The Revolution Betrayed: Obama and the Syrian Uprising

by Pham Binh on September 16, 2012

The first peaceful protest in Syria in January 2011 was directed not at the regime of Bashar al-Assad but against that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Protestors gathered in front of the Egyptian embassy, heavily armed with candles (provided by the Central Intelligence Agency, no doubt) and placards that said “yes for freedom” (in the background) and “no for killing the Egyptian youth” (in the foreground).

This innocuous solidarity demonstration was squashed by the Assad regime.

Evidently the thirst for political freedom is highly contagious, and the Syrian people had to be protected from it at all costs, including their lives.

Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, martyred but not forgotten

Stamping out peaceful protests by force — the tried and true method of the Assad regime ever since Hama in 1982 — succeeded at first but failed in the long run. In March of 2011, children who wrote anti-government slogans on walls in Dara’a were detained, beaten, and tortured. This barbaric act, the first of many to come, sparked what is rightly considered the beginning of the Syrian uprising.

Not long after, in April 2011, the regime handed the broken body of 13-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb to his parents sans genitals, dignity, and life. His crime?

Attending a peaceful protest in Jiza.

A year and a half later after that first protest in Damascus over 21,000 have been killed. Unknown numbers have been tortured, raped, killed, and mutilated by the regime. Over 250,000 Syrian refugees now live in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.

What began as Gandian-style peaceful protests (modeled on those that shook Tahrir Square) became militarized and bloody only after the regime unleashed wave after wave of executions and sadistic reprisals the likes of which would have made Hitler’s stomach churn. After months of murderous repression, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed in summer of 2011 when soldiers ordered to shoot innocent and defenseless protestors decided to turn their guns around.

People who bemoan the FSA’s human rights violations from the safety of their couches while remaining mum about the regime’s criminal acts that drove them to arms in the first place cannot comprehend what Malcolm X meant when he said: “sometimes you have to pick the gun up to put the gun down.”

While Syrian children like Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb were being tortured, killed, and mutilated by the Syrian government, what was U.S. President Barack Obama doing? Playing footsie with that very same government, trying to salvage dirty deals two years in the making aimed at throttling the Palestinians and Hezbollah in Lebanon once and for all in a grand bargain for Middle East “peace.”

Of course Obama is not prescient nor is he a psychic. He could not have known about Al-Khateeb’s suffering as it was actually happening. But as the pile of bodies grew too high to hide and the atrocities too gruesome, heinous, and well-documented to ignore, on May 19, 2011 Obama called on Assad, who he said had “chosen the path of murder,” to “lead” Syria’s transition to democracy .

So while the Syrian people paid in blood for saying the regime must go, Washington said that the regime must stay. Three months later, Obama reluctantly concede that his negotiation partner Assad must step down, but his administration steadfastly insisted that the security, police, and military killing machine that is slaughtering civilians stay in place without the old boss Bashar. Obama’s Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta put it this way: “The best way to preserve … stability is to maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government.”

Hope! The administration whose governing philosophy might best described as “the audacity of nope” hopes that the rapists, murderers, and torturers of the Syrian people will some day lead their victims out of the bloody, hellish nightmare they created to the land of democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Of course the Obama administration is neither stupid nor naïve enough to seriously think that the Syrian state machine will develop a conscience, but Assad-ism without Assad is without a doubt their preferred outcome at this point.

Obama Says No to Intervention

The Obama administration is trying to mend, not end, the murderous Assad regime. Once you understand that, you can see why:

  • The U.S. responded so differently to similarly murderous rampages by dictators in Libya and Syria.
  • The U.S. provides minimal non-lethal aid to the FSA ($25 million).
  • The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is blocking the FSA from getting heavy weapons that would destroy Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and artillery.
  • NATO declined to invoke the “self-defense” clause of its charter after Syria shot down two Turkish planes a few months ago.

These actions have produced a one-sided slaughter in Syria, not a civil war where both sides are equally aided by rival powers. Obama does not want the FSA to win and destroy Assad’s precious state machine, so he gave a green light to Assad’s murderous campaign against his own people:

I have, at this point not ordered military engagement in the situation, but, the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. It is an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria, it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us, we cannot have a situation where chemical and biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people… a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus, that would change my equation.

Here, Obama raised the bar for U.S. intervention so high to make it impossible for Assad to cross the “red line” and change U.S. imperialism’s calculus. Assad now has Obama’s go-ahead to use chemical weapons on Syrians, just not “a whole bunch” of them. Zyklon-B is a-ok by Washington, just not “a whole bunch of” it.

So Western progressives who have been warning of U.S. military action against Syria ever since the Assad regime first blamed Syria’s protests on “foreign plots” and been dead wrong for 18 months straight can heave a sigh of relief. The U.S. will not be attacking Assad’s military any time soon. The slaughter of the Syrian people will continue unabated without meaningful outside interference. Once again, the Allies have refused to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz — but this time, with the support of Western progressives.

My other writings on the Arab Spring:

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron Aarons September 17, 2012 at 3:58 am

Leaving aside all the questions about the nature of the Free Syrian Army and which, if any, parts of it deserve support from leftists, any strategy for liberation that depends on action, rather than inaction, by the number-one imperialist force in the world, the U.S.-led Western bloc, is a dead end. That bloc, or a fraction of it, will intervene in ways that serve its own interests and, given the lack of any substantial imperialist rival, it is not going to risk strengthening any real, anti-capitalist and/or anti-imperialist, revolutionaries the way it did in Vietnam and Yugoslavia when it was at war with Japan and Germany.

Attacking the U.S.-led imperialists for not intervening in any situation just gives them more ‘political capital’ to spend on intervening, when it suits them, against those who really threaten their interests.

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Clay Claiborne (@clayclai) September 17, 2012 at 11:20 am

Teaching the people why the US is not intervening to stop these massacres is a duty of the left.
Exposing the lie about R2P is a responsibility of the left.
Pointing out that a truly democratic US would act to help the Syrian people, even while we point to the hypocrisy of the imperialist regime is a duty of the left.
Demanding that military power not be used to suppress peace demonstrations anywhere is in the interest of protesters anywhere.

[Or do you think Zuma was discouraged from using live ammo against peaceful protesters in S. Africa, by the support he receive from the “left” when he supported Qaddafi for doing the same thing. – Or do you not think the helicopters hoovering over the SA miners is even more intimidating when Assad is slaughter protesters from helos while the world and the “left” look the other way. – You don’t think regimes everywhere are being encouraged to use massive violence against the people by the world’s acceptance of it in Syria.]

Demanding that governments don’t bomb resistant communities into oblivion is a responsibility of the left.

Supporting the democratic struggle of the Syria people in real and practical ways is an important responsibility of the left and can serve to limit the influence of right wing elements.

Using contradictions within the revolutionary movement or the fact that imperialists always have their own agenda as an excuse for standing down is the shame of the left.

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Louis Proyect September 17, 2012 at 10:26 am

Attacking the U.S.-led imperialists for not intervening in any situation just gives them more ‘political capital’ to spend on intervening, when it suits them, against those who really threaten their interests.

Well, the USA is intervening. Just check the link in this sentence from above:

“The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is blocking (http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2012/08/13/CIA-allegedly-overseeing-arms-into-Syria/UPI-93401344880820/) the FSA from getting heavy weapons that would destroy Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and artillery.”

In other words, the US is actively blocking the shipment of weapons that can really make a difference, that can stop the Baathist killing machine. The Global Research/Voltairenet “left” is siding with the CIA on this. It views the blocking of essential weaponry as “anti-imperialist”. In my view the propaganda of the crypto-Stalinist left is counter-revolutionary. In the name of opposing the Empire, it is cheering on the counter-revolutionary murder of working class people fighting for a democratic revolution against a family dynasty using jets and tanks to kill its own people. It is in effect using leftist rhetoric to defend a regime that has more in common with Pinochet than Allende.

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Aaron Aarons September 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm

If the reports are true, it may be that the CIA is a bit worried about what anti-aircraft missiles will be used for when some of them inevitably fall into the hands of Salafists who are, as we see in Libya, quite capable of turning their weapons against the U.S. when they no longer need U.S. aid. From a left point of view, the problem is that the Salafists don’t only, or even mainly, attack the U.S. and its allies, but mostly attack leftists and other secularists, as well as Shia, Christians and others who don’t accept Sunni Islam.

BTW, I can’t speak for Global Research, Voltairenet, or the rest of what you call “the crypto-Stalinist left”, but I don’t support the CIA’s “actively blocking the shipment of weapons that can really make a difference” because I don’t support the CIA’s being involved at all. Unfortunately, there’s no force in the region that can be expected to provide arms to anti-government forces in Syria that will not make sure that most of those arms get into the hands of right-wing Islamists. Turkey might be a possible exception, but their anti-Kurdish obsession would be as much of a problem for the left.

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Arthur September 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm

“…the regime unleashed wave after wave of executions and sadistic reprisals the likes of which would have made Hitler’s stomach churn”

This Hitler reference only weakens the description of the facts.

“Assad now has Obama’s go-ahead to use chemical weapons on Syrians, just not “a whole bunch” of them. Zyklon-B is a-ok by Washington, just not “a whole bunch of” it.”

Again, this only weakens the complaint about appearing to give a green light to non-chemical attacks.

The counter-productive hyperbole is associated with a self-defeating analysis.

It ought to be obvious that claiming the US administration wants the regime to survive can only undermine any mobilization to extend US assistance by suggesting that the goal is hopeless.

Since I really do believe that ought to be obvious I am forced to wonder about why people are missing the obvious.

My speculation is that it may be related to addressing the wrong audience.

Perhaps the pseudo-left would be more open to supporting the Syrian revolution if they could denounce the US for failing to support it? (Remember Pepe Escobar switching overnight from denouncing the US for not intervening in Libya to denouncing the US for intervening).

So what? They are completely irrelevant. What possible benefit would there be in getting temporary support from the Pepe Escobars for as long as they could be sure it wouldn’t actually help anybody? What’s needed is support from the US Air Force!

What matters is whether the revolution gets the military support it needs. Aim to convince the mainstream, not the pseudo-left.

I don’t believe the US administration wants the regime to remain, with or without Assad. Even if they would have prefered it (as Israel and Saudi Arabia both did early on) it simply isn’t possible any more.

A much more plausible explanation of US dithering in contrast to Libya is simply that the situation in Syria is far less urgent, the costs of intervention will be far greater and the international and domestic support for it is far narrower (domestic in Turkey as well as West).

The fact that a couple of hundred people are being killed a day simply doesn’t matter as much to US imperialists as it does to us. Denounce them for callous disregard for human life and criminal short-sightedness in helping Al Qaeda gain support. But don’t undermine the demand for an end to the dithering by claiming there is no hope.

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Aaron Aarons September 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm

I guess ‘arthur’ and I do have one thing in common: neither one of us is thinks highly of Louis Proyect’s rhetorical flourishes. But, rhetoric aside, I’m still waiting for Louis Proyect, Pham Binh, Clay Claiborne, et al. to disassociate themselves from the blatantly pro-imperialist politics of ‘arthur’ and his co-thinkers like Patrick Muldowney (aka ‘patrick m’). Or maybe their anti-anti-imperialist politics are not that different from ‘arthur’s pro-imperialist politics. Will some of them soon retrospectively embrace the imperialist destruction of Iraq since 1990, as ‘arthur’ and ‘patrickm’ have done all along?

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Brian S. September 17, 2012 at 3:28 pm

This starts out as a good summary of the origins of the Syrian revolt, with an excellent link to the BBC’s “where are they now story”. I can sympathise with Binh’s frustration at the inaction of the Obama administration, and I accept that passionate expression of these feelings are fully justified. But it doesn’t help our understanding or our ability to persuade people if we allow our passion to override logical and grounded reasoning (to adapt Gramsci’s famous phrase, what we need is “rigour of the intellect, passion of the will”.) I have commented on the ” Barack Obama’s Courtship of Bashar al-Assad” thread on the error of the argument that the Obama administration wants to keep Assad in power, so won’t repeat it. But this approach is replicated here by attempts to construe various of Obama’s comments in a highly artificial way. Thus Obama says “President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition.” And this is construed as Obama inviting Assad to “lead the transition”. What it is, of course, is a common rhetorical device that we have probably all used: you set up something that you and your audience know is not going to happen and contrast it with a desirable course of affairs, in order to affirm the need for the latter. Where this method leads is to the claim that because Obama uses the phrase “a whole bunch” with regard to chemical weapons he is giving Assad approval to make selective use of chemical weapons!
This sort of argumentative method is what I have come to expect of our opponents, and I’m surprised to find it here – I hadn’t realised it was infectious.

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admin September 20, 2012 at 11:31 am

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