Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 4, 2014

Should the left be buoyed by the Syrian election?

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

Ever since the war in Syria began, there has been a constant effort by the pro-Baathist left to prove that the dictator has the overwhelming support of the people.

Typical was the embrace of the 2012 Doha Poll that supposedly reflected a 55 percent desire that Bashar al-Assad remain in office. That led Jonathan Steele to tell Guardian readers that “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media”. If you took a few minutes to analyze the polling methodology, you’d discover that only 98 non-expatriate Syrians took part in the survey and that by definition they were on the Internet, from which the results were tabulated. In other words, if you were a farmer or a truck driver from Idlib with nothing more advanced than a cell phone, your opinion did not count.

Much to my dismay, political science professor and journalist Vijay Prishad has been beside himself over the Syrian elections. In the past, he has cultivated an image of being a careful and neutral observer of Syrian politics but the election results have somehow intoxicated him like a bottle of champagne. On twitter, where serious analysis goes by the wayside to begin with, he is jumping up and down like a delegate to an American presidential conventionScreen shot 2014-06-04 at 4.32.55 PM:
It is really hard for me to figure out how Vijay’s mind works. As someone who was a member of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador in the early 80s, I came to understand the role of demonstration elections as Noam Chomsky put it. Before El Salvador, you had demonstration elections in Vietnam as well. I am sure that Vijay would understand how such rituals enforce hegemonic control but apparently if an ally of the USSR—sorry, I meant Russia—mounts the demonstration elections, there is an entirely different attitude. Our role then becomes to hail them as representing the popular will.

There are some Middle East experts who are a bit less credulous on such matters than Vijay. The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies issued a report that concluded:

An ACRPS opinion poll of Syrian refugees and displaced persons in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and within Syria along the Syrian-Turkish border found that 78% of respondents view the June 3 presidential elections planned by the Syrian regime to be illegitimate. In contrast, only 17% of the respondents accepted the legitimacy of the 2014 presidential elections in Syria, with a further 5% of the respondents declining to give an opinion. The ACRPS survey is unprecedented in both scope and scale.

A total of 5,267 respondents, coming from 377 population centers inside and outside official refugee camps registered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), took part in the survey. The sampling procedure adopted a multi-staged clustered approach to allow for a proportional distribution of surveys as per geographic distribution. The final margin of error for the survey findings is an estimated ±2%.

Screen shot 2014-06-04 at 4.42.15 PM

In a way, the polling was superfluous. Just ask yourself how someone ends up as a Syrian refugee. What areas have been bombed, gassed, and shelled to the point where flight is the only solution? Is it in Homs that has been leveled to the ground or the rebel controlled sections of Aleppo that was also the victim of a scorched-earth policy? Think about it.

Even more to the point, the left is not just interested in elections but the circumstances in which they take place. For example, can an election be held during a civil war and where the only place to vote is under government control? Also, what access to media do potential voters enjoy, among whom there were potential voters for Bashar al-Assad’s opponents? If the ruling party has complete control over TV, radio, and the newspapers, what are the possibilities for informed choice—something that I think would have mattered to Vijay who complained bitterly about Modi’s victory in India. Finally, and most importantly, many Syrians might have voted for al-Assad out of war-weariness. Seeing no possibility of his being overturned through a revolutionary struggle, they cast a vote in the hope that somehow a better life can be realized. This is what Reagan called “saying uncle” when he was supporting the contras in Nicaragua. Except when it comes to Syria, it is the counter-revolution that is in power.

As disappointed as I am in Vijay’s tweets, I can’t say that I was disappointed in Ajamu Baraka’s article hailing the Syrian elections that could have been written by the Syrian Foreign Ministry since this is exactly what could be expected from a pro-Baathist hack.

One of the interesting connections between the soft left and the hard left around both Syria and Ukraine has been their willingness to form a propaganda bloc while differing on a host of other questions, including the need to vote for Democrats. Ajamu Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think-tank that overlaps to a large degree with the Nation Magazine, a lynchpin of Democratic Party liberalism. Despite this, his article could have appeared on the Party for Socialism and Liberation website, a group that practically defines fire-breathing anti-imperialist rhetoric.

I thought that Baraka’s summing up of recent history was quite revealing:

There was a time when this position would have been clear to the peace and anti-war, anti-imperialist progressive and left movements in the U.S. and the West. But over the last two decades, with the ideological infiltration of the left by liberalism, social democracy and the rightist tendencies of “anti-authoritarian” anarchism, the resulting political confusion has seen a consistent alignment of the left with the imperial project of the U.S. – from the attacks on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia through to attacks on nationalist projects throughout the global South, from Libya to Syria. Since the last gasp of anti-imperialism solidarity represented by the massive marches in opposition to the illegal attack on Iraq in 2003, the peace, anti-war and anti-imperialist movements have been in relative disarray.

I was particularly intrigued by the reference to the “rightist tendencies of ‘anti-authoritarian’ anarchism”, an indication that Baraka might be checking in on websites like Tahrir-ICN that have been consistently opposed to the Baathist goons. Describing themselves as in favor of a “free and self-governed society based on tolerance, equality and openness, the society in which the social side is placed above the mercantile”, these anarchists and autonomists do not see themselves as servants of any state, least of all one drenched in blood and torture as Baathist Syria. When I put Vijay Prashad and Ajamu Baraka next to the young people associated with Tahrir-ICN, I can begin to understand why Daniel Guerin became an anarchist.

In terms of the peace, anti-war and anti-imperialist movements being in relative disarray, I would say a large part of that is the result of it tail-ending President Obama during the early years of his first term, the sort of behavior encapsulated by Progressives for Obama. Many of these people came down with buyer’s remorse when they discovered that Obama was the next Herbert Hoover rather than FDR but it would have been better if we hadn’t started off like this:

Tanya Dawkins: How are you feeling about the domestic human rights movement right now?

Ajamu Baraka: I’m feeling pretty good, even though we have some very real challenges as a movement. The election of Barack Obama provides opportunities as well as some very interesting political challenges. Under the Bush Administration, the targets of our advocacy, organizing, and education work were pretty clear. With Obama’s election and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, we find ourselves struggling against the tendency some might have to believe that we can relax and just engage in quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

I have no idea why Baraka was feeling “pretty good” at the time although I guess that was universal at the IPS. Phyllis Bennis, his colleague at IPS, has been on the stump for years now warning about Obama’s war plans for Syria, as if he is going to show up on an aircraft carrier anytime soon with his testicles protruding through a flight suit. For such people everything becomes another Iraq even when it has become crystal-clear that the Obama administration has zero interest in seeing “regime change” in Syria. Even the idiots at Moon of Alabama understand that when they post articles like Syria: Obama To Work With Assad?

In her most recent musings on the war in Syria, Bennis tells us:

The Obama administration should support United Nations decision-making, international law and diplomacy instead of military force, and make good on its frequent acknowledgment that “there is no military solution in Syria.” That means no US military strikes or threats of strikes, and an end to all other military involvement, including arms shipments. This is a point of principle, not timing—because even if efforts for a cease-fire, arms embargo and diplomacy do not succeed immediately, we know that US military involvement will only make things worse.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Obama has ever really been about “military force”, one wonders why Bennis didn’t understand what a threat he was to peace in the first place. Bennis once again:

This election is not about supporting or withdrawing support from Obama; it’s about keeping the worst from gaining even more power than they already have, so we can get on with the real work of building movements. If you want to call that the “lesser-evil” theory, fine.

Yeah, Bennis, that’s what it was: the lesser evil. Except maybe not so lesser after all.

My position in 2008 was to oppose Obama–the independent party to the left you voted for was up to you. My position in 2011 was to support those people in the Middle East whether or not the government they struggle against was aligned with Russia or not. History will record that some of the most vociferous enemies of the Syrian revolution were some of the same people urging a vote for him in 2008 (and like Bennis, once again in 2012). Make of that what you will.


  1. “Finally, and most importantly, many Syrians might have voted for al-Assad out of war-weariness. Seeing no possibility of his being overturned through a revolutionary struggle, they cast a vote in the hope that somehow a better life can be realized.”

    Unfortunately, I think that it is worse than this. I suspect that the Syrian middle class, perceiving itself in opposition to the “poor, young, rural and socially conservative” people described by Neumann as the backbone of the revolution, turned out to support Assad. Not to the extent reported in the results, of course, but in support of Assad nonetheless. Regardless of whether I am right or wrong, the fact that the Syrian demonstration election conducted under the Assad regime generated a substantially higher turnout than the one in nearby Egypt should encourage some reflection about the successes and failures of the resistance to Assad beyond complaints about the refusal of the US and the EU to send more weapons.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 4, 2014 @ 11:01 pm

  2. Gleaning public opinion under repression is difficult. For example, you could go to prison for “sodomy” in the 50s. This made it difficult to support gay rights. Once such laws began to be taken off the books during a period of sexual freedom largely geared to heteros, it became easier for gays to make their case. Who knows what middle-class youth in Damascus would think once the police state came to an end. College kids from Damascus have told me that making a leaflet against the government could get you tortured or killed. Under such conditions, it is difficult for ideas to percolate.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 5, 2014 @ 12:06 am

  3. Shouldn’t a Marxist use class analysis? Syria is a semi-socialist state. They have free education through university and free health care. You don’t see KFC, Burger King nor Wall Street banks all over Damascus. They have resisted Israels and US domination and control, unlike Jordan and Egypt. They have maintained an anti-sectarian culture, unlike Lebanon. They have provided steadfast support to the Palestinians and Lebanese resistance. The conditions for working people in Syria are not easy, but they are still vastly better than in Jordan or Egypt. The Syrian government, for all its flaws and problems, serves the working people of Syria much better than other realistic alternatives. It’s a shame that a so called Marxist cannot see the obvious: You have a somewhat progressive country and leadership and tradition in Syria fighting against reactionary religious fanaticism in league with imperial/colonial masters and zionists.

    Comment by Rick Sterling — June 5, 2014 @ 6:55 am

  4. Richard, I agree that there should be “reflection about the successes and failures of the resistance to Assad beyond complaints about the refusal of the US and the EU to send” any weapons, for a long time now, I’m just not sure what the “elections” have to do with it. How do you know Assad got more votes than Sisi? Official results? Seriously? I’m flabergasted at the idea that anything can be gleaned from these elections, if one chooses to call them that.

    Comment by mkaradjis — June 5, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

  5. Hey Rick. Stalinists used to say the same thing about the USSR. But there was a huge difference that allowed them to get away with it politically, namely, the USSR still had the social & objective foundations of a Proletarian Revolution that shook the world and, for a time, the credibility of the Bolshevik Party with heroic leaders like Lenin & Trotsky.

    Even Stalin couldn’t hand over State Power to his bastard son!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 5, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

  6. Well, I’ve heard about plenty of people whose Syrian passports won’t be renewed for their alleged opposition to the Assad regime. And you can’t vote if you don’t have a valid passport. I’ll share a personal story of mine. Back when I was staying at Kuala Lumpur, I knew an middle aged Syrian refugee with six children. His reason for being a refugee was that his home was destroyed in central Aleppo. At at around mid 2013, he went to the Syrian embassy to renew his passport. The officers asked him why he left, he stated his reasons. But they insisted that he admit to them that it was a rebel bomb in the winter of 2011 that brought down the 8 floor building his house was in. He lost his shit and spat on the ground in refusing to dignify their request to absolve the government that made his life shit. Well, now his passport is expired and Malaysian law has stringent prison sentences for expired passports and visas. Before the expiry date reached, he flew to Indonesia and took a boat to Australia. I spoke to him last week on the phone, he’s currently at an Australian refugee camp. But that’s another story.

    Comment by Anas El Hawat — June 5, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

  7. “How do you know Assad got more votes than Sisi? Official results? Seriously? I’m flabergasted at the idea that anything can be gleaned from these elections, if one chooses to call them that.”

    I didn’t say that Assad got more votes than Sisi. Instead, I said that a higher percentage of Syrians participated in the Syrian demonstration election than Egyptians did in the one on Egypt. Sisi reported a 47.5% turnout and Assad reported a 73% one. Both are probably inflated, but I consider the inflation to be relative, meaning that it doesn’t change the fact that a higher percentage of people participated in Syria than in Egypt, a conclusion supported by the fact that Egypt that had to keep the polls open for extra days to even get to 47.5%.

    Of course, both elections are equally fraudulent, but the political question that deserves consideration is why a higher percentage of Syrians voted than Egyptians. Of course, there is not necessarily just one reason, but I do suspect, as I said above, that the Assad regime is reinforced by a middle class constituency that economically and socially considers the revolution threatening to them, even it doesn’t particularly like Assad. The issue isn’t solely war weariness, it involves a deliberate choice on the part of the middle class to align itself with Assad against the “the poor, young and rural people” described by Neumann. If so, a political, non-sectarian strategy is necessary to deal with this. Louis is correct, I think, to identify college students as source of opposition to it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 5, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

  8. Richard, I agree completely with the way you rephrased your comment, actually the point about class was your main point first time and I agree with all of this. I guess my point is that this has been the case for a long time. Sure, the “elections” help consolidate regime stability among these classes, and it is certainly right that not all the middle class should be enemies of the revolution and a substantial proportion react due to sectarian and other political issues among the opposition. I suppose my concern with reading too much into these election percentages is that, whoever much of a tyrant Sisi might be, the Egyptian state clearly doesn’t have the level of (totalitarian, can I say?) control that the Assad regime has within the regions it controls. It would be pretty hard for the police and paramilitaries to not know who didn’t go out to vote in an apartment block, a neighbourhood, a village. In a country where 334 were tortured to death just last month, it’s a pretty good idea to vote if you want to see your family again. And with 2 other candidates who were nobodies chosen by the regime, may as well be on the safe side and vote for Assad since you have to vote anyway. But obviously I agree this is not the whole story and the issue of class (and religious minorities) are important here too.

    Comment by mkaradjis — June 6, 2014 @ 1:53 am

  9. I don’t imagine that anyone doubts that the 2006 Presidential election in which Asad won 98% with a 96% turnout were faked. So why should we assume that the results of this election are not a total fabrication?(Although of course the campaign and voting were real enough.) There are reports that when ballot boxes arrived in the Kurdish northeast, where they were seized by the Kurdish authorities who were refusing to take part in the election, they came full of completed ballots voting for – guess who? Another interesting feature of the election is that the electorate was 5 million larger than that recorded for the 2012 Assembly elections. The only explanation for this is that they abandoned any sort of registration process for the election and simply counted anybody they had a record of as an eligible voter. Its likely that the figures for the election results were composed on a pocket calculator by someone in Airforce intelligence – so don’t try to draw any significance out of them. That’s not to deny that Asad has some degree of mass support – its just that this election tells us nothing about it.

    Comment by magpie68 — June 6, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

  10. @Rick Sterling There is nothing “socialist” about contemporary Syria – not even “semi”. Free health care was abolished in 2010 and replaced by a health insurance sytem. Syrian health care spending shows a private/public pattern close to that of the US. The only difference is that the proportion of Syrian household health spending made “out of pocket” (ie from personal income or savings) is far higher than in the US, because far more people are uninsured.

    Comment by magpie68 — June 6, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

  11. Just on health care – Rick Sterling’s post of course was far too caricaturish for anyone to bother answering (assuming it wasn’t an actual caricature), but “free health care,” even if it did still exist officially, is a pretty funny thing to say with half the public hospitals partially or totally destroyed, with 460 civilian health professionals killed, with the Syrian government responsible for 90% of the 150 confirmed attacks on 124 healthcare facilities, with only 3 doctors available to provide treatment in Homs compared to an estimated 800 before the war, and with “some 200,000 Syrians who have died from chronic illnesses due to lack of access to treatment and medicines, which is in fact more than the estimated 162,000 people who have died as a direct result of warfare” (http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-14-177_en.htm).

    Comment by mkaradjis — June 7, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

  12. I wonder why 6 million Syrians have taken refuge in government areas, 2.7 million in neighboring countries (half in Lebanon) and essentially zero in “rebel” areas. Not a friendly place those “rebel” areas. Not all Syrians support Assad, but they make their choices among what’s available, and there’s really no one else right now. At least the government is providing shelter, education, food, health care, etc. even if their resources are a bit stretched.

    Comment by Paul Larudee — June 9, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

  13. I wonder why 6 million Syrians have taken refuge in government areas

    I guess for the same reason the population of Saigon swelled in the 60s and early 70s. People have this strange tendency to avoid napalm and barrel bombs.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 9, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

  14. […] for me to explain why support Jill Stein even though her VP candidate Ajamu Baraka is someone I have described as a “pro-Baathist hack”. I can honestly say that if Baraka had been the presidential […]

    Pingback by Should Syria be a litmus test for the left in the 2016 elections? | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 5, 2016 @ 5:23 pm

  15. […] for me to explain why support Jill Stein even though her VP candidate Ajamu Baraka is someone I have described as a “pro-Baathist hack”. I can honestly say that if Baraka had been the presidential […]

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