I would like to call your attention to two important articles on Syria written by leftist scholars based in the U.S. The first is by Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian studies professor in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia. Formerly known as MEALAC, this department is a bastion of anti-imperialist sentiment and closely associated with the postcolonial perspective of the late Edward Said. Dabashi’s article, titled On Syria: Where the Left is right and the Right is wrong, appeared in the February 28 edition of Al Jazeera and includes a critique of a wing of the left that has been backing “anti-imperialist” dictators in the Middle East that will be familiar to my regular readers.
On March 2nd, Vijay Prashad, Professor of International Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, replied to Dabashi in an article titled The Left and the People: Extending Hamid Dabashi’s Critique that came as a surprise to me after reading it this morning under the assumption that he would have been on the opposite side of the fence. I had singled Prashad out for criticism in an article I wrote back in April 2011 titled The anti-anti-Qaddafi left. This time I expected him to sell the Syrian opposition short even though in retrospect I must confess that I was casting my net too wide when I linked him with Global Research et al in the first place.
Of course, if I had paid attention to the title of the article to begin with, I would have noticed that he was extending Dabashi’s critique not attacking it. That will learn me to read more carefully in the future, a major challenge given the cataracts I have in both eyes and the macular pucker in the left that makes reading from it virtually impossible. Furthermore, since the article was published in Jadaliyya, a website very close to Dabashi’s viewpoint politically (rather than Counterpunch, for example), I should have figured out that my expectations were in error.
As I have pointed out repeatedly, the pro-Assad left is basically using the same logic as the pro-Obama left without realizing it. Instead of doing a Chicken Little act about Rick Santorum and the Koch brothers, they harp on jihadists in cahoots with the CIA. As bad as Ahmadinejad, al-Assad or Qaddafi are or were, they are lesser evils. If their enemies prevail, the sky will fall. Dabashi puts it this way:
Yes, the Syrian regime might be corrupt and murderous, they consent, but the real danger to the Syrian revolution comes from the US and Saudi Arabia – so they remain at best ambivalent and at worst silent on the criminal Syrian regime. If anyone dares to point to Assad’s murderous spectacle, they accuse him/her of complacency with the US and Saudi Arabia, or else a mere simpleton manipulated by “the Western media”.
The Left contends that what started as genuine protests has now been hijacked by “extremist Sunni groups” inside Syria and by outside forces that extend from the US to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and by extension, the Gulf states – all lining up against Iran and Hezbollah, which, for them, is evidently the forefront of resistance against imperialism. Some on the Left who approve of the Arab Spring even suggest that the Arab revolutionaries ought to develop a strategic alliance with the ruling regime in the Islamic Republic. Yes, they say, the regime in Iran might be murderous towards its own citizens, but it is standing up to imperialism. Again: the moral depravity of the position is informed by its political illiteracy.
So, as should be obvious from the citation above, you have to put a clothespin on your nose and vote for al-Assad on Election Day. Oops, I meant to say Obama.
Prashad’s article starts with a quote that makes his affinities clear as day:
The overall anti-imperialist sentiment remains strong among the Syrian population and the attempts by parts of the Left to smear the entire uprising as a stand-in for imperialism belies a Manichean worldview that badly misunderstands the country’s history. I don’t see any contradiction in opposing intervention and simultaneously being against the Assad regime—which, we need to remember, has embraced neoliberalism and consistently used a rhetoric of ‘anti-imperialism’ to obfuscate a practice of accommodation with both the US and Israel.
–Adam Hanieh, author, Capital and Class in the Gulf Arab States, 2011.
Since this amounts to preaching to the choir, as far as I am concerned, I can only say amen.
To his credit, Prashad is not afraid to name names and kick ass, as we used to put it in the 1960s:
Regarding Syria, the first divide in the Left is in the characterization of the Ba’ath regime. One section, a very small one, takes the view that the Ba’ath regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a revolutionary regime, whose politics is made visible through its position vis-à-vis Israel (anti) and Iran (pro). In this camp (inside Syria) lies the exhausted Syrian Communist Party and (outside Syria) sits the website Global Research. Both the SCP and Global Research take their anti-imperialism into territory that occludes the authoritarianism of imperialism’s adversaries — a classic case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
He also deserves praise for calling attention to the brutality that is being visited on Homs in contradistinction to articles that seek to minimize it, such as Sharmine Narwani’s article Questioning the Syrian “Casualty List” that appeared in Al Akhbar. Narwani’s scare quotes are supposedly given credence by an Arab League’s observers’ mission report:
Importantly, the report further confirms obfuscation of casualty information when it states: “the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns.”
Since Narwani obviously cherry-picked her “witnesses” in order to prettify al-Assad at the expense of the rebels, she had little interest in bothering to answer the criticisms of the report, especially the one found in the always reliable McClatchy report:
The Arab League’s mission to monitor the bloodshed in Syria was doomed from the start, with some observers seemingly oblivious to the gravity of their assignment and others lacking the expertise to do the job, according to a leaked internal report.
The Arab observers also faced serious dangers, a scarcity of equipment and a fierce Syrian media campaign against them, obstacles that all but assured their inability to get a deep understanding of the crisis that’s on track to becoming the Middle East’s next civil war. The mission was suspended Saturday amid escalating violence.
“Regrettably, some observers thought that their visit to Syria was for pleasure,” wrote the mission chief, Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al Dabi, according to the report posted online. “In some instances, experts who were nominated were not qualified for the job, did not have prior experience and were not able to shoulder the responsibility.”
The mission’s problems began upon its arrival in Syria on Dec. 24. Syrian officials immediately confiscated the communications gear of the 166 monitors at the Jordanian border, according to the leaked report. They were left with just 10 satellite phones until the Chinese Embassy intervened with 10 walkie-talkies to help the monitors communicate with one another and their command.
The observers were posted in 15 areas of the country, some of them dangerous conflict zones, but they didn’t have enough body armor or reinforced vehicles. Rental agencies refused to rent vehicles to the monitors, who sometimes ended up overwhelmed among rioting crowds in the mission’s first days, according to the report.
Well, so what if the report was about as reliable as Judith Miller’s NY Times’s articles? They served a political purpose and that’s all that matters.
Prashad offers a different perspective entirely:
Only the most inhumane among us would not see the bombardment of Homs as unconscionable. Those who say this is a Civil War and try to defend the attack on the city forget that even if this were a Civil War and if the regime were actually progressive, it should not bomb civilian neighborhoods in such an indiscriminate manner. The habit of the Ba’ath is to raze cities and call it national integration (this is what al-Assad Senior did in Hama in 1982). No Leftist can be cavalier about Homs.
We should also acknowledge what the Angry Arab has to say on this, since his take on the revolutionaries is in line with the “extremist Sunni groups” talking points:
Today, I saw some of the footage from Baba Amr [a Sunni neighborhood in Homs]. I mean, the firepower that the regime has used against the protesters (armed or unarmed), is so much more deadly and brutal than what it used against Israeli acts of aggression against Syria in the last few decades. Not a bullet was fired against Israel when the latter attacked Syria on numerous occasions. Not one bullet.
Prashad concludes with some proposals for the left to consider in navigating between the Scylla of imperialist intervention and the Charybdis of Ba’athist repression:
If no external military intervention is either forthcoming or to be welcomed, the question for the outside Left is how best to build pressure for a drawdown from the bloodletting that threatens to leave Syria anemic. Is there an effective strategy toward a ceasefire? Should the Left in Russia build pressure on the Putin regime to push the al-Assad government toward a cessation of hostilities in Homs (a cessation is not just a ceasefire, since it means that the troops must withdraw from the city)? Should the Left in the United States and in the other NATO countries build pressure for a less maximalist position in Syria (al-Assad must go)? Such maximalism falsely emboldens the rebellion, whose members believe that this means that the Cruise Missiles are on the way. It also hardens the obduracy of the al-Assad regime, which has everything to lose by stopping its assaults? Has the rebellion already weakened the legitimacy of the Ba’ath regime sufficiently that it has had to make promises that it was unwilling to make previously? It moved its goal posts from an abstract promise of “reform” to “no Ba’ath monopoly on state power” at some future date. If this is so, could a popular momentum build up toward an expedited transfer of power and the establishment of a provisional unity government that is under popular pressure to hold a truly democratic constitutional referendum? The “referendum” held on February 26 in the midst of the violence is not serious. Even the Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said that in the absence of peace, constitutional reform is a “theoretical conversation.”
In my view, the only sensible position for the left to take is total opposition to military intervention. In wrestling with the question of whether the left should or should not adopt a “maximalist” position, Prashad in effect forces us to stake out a position that is not necessary for us to take. For example, the left did not need to take a position in 2002 whether Saddam Hussein should step down or not. The most effective slogan for an antiwar movement was “no troops in the Middle East”. This would leave room for all sorts of interpretations of the role of Ba’athism in Syria, including the unfortunately nonsensical position taken by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the group that leads ANSWER.
On their website, they endorse the analysis of Stephen Gowans, a Canadian blogger, who believes:
Apart from Syria’s irritating Washington by allying with Iran, backing Hezbollah, and providing material assistance to Palestinian national liberation movements, the country exhibits a tendency shared by all US regime change targets: a predilection for independent, self-directed, economic development. This is expressed in state-ownership of important industries, subsidies to domestic firms, controls on foreign investment, and subsidization of basic commodities. These measures restrict the profit-making opportunities of US corporations, banks and investors, and since it is their principals who hold sway in Washington, US foreign policy is accordingly shaped to serve their interests.
While Gowans is admittedly an obscure figure (his blog is ranked 4,697,308 by Alexa), his analysis is unfortunately shared by others with much more credibility such as Aijaz Ahmad who views Ba’athism almost as a greater good rather than a lesser evil:
For one thing, Syria is the last remaining representative of Arab nationalism as it used to be understood historically. It still calls itself socialist. Even though it has implemented a great deal of neoliberal reform, the state sector is still dominant. It bans, literally bans, religion from politics. It will not recognize the existence of religious political parties. It is the historic opponent of Israel for a variety of reasons. . . . If you remove Syria, the cordon sanitaire around Israel is complete. There’s no adversary left. There is then Iran — not sharing a border, not a part of the historical Arab world. Iran gets isolated. And their perception is that both Hezbollah and Hamas will lose enormously. . . . So, Syria has that kind of strategic situation. In the old days, it was very closely aligned with the Socialist Bloc, and some of that kind of alignment still remains. . . .
One might hope that if Vijay Prashad ever runs into countryman Aijaz Ahmad at a conference, he might inform the highly respected theorist that Ba’athism and Arab nationalism are not synonymous based on a bit of historical recollection found in his article:
Much of the Left recognizes that the Ba’ath regime is neither anti-imperialist nor anti-capitalist. It recognizes that al-Assad’s government has most often played the border guard for Israel, and undoubtedly evokes no revolutionary good feelings amongst the Palestinians in either Lebanon or the West Bank (perhaps a small current in Gaza, until Hamas’ Ismail Haniya threw his support with the Syrian people against the al-Assad regime). Among the Palestinian Left the fundamental break with Syria took place during its betrayal of their cause in its invasion of Lebanon in 1975. Most of the Left is also aware that the Ba’ath Party was the enemy of both Nasserism (which banned the Ba’ath during the union of Syria and Egypt between 1958 and 1961) and the original Syrian Communist Party (when it was in its heyday before the military coup in 1961).
Perhaps the collapse of the USSR is something that Aijaz Ahmad, Stephen Gowans and the Party for Socialism and Liberation have not gotten over. Considering Ahmad’s rather quaint use of the term “Socialist Bloc”, one gets a distinct of “Ostalgia”—something that is well and good when it means a hatred for capitalism but highly dubious when it comes for changing the world. In a new century, 21st century socialism has to proceed on the basis that democracy and socialism are intertwined.
For far too long, the left has used a yardstick in which “state ownership” trumps freedom. If the “state sector” is dominant in Syria, what does this mean if people lack the freedom to decide how the wealth of society should be used?
One of the major contributions of the Occupy movement—no doubt a function of the role of anarchists as midwives—has been its emphasis on democracy and its obvious affinity with the Tahrir Square protests. While I remain skeptical whether the experience at Zuccotti Square really amounts to a harbinger of a future society, I do embrace the idea that decision-making must be made “horizontally” as the anarchists put it—or “from below” as others on the left put it.
This is the basis of our future struggles, not nostalgia for a “Socialist Bloc” that collapsed for the very reason Syria is such a tempting target for imperialism. When an authoritarian state ignores the will of the people, or does not even allow the minority of a population to argue in favor of policies that might eventually be embraced by the majority, its moral claim to speak in the name of the nation soon evaporates. Not only is democracy necessary for the construction of socialism, it is necessary for the anti-imperialist defense of the nation. Bashar al-Assad’s greatest shortcoming is that in the name of anti-imperialism, he is laying down a red carpet for its possible triumph.