Getting it right on Syria and the Arab revolutions

Excellent article in The Socialist Worker – affiliated to the trotskyite SWP – on Syria:

The past few days may have seen the balance of forces tilt decisively against Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Paradoxically, a significant section of the Western left seems to have tilted as decisively in their favour.

Take, for example, a widely circulated interview with Tariq Ali, where he claims that the struggle in Syria is part of “a new process of recolonisation”. Although I have great respect and affection for Tariq, I think this is nonsense. (…)

Those in the Western left who allow a reflexive and unthinking “anti-imperialism” to set them against the Syrian revolution are simply confessing their own bankruptcy.

I agree wholeheartedly. Not only are many on the left (not only there though) unable to think through the Arab Spring and its spinoffs in reality-based terms, but they are hostage to old ways of thinking, notably as to the role of Western powers. If there is something that has to be completely dismissed in today’s Arab world, it is the ability of Western powers to shape an Arab country’s politics according to their wishes. While Arab countries do not live in a bubble and are of course amenable to foreign influence, no longer will foreign – read Western – powers be able to dictate the terms of leadership struggles or even foreing policy (Libya is an odd case here). They can weigh in, but their influence is limited as compared to the weight of public opinion and the political forces present in the institutions of the state.

What influence did any Western power have over the Tunisian revolution, or even the Egyptian one? The height of US influence the last year was its ability to get its NGO workers out of Egypt, but that’s hardly a decisive influence on an issue of substance in Egyptian politics. The issue of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is probably the one issue on which the US government has been able to exert influence, but it is also arguably an issue that Egyptians themselves would solve through some sort of statu quo – no Egyptian I know has any aptite for a military stand-off with Israel to start with, although many want the peace treaty to remain just that, and cease to be the fealty oath it turned into under the Mubarak years.

Take the case of Iraq: sure, the US was able to invade and occupy that country, smash its political structure, entrench sectarianism and kill and maim well over one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians – but the end result is a government they do not control – if any foreign country wields decisive influence over Iraq it is Iran – and which basically kicked US troops out of the country. Bombing and killing the USA may continue to do in Iraq in the future, but they are not able of directing its politics the way they once dreamt of.

Tunisians and Egyptians gained their freedom by relying on their own strength and commitment, rejecting any foreign involvement. While quite some Syrian revolutionaries are now asking for foreign military intervention – understandably so in view of the massacres committed by régime forces – not all of them do so, and interest for such an option seems lukewarm outside of the armchair editorialist and liberal interventionism cottage industry. But what is undisputed is the massive lack of domestic legitimacy that Bashar el Assad’s régime has – you don’t need to have actually read Michel Seurat’s "L’Etat de barbarie" to recognise that.

Not any dictator opposed – although in the case of Syria that claim would be dubious, as he wasn’t actively opposed by any Western country since the end of the Bush presidency (France let go of its opposition once Syrian troops left Lebanon in 2005 and Hariri-funded Chirac left the presidency to Sarkozy) before he started slaughtering his own population – by Western powers is necessarily worthy of support. That was true in Serbia in the 90′s, Iraq from 1991 to 2003, and is still true in Syria today. Not everything that happens in Arab countries is the result of CIA memos, Mossad plots, Foreign Office instructions or Open Society grants, and if the State Department wants to see the back of Bashar, for all my hostility to the successive US governments’ foreign policy, I find it hard not to share that wish. And I remain adamantly opposed to any NATO intervention, in the Middle East or anywhere else for that matter – it is dubious whether this military alliance still has a raison d’être, but whatever is left only justifies defensive missions.

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