Unequivocal support for the Syrian edition of the Arab Spring on the Western left is hard to come by. There’s the outright defenders of the Assad’s blood-drenched dictatorship like the Party for Socialism and Liquidation, journalists like Patrick Cockburn who report nonsense as fact about YouTube videos from Damascus’ Green Zone, and then there are those who should know better like the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) whose take on Syria is “a plague on both your houses.”
Arne Johansson of CWI’s report, “Turning Point in Syria’s Civil War?” is a crude version of Marxism where facts are used, abused, distorted, and forced to fit “the party line.” Such a method leads not only leads to bogus political conclusions but also constitutes yellow journalism.
No matter what your favorite ideological flavor is, that is not acceptable for seriously examining or understanding anything.
Johansson’s piece begins by discussing the U.S. State Department’s designation of Jabhat al-Nusrah as a terrorist group and the notes that this move provoked fury among the Syrian opposition, both among the political exiles abroad who are part of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionaries and Opposition Forces and among opposition groups on the ground who protested the decision. Johansson writes:
“The fact that more than 100 opposition groups inside Syria simultaneously demonstrated against the U.S. terrorism designation behind the slogan ‘we are all al-Nusra’ also sends shivers down the spines of all Syrian ethnic or religious minorities.”
Here, we have the first instance of Johansson playing fast and loose with the facts to simplify the contradictions of a complex situation so that they neatly conform to his political conclusions. The unabridged slogan of those demonstrations was, “No to American intervention — we are all Jabhet al-Nusra.”
Why is this relevant?
Because Johansson dismisses the revolutionaries in Syria fighting for their lives and the lives of their families on the grounds that they “subordinate themselves to Western imperialism and the reactionary Arab states that sponsor Syria’s rebels.”
How a grassroots protest under the slogan, “No to American intervention — we are all Jabhet al-Nusra” adds up to subordination to American imperialism after the American government just declared this group a terrorist organization is anyone’s guess. It smacks more of angry defiance than subservience, but hey, why let facts get in the way of a “good” argument?
The next piece of evidence Johansson cites to substantiate his political case is a YouTube video of a boy cutting off a regime soldier’s head at the behest of the dreaded Islamist rebels, the same video cited by Cockburn in his anti-revolution hit piece on Counterpunch. The fact that the footage in question emerged months prior on a pro-regime YouTube channel and television station? Never mind that. That “[t]he heavily-edited video of the beheading is interspersed with scenes from a Turkish soap opera, apparently an attempt to link ‘crimes’ of the Syrian insurgents with the evil behaviour of fictional Turkish characters.” Never mind that either.
Never mind all this business about facts, evidence, and careful investigation, we have a line about the Syrian revolution to push, the more imbued with truthiness, the better.
Johansson’s article then meanders off into what can only be described as fantasyland speculation about U.S./NATO military intervention into Syria. Every time imperialist troops are deployed somewhere in the world part of the left cries “war!” regardless of whether those troops are handing out lunches to Tsunami victims or guarding an embassy from attack.
Clay Claiborne has documented in painful detail how every pretext the West used for past military interventions is present in Syria. Here’s the Cliff notes version:
- Human rights abuses? Check.
- Brutal regime? Check.
- Humanitarian crisis? Check.
- Possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? Check.
- Out of control civil war? Check.
- Regional instability? Check.
- Use of chemical weapons? Check.
If Western imperialists were going to step in using these excuses, they would have done so by now. It’s only been two years.
Johansson assures us, “Western powers want a regime change as fast as possible in Syria.” Really? Is that why the flow of foreign weapons to the rebels is drying up? Is that why the Central Intelligence Agency has continuously blocked heavy weapons from getting into the hands of people armed with rifles and slingshots against a regime that uses jets to attack Aleppo University, drops cluster bombs on civilian targets, and shells people as they buy their daily bread?
If Western governments wanted to burn Assad’s house down fast and furious, they’d be giving the Free Syrian Army (FSA) gasoline and matches, not preventing everything but water balloons from reaching them.
The final piece of evidence Johansson uses to prove that “class-conscious workers and socialists cannot support any side of this reactionary war” is a report from a young Syrian Christian about a massacre of religious minorities carried out by the FSA in Ras al-Ain. Johansson quotes the lurid details of this report:
“Kurds, Arabs and Christians, more than 70,000 people fled, mostly to Hassake. Within a few hours, the city became a ghost town. Alawites were hit the worst; they were killed just because they were Alawites. One of the victims was a schoolteacher who loved the city so much, and for many years taught all the families’ children. Some militiamen found, captured, and killed him in front of his wife and children, who were kidnapped.”
This report is as truthy as it gets when it comes to Syria. That fighters from the FSA did these terrible things is entirely plausible because, let’s face it, sometimes they do terrible things.
Here’s the problem: the best lies always contain a grain of truth. Based on the source document posted on the Agenzia Fides Web site that Johansson quoted, this is probably one of those lies.
The text is a series of quotes received by Agenzia Fides from what is allegedly a young Syrian Christian. In addition to the text Johansson quoted, he/she wrote the following:
“In the middle of the night, at two on 8 November, residents of Ras al-Ain were awakened by the sound of explosions, of helicopters and machine guns. They were the fighters of the Free Army and Turkish helicopters reached Syrian territory and easily conquered the border crossing and the city. The military began to seize civilian homes to use them as fighting positions. My grandfather’s home was among those that were seized, where there were women, children and paralyzed grandmother. All Civilians were Expelled from their homes in pajamas, without being able to take documents, money or anything else. Military and combatants went further: with a ‘black list’, they went from one house to another looking for their enemies. Among these were the names of the heads of Christian families. Why?”
There are two reasons why this report is not plausible: Turkish helicopters and the “black list”. Do a Google search of “Turkish helicopters” and “Ras al-Ain” and the only results you get are this report. Another Google search of the town’s name, “Ras al-Ain,” with a date range of November 7, 2012 through November 14, 2012 shows that the town was attacked by helicopters — the helicopters belonged to the Assad regime. There’s even video of it. Furthermore, there is no way Turkey could fly its helicopters into Syrian territory without the Assad regime bleating about “foreign invasion” at a press conference or at the United Nations. A Google search of “Turkish helicopters” and “SANA” (the Assad regime’s “news” agency) during that same date range turned up zero results.
Now, anyone who knows anything about the FSA knows it’s not a terribly well-organized group. It’s mostly defected soldiers from Assad’s army and armed civilians. The likelihood of them having a list of Christian heads of household in an area they were just taking over is pretty close to nil. Add that to that the fact that there appear to be zero accounts of this battle that corroborate the “black list” claim in the Agenzia Fides story.
So what are we left with? An anonymous person, possibly an agent of the Assad regime, sends an inflammatory letter to Agenzia Fides about the evil, sectarian FSA and CWI’s news outlet picks it up and runs it, lies and all.
This follows the template established by the Houla massacre. When a German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, reported that dozens of mostly Shia civilians had been massacred by Syrian rebels, it spread far and wide on the left thanks to “anti-imperialist” outfits like the World Socialist Web Site. Unfortunately for them, blogger Darth Nader noticed that most of the names of the victims were, in fact, Sunni, not Shia and when the full truth came out and contradicted the initial reports, those that spread the Houla lie did not print retractions. They carried on as if nothing happened, just as the corporate media did when the WMD they hyped in Iraq never materialized.
What supports the party line is good. What contradicts the party line is bad. And when what seemed to be good turns out to be bad, carry on and hope no one notices.
The next part of Johansson’s article is a polemic aimed at two Swedish socialists, last names Kilden and Åsmans (do they not have first names in Sweden?). He tells us they are members of a “competing” socialist current, USFI, and describes them as “uncritical supporters” of the Syrian revolution who “ignore the growing power of Syria’s Islamic forces.” Aside from Ikea instruction manuals, I do not read Swedish, so I have no way of verifying whether or not this is true. Given how facts and evidence were handled in the first half of Johansson’s article, put me down as “skeptical” that either of these charges is accurate.
To build political conclusions on demonstrable falsehoods is to build on sand. Here is Johansson’s overall sandcastle view of the Syrian revolution:
“But without independent working-class struggles, even along the lines of what took place in Tunisia and Egypt, this sectarian mutation of an originally genuine, but today largely muted and dispersed mass movement against the dictatorship, unfortunately is a logical consequence of a protracted civil war that has mainly been sponsored by some of the world’s most reactionary and least democratic forces in the guise of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and behind them imperialism. …
“Class-conscious workers and socialists cannot support any side of this reactionary war; neither the doomed Assad regime nor the militias run by religious extremists or who otherwise subordinate themselves to Western imperialism and the reactionary Arab states that sponsor Syria’s rebels.
“The task must be to build alliances for mutual protection and security of all threatened neighborhoods and anyone who refuses to be drawn into this sectarian civil war, irrespective of all religious and ethnic boundaries. Alongside this, working people need their own independent movement against Assad, sectarian forces, and imperialism.
“Based on this, sooner or later Syrian workers, democracy activists, and youth will begin the construction of a new socialist movement that draws inspiration from the examples of Tunisia and Egypt’s struggling workers and takes an independent stand against reactionary regimes, religious fundamentalism and imperialism.”
To hear Johansson tell it, the Syrian revolution’s mass character is no longer genuine and is at best muted. Never mind the daily and weekly demonstrations held in Damascus, Idlib, Aleppo, Daraa, and Homs whose turnouts and regularity in the middle of a war zone put anything progressive forces in the West can muster in peacetime to shame.
To hear Johansson tell it, reactionary and undemocratic regimes never aid progressive and democratic movements in foreign countries. Never mind the French monarchy arming America’s revolutionaries against the British or the German High Command’s decision to let Lenin travel through their territory to foment revolution in Russia and end Russian participation in World War One.
To hear Johnasson tell it, both sides of the Syrian war are reactionary. Nevermind the FSA’s declarations against summary executions, the groundswell of anti-sectarian feelings among the revolution’s supporters, the creation of revolutionary tribunals in Aleppo to fight criminality, the popular councils regulating the price of bread so the poor can afford it, and the absence of massacres of minorities and mass rapes in rebel-held areas.
To hear Johansson tell it, there are no Christian units of the FSA, no female Alawi officers of the FSA, no Muslim-led Jesus Christ brigade of the FSA, no pro-Alawi FSA commanders, no emphatic statements of solidarity with the Alawi communities of Al-Qardaha (Assad’s hometown) and the coastal area of Latakia by the majority Sunni opposition.
According to Johansson, all is lost because the Syrian revolution did not unfold the way the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions did (all Arab nations and opposition movements being identical, of course). The working class did not organize and come out into the streets on strike; how this could have been accomplished when Assad used machine guns, snipers, and artillery on unarmed demonstrators he does not tell us. How anyone could strike in a fascist state where more than one-third of the workforce is employed by said state, he does not say. His complaints amount to bemoaning that the Syrian revolution is not the smooth pavement of Nevsky Prospect, a mistake Lenin warned us about a century ago and a topic I will explore further in an upcoming piece, “Marxist Idealism and the Arab Spring.”
Nothing is more pernicious in a revolution than “a plague on both your houses” neutrality; this is especially true when that neutrality is grounded in quarter-truths. Howard Zinn was right, you can’t be neutral on a moving train, and no train moves like revolution; it’s why Marx dubbed them “the locomotives of history.”
Who stands to gain from “a plague on both your houses” in the case of Syria? Who stands to benefit from the notion that neither side in Syria is worthy of support, of solidarity, of aiding and abetting?
Obviously, the side that has all the help it can get, the side that enjoys endless Russian arms, Iranian and Hezbollah boots on the ground, Venezuelan oil, and an endless supply of money from without — that is, the Assad regime.
Only the Assad regime stands to gain from Western activists washing their hands of the moral and political imperative to aid the Syrian uprising.
Only the Assad regime benefits when we pretend that Jabhat al-Nusrah, Islamists, and foreign powers control the politics of the Syrian opposition.
People are welcome to criticize me and my views on the Syrian revolution; the more the merrier. People are also welcome to use my name on their fund-raising letters whatever their views on Syria, as CWI’s American affiliate Socialist Alternative has—provided they are engaged in left unity work such as the Sawant campaign or the slate of left candidates in Seattle.
What people are not welcome to do is utilize distortions to force-fit the actuality of revolution into pat formulas and lifeless schemas.
My other writings on the Syrian Spring:
- “‘Red line’ or Empty Threat? How the Western Left Gasses Itself on Syria,” The North Star, December 6, 2012
- “The Revolution Betrayed: Obama and the Syrian Uprising,” The North Star, September 16, 2012
- “Act Now, Save Syria,” Independent Voter Network, August 20, 2012
- “Assad’s Bloodhounds: the Party for Socialism and Liquidation,” Polizeros, August 20, 2012
- “’Hands Off Syria’ and Other Slogans of Assad’s Counter-Revolution,” The Indypendent, August 16, 2012
- “Our Responsibility to the Arab Spring,” Kasama Project, August 4, 2012
- “The Anti-Imperialism of Fools,” Comment Middle East, July 21, 2012
- “Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong,” Comment Middle East, July 5, 2012