Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 23, 2013

Can regional powers bring peace to Syria? A response to Vijay Prashad

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

Vijay Prashad

Before looking at some of the policy proposals found in Vijay Prashad’s recent Jadaliyya article titled “Malaise Over Syria”, one observation on his role in the ongoing debate that pits Tariq Ali on one side (there are others, of course) and someone like Gilbert Achcar on the other is in order. Unlike many scholars staking out positions, Vijay at least makes the effort to spend time in places like Lebanon and Libya, making an effort to get the perspective of some of the primary actors. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, you have to give him credit for doing the spadework.

For some time now, Vijay has been arguing for an international agreement hammered out by outside powers to bring the bloodshed to an end. For example, in a Jadaliyya piece titled “Letter to a Syrian Friend”, he decries the “messianic” view that the rebels can triumph militarily. Instead, he advocates a “mediated peace alongside a process for genuine democratization guaranteed by your neighboring states” that would “strengthen the chances for the renewal of your national ambitions.”

The more recent article offers more details. To start with, it opens with an epigraph by Lebanese journalist/novelist Sahar Mandour:

During the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, we took a clear position against [imperialist] war and against dictatorships: la li-al-harb, la li-al-dictatoriyat. Today, no such simple slogan is possible. That slogan is old. We need new positions, new slogans. We need to find our way out of the confusion of today.

I wonder why there should be any confusion over the need to take a position against imperialist war and against dictatorship. This is an honorable position for the left to adopt and one that corresponded to articles that appeared in the ISO, Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative press along the lines of “No support for Obama’s war. No support for Assad’s dictatorship”.

Vijay describes a situation in Syria in terms of “disarray”, one that evokes Matthew Arnold’s immortal lines from “Dover Beach”:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

He has little use for Gilbert Achcar, whose “effusions” that the rebels alone must overthrow Assad appear unmatched by their capabilities. As someone who has been confronted by Achcar’s reprimands over how I paraphrased him in the past, I was not surprised to see his comment under Vijay’s article on Jadaliyya:

This is not the first time that Vijay Prashad distorts what I say. What he calls “Gilbert Achcar’s *effusions* that [the rebels] must alone overthrow Asad” is a very peculiar way of reading what I wrote. Fortunately, the link provided clearly shows that he is misrepresenting my statement.

Anyone reading it honestly will find that what I explain is that “the regime [has] no incentive whatsoever to make any concessions” as long as it manages “to keep the upper hand militarily and thus to believe that it can win”.

Toward the conclusion of the article, Vijay offers up a kind of deus ex machina that can resolve the pain and suffering in Syria thus allowing a “salvation” that transcends Baathist tyranny as well as jihadist terror. It rests upon the possibility that a “regional approach” can be permitted to succeed, something that the US and Russia conspired against in the past.

The first part of such a plan would involve a Regional Syrian Refugee Crisis Team consisting of Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan that would tackle logistical problems and aid coordination but also get to the “political root” of the the refugee crisis. At the risk of appearing “simplistic” to Sahar Mandour, one might surmise that the “political root” is nothing less than the scorched earth policy of the Baathist dictatorship.

The next part is even more troublesome. Vijay writes:

Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, and Iraq voted against the Gulf Arab proposal at the Arab League meeting to give backing to the US strike. These countries need to now push for a regional solution based on their refusal to allow an armed strike. Pressure needs to come on them to involve themselves as a bloc to push the Asad regime and the rebels to recognize that there is no path for either toward total victory. Negotiation is the only way.

Maybe I am missing something here but not a single one of these countries is likely to adopt any measure that would undermine Bashar al-Assad. While Lebanon’s government is a product of horse-trading between the various confessional factions in the country that went through a brutal civil war some years ago, the balance can be upset by any move that favors one camp at the expense of the other. With Hizbollah’s powerful presence in the country as an independent organization and its penetration of major state institutions, including the army, it is doubtful that Lebanon can be entrusted to act as a decisive outside arbitrator.

Since Algeria’s “secular” government conducted a reign of terror against its native “takfiris” in the 1990s that had the temerity to demand that the people’s vote for an Islamist party be respected, it is not surprising that it blasted the Arab League’s decision to seat the rebels instead of the Baathists last April.

And Egypt? The dictatorship that conducts pogroms against Syrian refugees right now? They can be expected to “push” Assad? Not likely, I’m afraid. And finally, a Shi’ite government, whose indifference to Sunni participation in all spheres of public life, has sparked a new wave of car bombings rules Iraq. It is not likely to discomfit Bashar al-Assad to the least degree.

Of course, they can be counted on—like Iran, Russia, Global Research and Mint Press—to oppose American military intervention.

Finally, there’s an ostensibly reasonable reference to Iran’s new president who might be less committed to al-Assad’s survival than his predecessor. I can certainly imagine that the dictator might be an easily sacrificed pawn in the calculations of a government suffering from the effects of punishing sanctions.

Unfortunately, what’s missing from Vijay’s calculations is Russia, the 800-pound gorilla. I have long considered it a strong possibility that Putin persuaded al-Assad to adopt the same strategy he pursued in Chechnya, one in which massive air and artillery power would be used to reduce entire urban neighborhoods to rubble and to cause civilian populations to flee for their lives and resettle in refugee camps.

In terms of horse-trading, there’s little that the US can offer Russia. With little left of the 1960s arms race and an oil export economy that affords the country a modicum of independence, Putin can thumb his nose at the West for the foreseeable future. And, just as importantly, al-Assad appears to have no problem with his country being reduced to rubble from one end to the other. Like the Adolph Hitler of “Downfall”, he is in a cocoon of his own making, the rest of the world be damned.

Just to clarify, if Achcar is anxious to dispel any notion of being effusive over a rebel victory, that goes for me as well in spades. I am deeply pessimistic about anything good coming out of the civil war in Syria. It was exactly al-Assad’s intention to militarize the conflict as quickly as possible, to transform it into a sectarian struggle, and to allow jihadist groups free rein despite claims to the contrary.

The general laws of history under late capitalism favor the powerful minority against the more populous but weaker poor. In some ways we are paying for the early “success” of the Russian Revolution that led to a counter-revolutionary movement with a revolutionary coloration. Although there is little left of the Stalinist monolith that allowed one disaster after another to unfold, there is like farce following tragedy a new kind of Stalinism that rallies around poor substitutes for the Kremlin. At least the rank-and-file CP’er of the 1930s could not be blamed for believing that they were defending socialism but the appalling intellectual and political prostitution that is conducted on behalf of the Qaddafi’s and al-Assad’s of the world is enough to make you sick. I suppose I should not insult the honorable profession of prostitution, however. A more useful analogy would be with the law.


  1. “It was exactly al-Assad’s intention to militarize the conflict as quickly as possible, to transform it into a sectarian struggle, and to allow jihadist groups free rein despite claims to the contrary.”

    Your earlier reference to the situation in Algeria in the 1990s within the article is apt. This is frighteningly evocative of what transpired there, where the security services of the government played a double game of suppressing the takfiris, while colluding with jihadists to eliminate many of the secular, progressive political and cultural voices within the country. Caught between Assad’s hammer and the anvil of the Gulf States, I despair for the future of such people in Syria.

    I can understand why Prashad would reach out for a geopolitical intervention, given the alternatives, but the history of the Middle East has been a succession of such interventions by outside powers, interventions that, in most instances, have been catastrophic. At the risk of sounding like a naive anarchist, as I have said before, I see the only hope as residing in the possibility of a civil resistance, ranging from passive non-compliance to active disobedience, a resistance that asserts itself as the dominant power in Syria. Maybe, this is happening already, I have trouble keeping up with events there.

    “The general laws of history under late capitalism favor the powerful minority against the more populous but weaker poor.”

    While some on the left engage in the substitutionism that you mention, there is also disturbing development of conflict among powerful minorities, between secularists and Islamicists in Egypt and Iran as well as between Islamicists and Christians in Kenya. Engaging with these increasingly violent conflicts, ones manipulated for the benefit of G-20 capitalists, is a daunting challenge for the left.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 23, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

  2. My advice to Assad on how to smash the imperialist backed rebellion against him and achieve final victory:



    Comment by Bankotsu — September 24, 2013 @ 3:55 am

  3. “Bankotsu” – Jeezus what blockheadedness!

    Newsflash: The Russian revolution era – including the Maoist variant – is over, ended in 1989. In China it ended earlier with the turn to the “capitalist road”. This concretely manifests itself in the decided “neo-liberal” turn of the Assad, Ghadaffi etc. regimes since that date. Hence these are no longer “anti-imperialist resistance regimes”, they are no longer worth defending by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the contrary, they need to be got out of the way, the sooner the better.

    More than that: Historical events since 1989 have shown that no single state or alliance of states – not even the U.S. alone or NATO collectively – can act as the global hegemon. What we have instead is a world of contending imperialisms of uneven strength, where the now archaic stance of “counter-hegemonic anti-imperialism”, lacking any basis in objective reality, devolves into a strategy of aligning with imperialist powers – such as Russia – in contention with the US.

    The world today resembles that of Lenin’s time rather than that of the era of the Chinese revolution. That is why you will search Lenin’s writings in vain for any reference to a strategy of “counter-hegemony”.

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — September 25, 2013 @ 7:49 pm

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