total different explanations of the events.
I would say that at least 2 principals should guard marxists in cases like this :
Every people has the fundamental right to overthrow their oppressors regardless whether the oppressing regime is at the time supported or fought by the imperialists.and this right has nothing to do with the actual religion or state of conciseness of the oppressed,
But in the imperialist countries the masses should be agitated against every intervention of their own imperialist governments. (look up a old text of CLR James on Abyssinia ).
This is true for Syria and will be true for a coming revolution in Iran.
But than the practical problem for the marginal forces of the western left (at least for me) starts.
Even when the general support for a revolution is proclaimed whom to support in a concrete way?
In China during the war against Japan we would not have supported the Guo Ming Dang but the Communist Party.
In Angola against the the Portuguese we had to decide to support the Unita , the FNLA or the MPLA., the Imperialists siding with the the former 2.
Their are many examples in the history where the principled support of the fight of oppressed people makes headaches when it comes to the question how and whom to support practically. especially nowadays when the support of left forces in the world can never match any material or media impact of Imperialists or even middle powers like Saudi Arabia or Turkey.
Pham Binh makes some suggestions how and whom to support which I do support. But Not the FSA or what is all fighting under this name or together with it. and no outfit of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is at least in Syria a ultra right and islamist cadre organisation. that is again my last point :At such a stage of revolution and civil war,there is no fight of the oppressed against the the armed forces of the regime anymore. there is a fight of different highly organized groups with different backers and strong ideological views. I mean the groups who have the arms. this is not the first moment of popular uprising.and we have to look more clearly on this acting powers.
But for us in the imperialist countries there can not be another truth than : the enemy is in our own country.
we can not side with any interventionist activity of our countries -and for me the UN in form of his council is another arm of the imperialist body.we have to mobilize against any intervention on humanitarian or other grounds. (would we not be against the intervention of Cortez in “support” of the indigenous People who are rebelling against the Mayan oppression?) .
I’ll soon go to Pakistan,it would be hard to convince people there, that when I’m against US drone attacks there but for US intervention in Syria,I’m still a anti imperialist.If Marxist are not able to take a third position against the 2 main ideological powers at work in the “Muslim world” they are doomed to annihilation.

p.s. comrades who just want to preserve a a given situation of oppression in the name of a kind of stability and peace or even anti imperialism have no regard for the will of the oppressed. people suffer,fight and die, we can only count the dead after a fight.if you always think that the outcome of a fight could cost more lives than the going on of the suffering,than there will not be any revolution.”total chaos,very good situation”. very free from Mao.


Brian S. October 16, 2012 at 8:51 am

@Theodor Voelkl: Theodor, you say that youhave followed the development of the Syrian revolution closely, all I can say is that many of your judgements in the previous post appear to be poorly grounded in fact. You might like to look at the recent arguments of two leftists who have reviewed the evidence over Syria, and come to conclusion that are both different from yours, and indeed different than they have drawn in the past over similar situations:
Richard Seymour at AND
Jamie Allinson on this site (and elsewhere):
You say ” the enemy is in our own country” – and I agree with that. but that doesn’t mean “the enemy is ONLY in our own country.For internationalists ALL the forces that subject and oppress people are our enemies.
You reject support for the FSA, but you offer neither argument nor evidence to support this view (try reading Seymour and Allinson to get some perspective ). True the FSA is a diverse group of fighters – but its core (until recently over 90% – maybe a bit less now) is made up of defected soldiers from the Syrian army (who for a long time acted as defenders of the civilian opposition) and large numbers of former civilian oppositionists who took up arms after the Houla massacre in May convinced them there was no other way. They have a record of actively opposing extreme Islamist groups, and have tried to minimise dependence on the Muslim Brotherhood / Qatari channels. (but don’t always have a choice – as someone once said “a revolution is not a tea party”).
The debate about the acceptability or otherwise of “intervention” has been thrashed out on this site at great length and there are several different views on this. I can only state mine: to talk abstractly of “intervention” is to confuse the debate – there are forms of SUPPORT for the FSA which, no matter who they came from (principally effective anti-armour and anti-aircraft weaponry) would enhance the autonomy of the anti-Assad forces and reduce their dependence on reactionary elements, bringing gains that would outweigh any “strings” that might be attached. And that is precisely why none of the external actors is prepared to provide that sort of assistance (the US being the principal obstacle, it would appear).


Aaron Aarons October 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm

[…] any attempt by Western governments to provide humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees sheltered by bordering countries should be encouraged and indeed insisted upon.

Yes, there should be agitation for humanitarian assistance — with no military involvement! — by the rich imperialist countries to these refugees, as well as to, e.g., the victims of the Haitian earthquake of 2010, and other victims of natural and not-so-natural disasters. And there should also be propaganda and agitation against the imperialist economic policies that create more suffering in any one day than Assad could create in a year.


Louis Proyect October 16, 2012 at 10:42 pm

@Aarons: 2012 is not 1848, and Marx was wrong about a number of things in 1848 that he understood later.

What are you trying to say? That Marx should have not opposed the Corn Laws???? I think you should come out and state your politics with a little more boldness. You really don’t value democratic rights. If you were around in the 1840s, you would have sneered at the Chartists just as you sneer at Syrians trying to get a dictator’s boot off their neck. That’s what unites 1848 and 2012.


Aaron Aarons November 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Once again, Louis, you show that your thought isn’t deep enough to drown a paraplegic rat.

I have no idea why you think I “would have sneered at the Chartists”, or do you know something terrible about them that I am unaware of? And, yes, one can “value democratic rights” of the kind you are referring to (i.e., political, as opposed to economic and social, rights) without placing those rights above everything else. For example, I support the democratic right to free speech of ‘holocaust deniers’ but also support the right of leftists to break up fascist and racist meetings. And I support the democratic right for leftists in Cuba to criticize and oppose pro-capitalist reforms while not supporting any rights for clearly pro-capitailst elements there.

BTW, I have no position on the Corn Laws, though I am convinced that ‘free trade’ as pushed by the English ruling class was an instrument of their imperialist expansion and domination, as ‘free trade’ today is an instrument for expanding the power of the capitalists of the major imperialist countries at the expense of everybody else.


ethan young October 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm

When Phyllis Bennis uses the term “propaganda’, she does not mean ‘lies’.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp October 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm

What does she mean then?


Jonathon November 8, 2012 at 7:30 am

are you not familiar with the definition of propaganda?


Aaron Aarons November 9, 2012 at 2:22 am

Ruling-class propagandists use the word ‘propaganda’ only in describing what their enemies or opponents propagate, and have given it the connotation of ‘falsehood’. I wouldn’t expect Pham Binh to understand that, or to understand much of anything about the workings of imperialist propaganda. But, while the imperialists don’t hesitate to lie, it’s much better for them, especially in the medium or long term, to rely more on the overt or covert propagation of true or, at least, not provably false, selected assertions that can create the mindset they want to create.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp October 19, 2012 at 4:23 pm

A phenomenal piece that destroys the pseudo left for not giving a God damn about the Syrian people:

The message from the “anti-imperialist” camp in the West is clear: when Israel does it, it’s a crime; when Assad does it, it’s criminal for his victims to seek military aid from the West/Saudis to survive the one-sided onslaught.

Pseudo left and pseudo internationalist to boot.


Arthur October 19, 2012 at 11:19 pm

We are now agreed on terminology!

It would be great to get that concept of a “pseudo-left” across more widely (eg in the Guardian article comments) so it gets taken up by mainstream commentators like that Guardian author.

Key point is not the focus on Israel (as emphasized in the article) but the essentially conservative and reactionary nature of the pseudo-left. Conservatives and reactionaries are not much inclined to mobilize to do anything, but relatively easy to mobilize to stop things.

They are particularly good at mobilizing to do nothing at all and merely express a symbolic stance such as “not in our name”. Their pseudo-internationalism helps them avoid having to take stands on domestic issues that would only reinforce their awareness of their own irrelevance.

Since there is little point mobilizing to stop things done by other governments, such activities cannot take off broadly but provide something for conservatives and reactionaries to mobilize around.

A progressive, forward looking movement is needed to be able to mobilize in favour of things, including demands that our governments act to stop crimes committed by other governments.


Jonathon November 8, 2012 at 7:38 am

Pham, I find many of your arguments intriguing, even if I am often in disagreement with your conclusions, but what often turns me off entirely is your snide tone and tendency to simplify, confuse and conflate your opponents’ arguments. This comments is a great example. Those who disagree with your position are referred to as “not giving a God damn about the Syrian people” and opposing western intervention is equated with believing “it’s criminal for [Assad’s] victims to seek military aid.” Seriously, no one here, and unlikely in whatever other forum you are debating these ideas, is suggesting it is criminal for Assad’s victims to seek military or any other kind of aid. The questions raised here are all very complicated and deserve to be debated at length. Ridiculing, or worse, misrepresenting, others’ contribution to the discussion is not helpful.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 8, 2012 at 11:54 am

“Those who disagree with your position are referred to…”

If you read the link I posted, you’ll find a concrete illustration of the fact that certain elements of the left only give a damn about dead Arabs if they are killed by Israel. That is not a blanket statement about people who disagree with my position.

“Seriously, no one here, and unlikely in whatever other forum you are debating these ideas, is suggesting it is criminal for Assad’s victims to seek military or any other kind of aid.”

You obviously aren’t familiar with Party for Socialism and Liberation, Workers World Party, International Action Center, ANSWER, Global Research, Voltairenet, some authors who write for Counterpunch and Dissident Voice because that is exactly what they suggest. Familiarize yourself.


Aaron Aarons November 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm

So now, Pham Binh, you are describing the work of an open apologist for Israel as a “phenomenal piece”!

Israel is a Western colonial-settler state implanted in the Arab world and is a key part of the Western imperialist bloc. In the U.S. and Canada, and to a perhaps slightly lesser degree in the U.K., opposition to Israel is opposition to our own ruling class. (This would be true even if Israel didn’t have far more members in the U.S. Congress than California, New York, Florida and Texas taken together have.)

OTOH, our own ruling class is involved in the civil war in Syria, mainly via its clients — Saudi-occupied Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, et al. — in opposition to the Syrian regime and in support of one or another faction of the Syrian ‘rebels’. To fail to recognize and act upon this difference is to be the kind of pseudo-leftist who supported the imperialist the two imperialist wars against Iraq and the imperialist war against Serbia in 1999.


Aaron Aarons November 9, 2012 at 2:29 am

BTW, I want to thank ‘Arthur’ for being so insistent on the term ‘pseudo-left’. Rather than objecting to it, I intend to use it regularly as a short-hand for what have in the past been called ‘State Department socialists’, ‘Cruise missile leftists’, ‘social patriots’, etc. I hope it will catch on.


Jonathon November 8, 2012 at 7:51 am

The crucial weakness in the argument is that somehow the left has any say in what the imperialist forces will choose to do. Not only that we can and should convince them to intervene, but that we will have somehow have control over when, where, and how they will intervene. In fact, they already are intervening and will no doubt continue to do so. And they will continue to do so in a way that is most beneficial to their interests, rather than the interests of the Syrian people or the global working class. Should they decide it is in their interests to amp up their intervention, they will not come looking to the left for permission. They will create whatever arguments and proof necessary to justify their actions, whether or not their own national populations are in agreement or not. When they do so, I’m sure they will find some of the arguments here useful for their own means.

Meanwhile the legacy of US intervention in Iraq continues, with the highes rates of miscarriages and birth defects in human history, a residual consequence of US chemical and nuclear warfare, primarily through the use of depleted-uranium-coated munitions and white phosphorous. The sense of urgency that this article’s author feels for the people of Syria is the same sense of urgency I have for the children of Iraq who have been alternately bombed, poisoned, starved, terrorized and tortured by western intervention for more than twenty years. If today I am hesitant to advocate an imperialist solution for another Arab country, one would think I have very good reasons for that. And you are fooling yourself if you think that any intervention by imperialists would be anything other than an imperialist intervention.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 8, 2012 at 11:59 am

“The crucial weakness in the argument is that somehow the left has any say in what the imperialist forces will choose to do.”

The crucial weakness in your argument is what actually happened in Libya: revolutionary forces asked for airstrikes/a no-fly zone and rejected ground troops, and that is what they got from NATO (not without tension and fighting behind the scenes). Anti-interventionists in the West opposed this military aid to the revolution; had NATO withdrawn this aid, Ghadafi would have triumphed.

You can talk all you want about the terrible legacy of U.S. imperialism in Iraq. I agree with you. But tell me, was NATO’s air war in Libya anything remotely like the U.S. air war on Iraq? Did NATO carpet bomb civilian targets in Libya, blow up water treatment plants, attack hospitals, use depleted uranium, and deploy chemical or biological weapons? If you look into this question, you’ll find that the answer is an unambiguous no.


Aaron Aarons November 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Even if one accepts (only for the sake of argument!) that the outcome of the imperialist intervention in Libya was a good thing from a leftist point of view, what reason is there to believe, based on history, that an intervention, or rather a more direct intervention, in Syria would also be a good thing?

BTW, the one unambiguously good thing that has happened in Libya since the overthrow of Gaddafi was the successful attack on and destruction of the CIA base in Benghazi on September 11 this year. But that’s not something that most of the anti-anti-imperialist pseudo-left that supported the imperialist-backed ‘revolution’ is celebrating.


Julius March 25, 2013 at 4:27 pm

The rebels are getting enough support from the American government, Britain, France, the traitor Arab states and the Zionists. I don’t think they would really benefit from the support of the non-existent “left” in this country


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