On the Levant: Again on the Ottomans and the French: Appendix to “Response to Pham Binh on Syria”

by Captain Sparkles the Red on August 27, 2013

Originally published here.

In a recent piece, I attempted to outline a critical inquiry into the left-wing discourse over the Syrian question, and attempted to argue for a stance of principled neutrality while offering my extremely conditional support of the Kurdish movement. There have been a number of objections to my last piece on the Syrian question that deserve to be addressed that come from both sides of the coin. This is not all together surprising, after all, to be a part of a third camp naturally places you into opposition to both opposing sides in what sometimes appears to be a two-sided war.

And in the spirit of dichotomies, the argument was made that neutrality meant that despite my political convictions, that I was objectively supporting the Assad regime or the Free Syrian Army (FSA), depending on who made the accusation of course.

This was perhaps the most ironic criticism because it was leveled at my piece from both sides. The basic argument goes that my actual argument is of no relevance, but what is worth engaging is the practical effect of my argument. I don’t think this is entirely unreasonable; after all, I do believe in the dialectical unity of theory and practice. Still, I object to this argument on the basis that it presents the question in a binary fashion when in reality the situation is far more complicated than a simple yes-or-no question. It is not only a matter of choosing two sides, but a matter of choosing between a multiplicity of factions and attempting to create a framework to help us understand the basis on which we support these groups and the extent that they ought to be supported. Let’s be clear here, there aren’t two factions. There is the broad opposition movement, the secular and Islamist components of that movement, the pro- and anti-interventionist components of that movement, the Syrian Arab Army, and the Kurdish factions. This isn’t a question with two answers, it is a question of many answers. This sort of response is just a reductionist attempt to create a false dichotomy where one does not exist. After all, we are not talking about a football game or a wrestling match, we are talking about a civil war!

But perhaps the slightly more nuanced aspect of this argument is that neutrality favors the winning side. Still, this is an absurd point to base a critique on because, following this logic, my political opinions fluctuate based on the ebbs and flows of this civil war. By this logic, I am capable of changing my political views as the civil war unfolds as I sleep, or without my very knowledge of my views changing. Clearly, this is a logically untenable argument as long as the civil war has ebbs and flows and victory is guaranteed to neither side based on the present evidence.

However, on the basis of this logic, I challenge both camps who attempt to assign my views to their polemical opponents. My actual position is one of neutrality and extremely critical support of the Kurdish faction, so you can not accuse me of subjectively supporting anything. However, both the Assad regime and the rebels have attacked and abused the Kurdish population who have long suffered oppression at the hands of the Arab majority. So considering that both camps provide actual support to the military and political activities of the rebel opposition and the forces of Assad, and that these activities consist in the harassment and oppression of the Kurdish people respectively, then it seems that both camps are united in their support for the racist subjugation of the Kurdish people.

Of course, then there is the argument that a victory for the FSA would be a working-class gain or that a defeat of Assad would be a working-class loss.

Now it seems that the basis of the opposition’s support is logical. After all, no one can argue that Assad’s Syria is a bastion of bourgeois democracy. Likewise, it seems that most of the opposition supports some form of democracy. However, we also know that the Syrian government provides refuge for Palestinian and Iraqi exiles and support for the Palestinian resistance as well as groups resisting Israeli incursion into Lebanon. Additionally, the Syrian system is built on a strong public sector and a social democracy minus the democracy. While it is true that Syrian social democracy has been reversed somewhat in recent years and poverty has increased, it is also true that the neo-liberal Muslim Brotherhood is one of the primary influences in the moderate Islamist and secular wing of the opposition movement, and that one of the main organization s of the opposition is endorsed by the U.S. So it seems that if the opposition were to win, then the social democracy of Assad and his henchmen would be thrown into the dustbin of history as the vultures of liberal democracy circle around the corpse of their most recent kill. Either way, it seems that both factions represent both advances and retreats of the interest of the working class, and that neither represents working-class gains in any absolute sense of the concept. Instead, both sides offer the people of Syria crumbs, only to take away the crumbs they already have.

Now there are the arguments from Pham Binh himself, which engage in far less mental gymnastics. In response to my piece, he notes that the proletariat must choose between fascism and democracy:

“Because the working class can’t afford to remain neutral in a fight over bourgeois fascism versus bourgeois democracy. Both are forms of capitalist rule; one allows the working class some amount of freedom to organize unions and parties, the other sends you to death camps for even thinking about it. That is why.”

It is true that this is a working class gain; this can not be denied. However, it is important to note that the extent to which a state will tolerate revolutionaries is not determined by its political form but by the situation it finds itself in. This is not to say that democratic reforms may help in days of peace, but when the cards are played and revolutionaries need free speech to actually matter, they will find that the bourgeois state will not uphold its end of the deal. Just as the British slaughtered the Irish for protesting for their rights, and the American government bombed striking workers with airplanes, all of the promises made on high horses mean  nothing when they are put to the test. This is not to say that free speech does not matter, but within the context of revolutionary politics, where our politics begin, free speech ends and repression occurs depending on the need of the bourgeois state to maintain order. From the repression of the occupy movement from the U.S. to Turkey, to the attempt to brand the Revolutionary Communist Party of Canada as a criminal gang in order to ban one of the fastest growing communist movements in Canada, all of these fancy words about democracy and liberty are mighty fine poetry, but they mean little outside of the paper they are printed on. So this is not to say that these gains do not matter, they do indeed matter quite a bit, but Pham Binh overestimates the value of these gains and seems to assume that they are granted to the left as liberally as they are granted to the loyal opposition of capital.

In my polemic against Pham Binh, I briefly mentioned as a tangential point that he should recall the lessons of Afghanistan, to this he replied:

“You’re confusing supporting a faction within a struggle with supporting a struggle as a whole. Just as I support Teamsters who go on strike without lending political support to Jimmy Hoffa, so I can support a revolution against a fascist tyrant led by Islamists whom we will have to struggle against should they secure victory over that tyrant.”

Of course it is ironic he brings up the point of factions. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the American government funded the Taliban as a counter-hegemonic force against Soviet imperialism. Deng’s China fell in line with American imperialism and suggested that the Afghanistan Liberation Organization should struggle along side the Taliban. Naturally, once the Taliban won, the Communists were crushed. Obviously, supporting a faction that supports a faction that is on the side of imperialism is somewhat equivalent to supporting imperialism. It seems that the lesson here is quite relevant, considering the question of the Islamists. Indeed, support of the FSA doesn’t actually mean much considering that the FSA is just a calling card for a collection of groups. The very FSA brand was created before the present civil war. A recent article puts it this way:

“The FSA was created by Col. Riad el-Asaad and a few other Syrian military defectors in July 2011, in what may or may not have been a Turkish intelligence operation. To be clear, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the first batch of fighters, or suggest that they would have acted otherwise without foreign support. But these original FSA commanders were confined to the closely guarded Apaydın camp in Turkey, and kept separate from civilian Syrian refugees. Turkish authorities are known to have screened visitors and journalists before deciding whether they could talk to the officers. While this is not in itself evidence of a Turkish intelligence connection, it does suggest that this original FSA faction could not, how shall we say, operate with full autonomy from its political environment.”

Soon as the calling card was established,  many organizations began using it as a general sign of resistance, including those who we would not nominally consider FSA, and indeed, factions which would appear distinct from the FSA from what most people perceive as the ideological basis of the brand:

“Today, the FSA brand name remains in use within the Syrian opposition, but mostly as a term for the armed uprising in general. It’s quite similar to how a French person would have employed the term “La Résistance” during WW2 – not in reference to a specific organization fighting against Hitler, but as an umbrella term for them all. With time, many people inside and outside Syria have started to use the FSA term to distinguish mainstream non-ideological or soft-Islamist groups from salafi factions. The salafis themselves used to be divided on the issue, but they aren’t anymore. The more ideological ones (like Jabhat el-nosra and Ahrar el-Sham) never used it, but at the start of the uprising, others did (like Liwa el-Islam and Suqour el-Sham).

“One can’t disregard the fact that many Syrian opposition fighters will casually refer to themselves as FSA members, or that some armed factions actually self-designate as ‘a brigade of the FSA’. But that does not mean that they belong to some Syria-wide FSA command hierarchy: it’s still just a label, typically intended to market these groups as part of the opposition mainstream.”

With time, then, the generally understood definition of the FSA term has gradually narrowed from its original scope, which encompassed almost the entire insurgency. Today, it is understood to apply mostly to army defectors (ex-Baathists), non-ideological fighters, and more moderate Islamists. But the dividing line is not really a question of ideology or organization, it is political. The FSA label is increasingly being used in the media as shorthand for those factions which receive Gulf/Western support and are open to collaboration with the USA and other Western nations.
The article then goes on to list these factions and their origins.

“- First, there’s Col. Riad el-Asaad and his associates (such as Malik el-Kurdi, Ahmed el-Hejazi, and others) from the original FSA faction. This was the original FSA leadership, with a clearly defined command structure at the top. It just never got around to having any fighters. Nowadays, Col. Asaad has left the army camp in Turkey, moving back and forth across the border, but he seems to have been confined to the margins of rebel politics. He wasn’t even invited to the most recent rebel unity conferences. Never a quitter, though, he continues to give interviews as top FSA leader.
– Second, there’s his old rival, Brig. Gen. Mostafa el-Sheikh, who heads the FSA Military Council. After US, Qatari, Turkish and other pressure, Sheikh went into a joint FSA structure with Riad el-Asaad in March 2012, but that didn’t work out. After celebrating their newfound unity, both men continued to do their own thing. Sheikh remains active as a minor player in rebel politics, and an associate of his, Louai Meqdad, is frequently quoted in the media as ‘the FSA spokesperson’.
– Third, there’s Col. Qasem Saadeddine, who is the leader of a military council in the Homs Governorate (there are at least two such councils, and neither of them seems to function). In early 2012, he declared the creation of a unified internal command for the FSA, supposedly backed by five regional military councils, which would snatch command from the hands of Riad al-Asaad and the exiles. The whole thing almost instantly collapsed back into just representing Saadeddine and his sidekicks, but he’s still using the title.
– Fourth, there’s a Turkey-based guy called Bassam al-Dada, who is nowadays often quoted in the media as “the political advisor of the FSA”. No one seems to be quite sure which commander or group it is that Dada is advising, but he’s getting a lot of media attention anyway.
– Fifth, do you remember that thing about a “new name for the FSA”? In September 2012, the Syrian National Army was declared by Gen. Mohammed Hussein el-Hajj Ali, on the premise that it would absorb the FSA and all other armed groups into a single command structure. This was a huge project which actually got a lot of commanders to sign on, but it imploded just days after its creation, partly because Col. Riad el-Asaad and various Islamists sabotaged it by withholding support. It hasn’t been heard from since.
– Sixth, there’s also Gen. Adnan Selou, who defected in June 2012. A month later, he declared himself ‘Supreme Commander of the Joint Military Leadership’.
– Seventh, there’s a slightly mysterious American NGO called the Syrian Support Group (SSG). Many Syrians seem to believe that this is a CIA front, which is certainly possible, but I’ve seen no evidence either way. Since 2012, the SSG has been marketing a select set of pro-Western commanders in the so-called Military Council structure, by presenting them as the ‘real FSA’ to the Western media. Most well-known among these commanders is Abdeljabbar el-Ogeidi, a mid-size leader in the Aleppo region.
– Eighth, in September 2012, a group of Military Council commanders and assorted rebel leaders gathered to create a Joint Command of the Revolutionary Military Councils. This was set up by the salafi sheikh Adnan el-Arour and a couple of his sidekicks, including people associated with Mostafa el-Sheikh (see above). Sponsorship also probably came from Qatar, and there were at the very least some quiet nods of support from the USA. This group didn’t use the FSA name, but the media still decided it was the FSA. It quickly ran into internal problems, and has now been succeeded by:
– Ninth, in December 2012, a Saudi-backed conference in Antalya, Turkey, set up a General Staff of the Supreme Joint Military Command Council, led by Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss. This group doesn’t formally use the FSA name, but the media has invariably described Idriss as ‘the newly appointed leader of the FSA’, thereby giving the term another lease on life. The General Staff got the support of most of the factions that had already been receiving Western and Gulf State support in some way.
So, what do all of these groups have in common? Two things: all of them keep appearing in the media as representatives and leaders of the FSA, and none of them have any boots on the ground. Many lazy reporters use the FSA name to describe Syria’s leading, secular guerrilla group. That group doesn’t exist, so please stop making it up.”

So it seems that this term “Free Syrian Army” is not very coherent, it doesn’t refer to any specific group. Indeed a few individuals in that list seem to fit under the definition of warlord more than leaders of a guerrilla group. It is also worth noting that the Kurdish forces are not only united as a coherent group, but have engaged in armed combat with the Islamist forces, unlike the supposed FSA, which is reportedly aligned with various Islamist forces.

There is another component to Pham Binh’s argument that taps onto a more interesting aspect of the left discourse, and that is of course the use of the term fascism as a category. What is interesting is about this categorization is that unlike other form of bourgeois rule that are based in scientific analysis, the historic category of fascism exists as a result of the historic opportunism of both Trotskyism and Marxism-Leninism. A category arbitrarily assigned to the particular ideology of bourgeois rule invented to justify the surrender of the class independence of German Communist Party to the Social Democrats who still had the blood of the revolutionary proletariat on its hands and the Popular Front politics of the Spanish Civil War that resulted in failure and sectarian squabbles. The only proper treatment of fascism was given by the Marxist-Leninists of the Third Period who correctly identified that, if fascism represented the strain of bourgeois thought devoted to the destruction of the revolutionary movement, then social democracy and liberal democracy is indeed a component of this strain and deserves the title of fascist.

The invocation of fascism then represents a characteristic theoretic failure of the left grasping at its historical service of capital. If fascism is anything, then it represents a particular ideology of bourgeois rule within a particular historical context. It does not represent a category to be superimposed on social phenomena that are alien to it. This is indeed a subject worthy of greater study and polemic, and I indeed accept any challenges to the notions presented here. However, the general point for our purpose is that it is inappropriate to super impose the category of fascism on to the Syrian question considering the consequences of such a term and its historical implications.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt August 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Binh was already called on the sloppy use of the term, “fascism”. By this usage, the Stalin regime was “fascist” simply because, like the Assad regime, it was mass-murdering (a typical liberal equation), which then creates the small problem of “which fascists to support” in the war in the east of WW2, a campaign which directly ignited a world-wide anti-colonial and anti-capitalist revolutionary wave from 1943 onward. Or maybe Binh is a “third camper” himself on that seminal event.

Me, I support the Syrian resistance against the Assad regime, regardless of whether they are secular or islamist, or even if their leaderships are tied to the Saudis/US or to Qatar. That includes critical support for their right to call in outside assistance from anywhere – even if the call is an exercise in self-delusion, as with any call for NATO assistance.

That is NOT the same as lending support for such a NATO (or US/UK/France/Saudi) intervention, particularly the one they are cooking up right now. Anyone would have to be out of their mind to believe that this is done in the interests of the mass opposition to the Assad regime, or that this will speed the end of the civil war (it will be a limited intervention, and therefore will have the opposite effect, as the above powers have no stomach for invasion/occupation).

One would have to be insane to believe that the vary powers that backed (and no doubt helped instigate) the bloody counterrevolution in Egypt, would suddenly have different intentions in neighboring Syria.

Contradictions, contradiction, Binh! Time to start untangling them!

And the Saudi Bandar faction is closely aligned with the US, much more so that Binh would have us believe:


patrickm August 27, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Not one of the NATO powers has backed the Egyptian counter-revolution. The Saudi’s rather predictably have. But none of them helped instigate it and that type of thinking is the type of junk thinking that has dominated in the pseudoleft. Nobody has had any instigating power in EGYPT for more than fifty years!

Glad to hear you support the Syrian revolution. The US/NATO attack in support of this revolution is now in sight. You appear to me to be stuck on the fence but only because of a theory that no longer explains real events. The theory failed to explain events as they unfolded in Libya and they won’t explain Syria.


abraham Weizfeld August 27, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Yes, Libya is a good example where the revolutionary united front succeeded in overthrowing a State apparatus that claimed not to be a State. The loss of life was minimalized and now the various factions are forming up a new constitution and a relationship of co-existence. The Berber have asserted themselves after being declared non-existent by an assimilationist policy. Being the north American coordinator for the Jamahiriya Green movement, I and other like the ex-ministers Jalil and Jabril helped to make the transformation easier than it would have been otherwise and in fulfillment of the original purpose of the 1969 revolutionary wave.


Arthur August 28, 2013 at 12:00 am

Here are two attempts to visualize the current tangle of alliances and enmities in the region:



Whatever their inaccuracies both do correctly convey that there are far more than two sides.

For revolutionary democrats that requires careful analysis to help shift the relations so that the real struggle is clarified and the enemies of revolution and democracy are isolated and defeated (including encouraged to fight among themselves).

For the typical “opinion leaders” of the US foreign policy establishment the complexity of the tangle instead requires concluding that “nothing can be done” and advocating “neutrality”.

The fact that people pretending to be left have EXACTLY the same response as the traditional “opinion leaders” of the ruling class will help clarify one aspect of the tangle.

People just have to get used to the idea that political forces often wave false flags and that those false flags do succeed in confusing both their enemies and their allies, but cannot change the underlying realities that ultimately determine the nature of the conflict. Understanding that much helps sort through other aspects of complex situations.


Arthur August 29, 2013 at 9:56 am

Meanwhile there has just been a flurry of articles at Znet from professional “peace activists” and creates like Tariq Ali, mobilizing in defence of the Assad regime’s right to use chemical weapons against the people of Damascus.

Nominally of course they simply deny it. But in the same spirit as neo-Nazi holocaust deniers. Plainly and unambiguously they want chemical weapons to continue to be used against the people and on a larger scale.

The pretense that such people have anything at all in common with left-wing politics is now pretty much at the same level as pretending that the supporters of the Assad regime and the Egyptian military coup do – the same level as pretending that neo-Nazis do.


Aaron Aarons August 30, 2013 at 1:10 am

It’s noteworthy that Arthur Dent, Patrick Muldowney (patrickm) and their “last superpower” associates never attack the main imperialist bloc, whose core is the Five Eyes (U.S., U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and their country, Australia), for what it has done, but only for what it has failed to do. They really see those imperialist states, and other allied ones, as the vanguard of “democratic revolution” in the world! They also deny anthropogenic global warming, and that more than a few people have died or will die as a result of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters. They support just about any environmental devastation in the name of “progress”.

While it’s hard to prove that certain people never posted anything on a topic, especially when one of them uses a single, extremely common, name on his posts, I don’t believe that Mrs. Dent or Muldowney has had anything to say about the persecutions of Bradley (Chelsea) Manning or Edward Snowden, nor anything against the entirely undemocratic (by any definition), hugely funded, deep-state agencies like the NSA, CIA, GCHQ or similar agencies in Australia. In fact, it’s hard to find anything by them that attacks the imperialist governments and their institutions in any way that many open, unabashed supporters of capitalism do. In other words, there is nothing to distinguish these self-proclaimed “leftists” or “progressives” from just another trend in ruling-class thought. If they didn’t pollute nominal left web sites with their garbage, there would be no reason to pay any attention to them.


Aaron Aarons August 30, 2013 at 1:19 am

That cumbersome sentence should be:

In fact, it’s hard to find anything by them that attacks the imperialist governments and their institutions in any way that isn’t also done by many open, unambiguous supporters of capitalism.


Arthur August 30, 2013 at 12:28 am

This stuff really matters. The widespread isolationist sentiment for not giving a damn about what happens to the Syrian people is being helped by Obama’s equivocation with the “leaks” emphasizing that any strike will be merely “punitive” to “send a message” rather than part of an actual strategy to end the regime.

That nonsense has already resulted in a defeat in the British parliament. Fortunately it can be turned around by actually doing something that DOES make a difference rather than “sending a message”. Meanwhile the illusion is being strengthened that the completely pathetic 100 strong “protests” represent the left having identical views to the far right in opposition to any kind of solidarity with Arab democracy and in acceptance of mass murder by fascists.


Bulgarian Trotskyist August 30, 2013 at 7:07 am

Proyect’s “analysis” for the last 2+ years on Libya and Syria has marked him as a repulsive pseudo-intellectual advocate for transparently NATO-directed, right-wing Islamist mercenaries in Libya and Syria.

The upper middle-class “left,” such as the ISO in the US, obscenely celebrated as a victory over “fascism” the NATO and rebel-coordinated murder of Gaddafi; this came after the month-long medieval siege and destruction of the city of Sirte. Libya has effectively ceased to exist as a country and is instead “governed” by tens if not hundreds of rival Islamist militias. Social conditions are beyond desperate. None of this matters to Proyect, Pham Binh and the rest of the comfortable, fraternity of “socialist imperialists;” they continue to celebrate Libya’s “Revolution.”

The middle-class “left’s” grotesque championing of Western-directed, reactionary Islamist dominated-insurgencies has managed to take on even more hallucinatory and criminal character in Syria. Whatever he says now, all of Proyect’s beyond-imbecilic “analyses” in relation to Syria have served to provide a justification for Washington’s long-planned violent campaign for “regime change” there (and, following this, in Iran and Russia and China.) After Obama’s bombs kill Assad or, “at the very least,” enable NATO’s proxy forces to seize power in Damascus (and kill whoever gets in their way, not least thousands of Alawites,) Obama and his administration won’t have too much use for Proyect and Company — that is, until the war on Iran (probably 1-2 years away and maybe even less.)


abraham Weizfeld August 30, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Media Communiqué

DDM Comment:

As for Syria; it seems to me that the West is feigning support for the Syrian revolution while finding every reason in its own interest to do nothing. The West never provided armaments or even ammunition to the insurgents who had merely used the weapons from defections from the military. From the information I have read, of the 100,000 Syrian deaths in this conflict, 43,000 are of the State military of Assad and the Baathist party. This military is composed of Alawite caste officers and Sunni soldiers. It is these soldiers who are defecting because they are losing the battle. The military defeat was only thwarted by the intervention of Hezbollah.

Meanwhile in geo-politics there is international support from Qatar for the revolution because it would mean their pipeline to the Mediterranean would go through Syria. And Russia, which does not want that pipeline to go through and compete with its gas to Europe, supports the Ba’athist State, but not necessarily Assad.

To bypass the geo-politics and consider the people who are in revolt, and close to winning, consider that this neighbourhood in the region of Damascus was of the opposition and was thus subjected to the chemical agent attack. A desperate regime reveals its true identity. Considering that rockets were used to deliver the agent, the Assad regime has to take responsibility since it is responsible for the military that it directs.

As in Libya, where the NATO intervention stopped the outright massacre of the Libyans, we should want that first of all, the West disregards the UN sanctions as has been done by Russia and provide the rebels with arms and ammunition. After that the UN and NATO and the USA should ask the insurgents what the Syrians want them to do. Everyone should support such a method. It should not be up to the US presidency or even its Congress, and if the US does attack the Syrian military, it is the Syrian people’s organizations that will announce their decision of the matter and the manner in which it was done.

abraham Weizfeld
Administrative Secretary KRC


David Cameron loses Syria vote
MPs vote against UK government motion on the principle of military intervention in Syria
For more details, see the BBC News website

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