Achcar: Left confused about Syria. Me: Oh, really?

Brian Thu, 2016-01-14 20:06
"Rebel cuts out Syrian soldier's heart, eats some. Assad's fault!!

Is the "left" confused about Syria? Are we overlooking the revolutionary possibilities in the Syrian "uprising"? According to Gilbert Achcar, some of us are.

Gilbert Achcar is a professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He's a well-known Marxist expert and author on Middle Eastern issues and issues of imperialism, among other subjects.

He's perhaps best known for his 2011 screed in ZNet, "Libya: a legitimate and necessary debate from an anti-imperialist perspective," where he argued, loosely that Qaddafi was such a bad guy that it was likely a massacre of horrific proportions would occur in Benghazi, etc, that the West's "humanitarian" intervention was an exception to the rule that such interventions are always reactionary. He also actually stated that the argument that the "West" was pursuing "humanitarian intervention" in Libya in their own interest was "preposterous." Really! It was as if he were an unusually erudite spokesperson for NATO! (His article provoked a storm of criticism, not surprisingly.)

I hope I don't have to elaborate on just how wrong he was. But he doesn't appear to have learned from the experience.

He's just published a piece in Jacobin magazine, very much a left journal. "What happened to the Arab Spring?" is a very interesting article. It's wide-ranging, covering many aspects of that Spring, including especially the hope that it will coninue. I thoroughly enjoyed Achcar's discussions of Tunisia and Egypt. How could we disagree with one of his theses, that progress in the Middle East and North Africa will be more likely the more organized and autonomous labour is in those countries?

But Achcar's interviewer Nada Matta says the "left" is "confused" about Syria, and Achcar agrees.

His characterizations of the "left," perhaps especially the "knee-jerk 'anti-imperialist' left," are supercilious and insulting. (Notice that he contains the word "anti-imperialist" in quotes, signifying that such individuals are not really anti-imperialist, or are fake anti-imperialists, not only insulting, but also curious, given the criticisms of his thinking, which I'll get to below.)

In order to justify their support for the Assad regime, some people argue that the Syrian uprising, unlike other Arab countries, was led by reactionary Islamic forces."

I have never encountered this argument anywhere, and certainly not on the left. (NB. I know I can't read everything on the left, so I may have missed something.) What "supporters of the regime" (that is, those who don't want Syria to descend into a Wahhabist, sectarian hell) say is that, from the beginning the demonstrations of the popular uprising included violent, Islamist elements as participants, mostly unwelcome ones, who from the beginning were armed. See, for example, here, where Tim Anderson makes some interesting and important comparisons of 2011 with the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood uprising. There were also the now-ubiquitous rooftop snipers that appear everywhere the CIA et al have trainers/students, shooting people on both sides (viz also Ukraine).

Nobody I know of says these people were in the pro-freedom leadership. It's a classic straw person argument.

Those who don’t know the history of the region think that because the Syrian regime is allied to Iran and to the Lebanese Hezbollah, it is anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist. Now, the fact that anyone on the Left would fall prey to such propaganda and believe it, is very much deplorable.

Again, this is the first time I've even read this argument, but, even if some people do believe it, it hardly matters. What matters is that the government of Syria is fighting the storm-troopers of imperialism, perhaps too late. (Achcar avers that one of the keys to the uprising was the neo-liberal policies of the Assad government.Just where does Achcar think neo-liberalism comes from?)

The view of some people on the Left who live in a time warp and believe that Russia is somehow the continuation of the Soviet Union and that Vladimir Putin is the heir of Vladimir Lenin, is quite preposterous.

Indeed it would be, if anyone on the left thought that. I know I don't. In my experience, the only ones who think that are western "leaders" and media pundits, who for some reason decided it was clever to say "the new Hitler" (Putin, in case I need to remind) wants to recreate the Soviet empire, which is, of course, preposterous. There's absolutely no evidence for this outside the perfervid imaginations of the western commentariat. But the left? Don't think so.

The main criticisms of Achcar's thinking that I've read have to do with how his left, anti-imperialist, pro-worker bravado somehow ends up mirroring and justifying US State Department machinations. See here, here, and here.

In the Jacobin piece, he fails to admit that he supported the US/NATO invasion of Libya, the destruction of it as a functioning society, and the murder of Qaddafi, which is entirely responsible for creating that country's tragedy. At least in this Jacobin article he admits it's a tragedy, even if he hides his role in it. And even though the policies he supported in Libya created a disaster, he appears to want another one for Syria.

His "revolutionary" acquiescence to imperialist conquest produces some real howlers.

Russia is no less imperialist than the United States

Oh, please. That's simply ludicrous. Russia doesn't have 800+ military bases all over the world. Russia isn't "pivoting to Asia," to choke off China's influence in the world. Russia hasn't been at war for most of the last 200 years. (That's enough. By arguing too strongly, I might end up inadvertently giving this statement more weight than it deserves.)

The main reason that allows Al-Nusra and ISIS to develop is the continued existence of the Assad regime. It is the Assad regime’s barbarism in repressing the uprising that created the ground for Al-Qaeda and ISIS to develop in Syria in the first place.

Oh, please. Assad's father crushed an Islamic uprising in 1982. Islamists have been causing trouble in Syria for many years. As I've argued elsewhere, the Syrians who participated in the democratic, freedom-seeking part of the revolt and those who populate ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Army of Conquest, et al, are entirely different people, You couldn't get more opposite. (Note as well that the government didn't "crush" the popular parts of the revolt, they're only after the armed parts. See here.) The Islamists would have crushed any kind of popular revolt, too, only astonishingly brutally, as they have demonstrated time and again over the past five years. Perhaps this is among the reasons Syria's communist parties participated in the Government coalition in the last election. Unless, of course, they're confused.

As is known just about everywhere but in Achcar's mind, the main reason al-Nusra and Da'esh continue to operate is the funding they get from Gulf countries, the training and support they get from US/NATO/CIA/MI5/Mossad, the "jobs" they can offer, etc. And, of course, the oil they steal from Iraq and Syria for the Erdogan family. Wahhabist extremists have been supported, sometimes overtly, by the "West" for many, many years, some argue since before Afghanistan. In Syria, Assad's government is the main force fighting them. Under Achcar's logic, if Assad were to stop fighting them, they would go away. Excuse me?

People fail to understand that, after Bush, the Obama administration was no longer in the business of regime change.

Wow. That's a real laff riot. Er...Libya??

In Syria, the conditions for Arab Sunni sectarian resentment must be removed in order to end the sectarian appeal of Al-Nusra, ISIS, and other fundamentalists. The first condition for doing that is the removal of the Assad clan from power, as they are resented by a major part of the Syrian society.

Decent polls, including western ones, demonstrate that most Syrian Sunnis continue to support the government. (See here, here (Fox News!), and here. Of course, support among the other groups is rock solid. Ashcar appears to believe that Da'esh/al-Nusra "appeal" to other Sunnis, which I think demonstrably false. In fact, every time these marauding gangsters take over an area, there's an exodus of Syrians that don't want to have anything to do with them, including Sunnis. Da'esh/al-Nusra are not manifestations of "Sunni resentment," they're manifestations of Wahhabist imperialism, centred, where else, in Saudi Arabia.

There might have been an argument for Assad's "removal" when Syria was a one-party state. But authors such as Achcar always leave out the most important response of Syria's government to the democracy protests: the revisions of Syria's constitution that provide for multi-party democracy and elections for their legislature and President. Maybe those changes weren't enough to satisfy some critics of the government, but they were approved in a referendum by a group of people who don't seem to count in Achcar's (or the "rebels'") books—the Syrian people themselves.

(Of course, the situation in Syria is not ideal for voting, given the presence of many armed groups who discourage democratic decision-making, often violently, but the turnouts for the elections that have been undertaken under the new constitution seem impressive enough by western standards. See here and here.)

So, in fact, the conditions are already in place for Assad's removal, if that's what the Syrian people want.

And again, Achcar doesn't tell us by what authority Assad is to be "removed." Russia keeps insisting that it's up to the Syrian people. Achcar's program seems to be some form of "negotiated settlement" between outside powers, over the heads of the Syrians themselves. How legitimate would that be?

[Iran and Russia] are therefore preventing the progress toward a negotiated compromise. Such a compromise, to be sure, would be far from ideal. But unless the war stops, there will be no revival of the progressive democratic potential of the Syrian uprising as it emerged in 2011. The potential still exists: if the war stops and the social economic issues come to the fore again, people will see the vanity of both camps who have no solutions for the country’s problems.

Preposterous. In fact, Russia and Iran have all along encouraged a negotiated settlement and a transition government, with no preconditions, and to the exclusion of terrorist groups and non-Syrians. On the other hand, the Obama regime-changers have never budged from their position that Assad must go—as a precondition to any negotiation. This is not only a non-starter, a poison pill specifically designed to rule out serious negotiations, but it's typical of US imperialist "deal-making": the only possible "negotiated settlement" is a complete surrender. (See, for example, Libya, especially here.)

And, of course, Achcar repeats some of the required canards of the pro-"rebel" pro-NATO crowd. The elected government is the "Assad regime." It's "despotic" and "barbaric," the mirror image of the Islamist thugs terrorizing the countryside. Of course, Assad is "massacring his own people." (nb: He's not; he's combatting an armed insurrection, including foreign mercenaries.) And, almost needless to say, he "must go." A couple of points should be awarded, though, for his not using the term "Russian aggression."

But, perhaps like the stopped clock that's right twice per day, Achcar then states the bleedingly obvious, that the war must end before the democratic revolt can resume. But that entails that the Western and Gulf meddlers must get the freak out of it, and let the Syrians do it themselves, if they desire to do so.

I think it's possible. (Syrians returning to take up where they left off, not the West/Gulf gettng out.) Already there are reports that many thousands of Syrians are returning home as the Syrian Arab Army makes advances with Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah help, taking back areas that have been "administered" by the "rebels" for some time. (See, for example, here, here (Fox News again, weird!), and here, though the misery of life in a refugee camp undoubtedly plays a role. This makes sense; many, many of them escaped when the "rebels" rampaged through their homes, villages, and cities. Why wouldn't they go back? It's their home. An end to the proxy war might well inspire many of the rest to return; in fact, I think it's the only hope.

Is the left confused? I don't think I'm confused, but I think Achcar does his best to confuse us. To accept Achcar's reasoning, we have to overlook entirely that there are tens of thousands of foreign Wahhabists fighting the government, and the "West" can't even find a few dozen non-Islamists to train and support. The Free Syrian Army that's left is largely now an organized criminal organization, not really an "opposition" in any real form. The only real prospect of the war ending and Syrian progressive democrats being able to operate in their own country is if the Wahhabists are defeated, and the "rebels" give up on Sunni domination. ("Christians to Lebanon, Alawites to their graves!")

And if we follow Achcar's reasoning, we apparently have to accept that the "West" is but a bit player in all the mayhem. And the major role of Turkey isn't even worth mentioning.

If the Syrian government falls, it will almost certainly result in a situation much like Libya. The "rebels," including the foreign ones, can't even manage to keep themselves from fighting each other now. It would be a disaster, especially for what's left of the Syrian people.

At this point, I can't even imagine what other possibility there is for the left to support. Anti-imperialism or bust! Any leftist who doesn't see that, in my humble opinion, is confused.


See also "The ‘Anti-Imperialist’ Who Got Libya Wrong Serves Up The Same Failed Analysis on Syria", a much longer and more detailed critique than this one.

Da'esh executes multiple hand-cuffed, defenceless captives. Assad's fault!!