By Stephen Gowans
The idea that the uprising against the Syrian government is inspired by a grassroots movement thirsting for a pluralist, democratic state is a fiction. The opposition’s chief elements are Islamists who seek to establish a Sunni-dominated Islamic state in place of a Syrian government they revile for being secular and dominated by Alawi “heretics.” “Al Qaeda-linked groups…dominate rebel ranks,” notes The Wall Street Journal.  “There is frustration with the West’s inability to help nurture a secular military or political opposition to replace Mr. Assad,” echoes The New York Times.  “Islamic forces seem to be ascendant within the opposition,” observes Gerald F. Seib. 
Indeed, almost from the opening moments of the latest outbreak of Islamic unrest in Syria, the government has said that while some protesters have legitimate grievances, the uprising is driven by militant Islamists with foreign backing.”  It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia and Qatar- monarchies which abominate democracy—are furnishing Islamist militants with arms, while Turkey, Jordan, Israel, France, Britain and the United States are also lending support.
Syria’s post-colonial history is punctuated by Islamist uprisings. The Muslim Brotherhood organized riots against the government in 1964, 1965, 1967 and 1969. It called for a Jihad against then president Hafiz al-Assad, the current president’s father, denigrating him as “the enemy of Allah.” By 1977, the Mujahedeen were engaged in a guerrilla struggle against the Syrian army and its Soviet advisers, culminating in the 1982 occupation of the city of Hama. The Syrian army quelled the occupation, killing 20,000 to 30,000. Islamists have since remained a perennial source of instability in Syria and the government has been on continual guard against “a resurgence of Sunni Islamic fundamentalists.”  The resurgence, touched off by uprisings in surrounding countries, prompted Glen E. Robinson to write in Current History that the rebellion was a continuation of “Syria’s Long Civil War.” 
But the Western media, echoing former colonialist powers and high officials in Washington, would call it something different: a popular, grassroots uprising against a brutal dictator. Today, however, the flood of YouTube videos by Islamic terrorists, chronicling their killings of POWs, eviscerations of captured soldiers, and barbecuing of heads, has spoiled the narrative. It’s no longer possible to angelize the Syrian rebellion as a popular insurrection against dictatorship. Now even the Wall Street Journal and New York Times share Assad’s view.
Still, the rebels’ spin doctors aren’t yielding entirely. They insist that while the rebellion may be dominated by religious fanatics with a penchant for terrorism, that it wasn’t always so. Instead, they say, it began as a peaceful plea for democracy that was eventually hijacked by jihadists only after the government used brute force to crush a protest movement. At that point, protesters were forced to take up arms in self-defense.
This view is dishonest. To start, it sweeps aside the reality that the rebellion is dominated by Islamists who care not one whit for democracy and indeed are actively hostile to it. What’s more, it conceals the fact that the Assad government made substantial concessions in the direction of creating the kind of pluralist, democratic society the rebels are said to thirst for. The rebels rejected the concessions, and that they did, underscores the fact that the rebellion’s origins are to be found in Islamist, not democratic, ambitions.
In response to protestors’ demands, Damascus made a number of concessions that were neither superficial nor partial.
First, it cancelled the long-standing abridgment of civil liberties that had been authorized by the emergency law. The law, invoked because Syria is technically in a state of war with Israel, gave Damascus powers it needed to safeguard the security of the state in wartime, a measure states at war routinely take. Many Syrians, however, chaffed under the law, and regarded it as unduly restrictive. Bowing to popular pressure, the government lifted the security measures.
Second, the government proposed a new constitution to accommodate protestors’ demands to strip the Ba’ath Party of its special status, which had reserved for it a lead role in Syrian society. Additionally, the presidency would be open to anyone meeting basic residency, age and citizenship requirements. Presidential elections would be held by secret vote every seven years under a system of universal suffrage.
Here was the multi-party democracy the opposition was said to have clamored for. A protest movement thirsting for a democratic, pluralist society could accept the offer, its aspirations fulfilled. The constitution was put to a referendum and approved. New parliamentary multi-party elections were held. Multi-candidate presidential elections were set for 2014. A new democratic dawn had arrived. The rebels could lay down their arms and enjoy the fruits of their victory.
Or so you might expect. Instead, the insurrectionists escalated their war against Damascus, rejecting the reforms, explaining that they had arrived too late. Too late? Does pluralist democracy turn into a pumpkin unless it arrives before the clock strikes twelve? Washington, London and Paris also dismissed Assad’s concessions. They were “meaningless,” they said, without explaining why.  And yet the reforms were all the rebels had asked for and that the West had demanded. How could they be meaningless? Democrats, those seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and the Assad government, could hardly be blamed for concluding that “democracy was not the driving force of the revolt.” 
Elaborating on this theme, the Syrian president noted:
It was seemingly apparent at the beginning that demands were for reforms. It was utilized to appear as if the crisis was a matter of political reform. Indeed, we pursued a policy of wide scale reforms from changing the constitution to many of the legislations and laws, including lifting the state of emergency law, and embarking on a national dialogue with all political opposition groups. It was striking that with every step we took in the reform process, the level of terrorism escalated. 
From Washington’s perspective, the new constitution opened space for alternative political parties. Washington could exploit this new openness to gain leverage in Syria by quietly backing parties that favor pro-US positions—a plus.
From the Islamists’ point of view, however, there were only negatives. First, the constitution was secular, and not rooted in Islam. Second, it proposed to ban political parties or movements that were formed on the basis of religion, sect, tribe, or region, as well as on the basis of gender, origin, race or color. This would effectively ban any party whose aim was to establish an Islamic state.
There were negatives too for Washington, London, Paris and Tel Aviv.
First, the constitution’s preamble defined Syria as “the beating heart of Arabism,” and “the forefront of confrontation with the Zionist enemy and the bedrock of resistance against colonial hegemony on the Arab world and its capabilities and wealth.” This hardly accorded with Washington’s desire to turn Syria into a “peace-partner” with Israel and clashed with the Western project of spreading neo-colonial tentacles across the Arab world.
Second, the constitution formalized the political orientation of the Syrian Ba’athists. This has been summed up by Assad as “Syria is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.”  Accordingly, the constitution mandated that important sectors of the Syrian economy would remain publicly owned and operated in the interests of Syrians as a whole. Western firms, then, were to be frozen out of profit-making opportunities in key sectors of the Syrian economy, a prospect hardly encouraging to the Wall Street financial interests that dominate decision-making in Washington.
Ba’ath socialism has long irritated Washington. The Ba’athist state has always exercised considerable influence over the Syrian economy, through ownership of enterprises, subsidies to privately-owned domestic firms, limits on foreign investment, and restrictions on imports. These are the necessary economic tools of a post-colonial state trying to wrest its economic life from the grips of former colonial powers and to chart a course of development free from the domination of foreign interests.
Washington’s goals, however, are obviously antithetical. It doesn’t want Syria to nurture its industry and jealously guard its independence, but to serve the interests of the bankers and major investors who truly matter in the United States, by opening Syrian labor to exploitation and Syria’s land and natural resources to foreign ownership.
Prior to Assad drafting the new constitution, the US State Department complained that Syria had “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, had failed to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among them Wall Street financial interests. The State Department also expressed dissatisfaction that “ideological reasons” had prevented Assad from liberalizing Syria’s economy, that “privatization of government enterprises was still not widespread,” and that the economy “remains highly controlled by the government.” 
Were Assad to demonstrate a readiness to appease Wall Street’s demands he would have departed holus bolus from the dirigiste practices that had irritated the State Department. Instead, he did the opposite, drafting a constitution that mandated that the government maintain a role in guiding the economy on behalf of Syrian interests, and that the Syrian government would not make Syrians work for the interests of Western banks, oil companies, and other corporations. This was effectively a slap in Washington’s face.
He then compounded the sin by writing certain social rights into the constitution: security against sickness, disability and old age; access to health care; and free education at all levels. Now these rights would be placed beyond the easy reach of legislators and politicians who could sacrifice them on the altar of creating a low-tax, foreign-investment-friendly climate. To make matters worse, he included an article in the constitution which declared that “taxes shall be progressive.”
Finally, he took a step toward real, genuine democracy—a kind that decision-makers in Washington, with their myriad connections to the banking and corporate world—could hardly tolerate. He included a provision in the constitution requiring that at minimum half the members of the People’s Assembly are to be drawn from the ranks of peasants and workers.
Therein were the real reasons Washington, London and Paris rejected Assad’s concessions. It wasn’t that they weren’t genuine. It was that they were made to the wrong people: to Syrians, rather than Wall Street; to the Arabs, rather than Israel. And nor was it that his reforms weren’t democratic enough. It was that they were too democratic, too focussed on safeguarding and promoting the interests of Syrians, rather than making Syrians promote the interests of Wall Street, Washington and Tel Aviv.
The Syrian constitution clarifies the orientation of the Syrian Ba’athists and underscores why the Syrian government ought to be supported in its struggle against foreign-backed Islamist rebels. In short, because it is, on balance, progressive, and the forces arrayed against it are retrograde. The Syrian government is pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist, anti-colonialist, and anti-imperialist. It is committed to secularism, non-sectarianism, and public ownership of the commanding heights of its economy. These are values that have traditionally been held high by the political left. Were the Syrian government to fall, it is almost certain that a US-client regime would be implanted in Damascus that would quickly adopt a pro-US foreign policy, abandon the Palestinians, capitulate to Israel, and cater to Western investors and corporations. The left project would, accordingly, be dealt a serious blow, and yet another state, dedicated to national liberation—not to say one with a sufficient democratic orientation to enshrine social rights in its constitution—would be crushed under the steamroller of US imperialism.
1. Adam Entous, “White House readies new aid for Syrian rebels”, The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2013.
2. Anne Barnard, “Syria campaigns to persuade U.S. to change sides”, The New York Times, April 24, 2013.
3. Gerald F. Seib, “The risks holding back Obama on Syria”, The Wall Street journal, May 6, 2013.
4. Anthony Shadid, “Assad says he rejects West’s call to resign”, The New York Times, August 21, 2011.
5. US Library of Congress. A Country Study: Syria. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sytoc.html
6. December 2012.
7. David M. Herszenhorn, “For Syria, Reliant on Russia for weapons and food, old bonds run deep”, The New York Times, February 18, 2012.
8. Zeina Karam, “In rare public appearance, Syrian president denies role in Houla massacre”, The Associated Press, June 3, 2012.
9. Bashar al-Assad May 19, 2013 interview with Clarin newspaper and Telam news agency
10. Bashar al-Assad May 19, 2013 interview with Clarin newspaper and Telam news agency
11. US State Department website. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm#econ. Accessed February 8, 2012.
By Stephen Gowans
There is no compelling evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the rebel forces which seek its overthrow. But even if chemical weapons have been used, a military intervention by the United States, its NATO allies, or its regional proxies, would fail the test of humanitarian intervention. First, it would exacerbate, not reduce, the suffering of Syrians. Second, it would be undertaken for concealed reasons of economic and geostrategic gain, not to protect Syrians from chemical weapons, not for the promotion of multi-party representative democracy, and not to encourage tolerance of dissent, as the promoters of intervention would have us believe.
Moreover, a successful US-led intervention would eliminate a pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist, anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist state committed to secularism, non-sectarianism, and public ownership of the commanding heights of its economy, and would, install, in its place, a US-client regime that would adopt a pro-US foreign policy, abandon the Palestinians, capitulate to Israel, and cater to Western investors and corporations. “Syria,” remarked president Bashar al-Assad, not without substance, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.”  This orientation would be completely reversed if a US intervention succeeded.
Three reasons the chemical weapons case against the Syrian government is weak at best
1. Britain and Israel claim to have evidence that the Syrian army used chemical agents against armed rebels. The British evidence is based on tissue samples taken from armed rebels who claim to have been gassed by loyalist forces. To concretely make the case that the Syrian army used chemical weapons:
• The tissue samples would have to test positive for chemical agents.
• There could be no possibility the samples were tampered with.
• A direct link between the contaminated tissue and an attack by Syrian forces would need to be established.
Concerning the first point, we have nothing to rely on but the word of British authorities. Should we believe them? Britain has been implicated in attempts to concoct pretexts for military intervention with phony evidence before (see the bogus WMD claims used to justify the war on Iraq and the genocide fear-mongering pressed into service to justify NATO’s 1999 air war on Yugoslavia.)
What’s more, Britain is hardly a neutral party to the conflict in Syria, and therefore has an interest in manufacturing justifications for more open and direct meddling. That’s not to say that the tissue sample didn’t test positive, only that it would be foolhardy to suppose that a country that “sexed up” evidence to justify a war on Iraq can be trusted.
Secondly, “the samples collected by Britain may have been tainted by rebels who want to draw the West into the conflict on their side” , a point made by US officials.
Third, “the detection of chemical agents doesn’t necessarily mean they were used in an attack by the Syrian” army.  Rebels, for example, may have been accidentally exposed to chemical agents they, themselves, had in their possession.
The key point is that evidence of tissue contamination (if indeed such evidence exists) is not evidence that the Syrian army used chemical agents, since there are multiple possible ways in which the tissue could have become contaminated.
2. Once US president Barack Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government was a red line that would trigger a more muscular US intervention, the Syrian calculus turned decidedly against their use. Using chemical agents against rebels would play directly into Washington’s hands, giving the bellicose superpower a pretext to intervene militarily in an open and direct fashion. This would be a disadvantage that would grossly outweigh any advantage that accrued from the weapons’ use. On the other hand, once Obama announced his red line, it made a ton of sense for the rebels to falsely claim they were gassed.
3. While an investigation by the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has found evidence that the rebels used sarin gas, no evidence has been found that the Syrian government has done the same. Commission member Carla Del Ponte reported that, “We collected some witness testimony that made it appear that some chemical weapons were used, in particular, nerve gas. What appeared to our investigation was that was used by the opponents, by the rebels. We have no, no indication at all that the government, the authorities of the Syrian government, had used chemical weapons.” (Emphasis added.) 
An intervention would create harm
To reduce suffering, a military intervention would need to reduce harm to a greater degree than the military intervention itself would produce. Judging by previous US-led interventions undertaken for professedly humanitarian reasons, a military intervention in Syria would likely involve air strikes on Syrian military, government and even civilian facilities, with attendant civilian casualties, disruption of essential services, and massive displacement of non-combatants. According to The New York Times’ Elisabeth Bummiler, senior Pentagon officials have warned that “military intervention would be a daunting and protracted operation, requiring at least weeks of exclusively American airstrikes, with the potential for killing vast numbers of civilians.” (Emphasis added.) 
To be sure, an open and direct military intervention would be ardently welcomed by Syrian rebels, and their co-sectarian arms suppliers, the Turks, Saudis and Qataris. But it would kill many and make life even more miserable and uncertain for Syrians, especially those living in areas under loyalist control.
Far better to reach a political solution. But one of the reasons the Syrian civil war carries on is because the United States refuses to back a political resolution that would fall short of achieving its chief Syria foreign policy goal, namely, the ouster of Assad and his replacement by a pliant, pro-US government. A genuinely humanitarian intervention would set as its goal an end to hostilities, not the absorption of Syria into the US-Israeli camp.
Intervention would not be based on humanitarian concern
There is no reason to believe that the United States has any genuine interest in protecting Syrians from chemical weapons attacks. Washington dismissed out of hand evidence presented by the United Nations that the rebels used sarin gas, which is hardly what a government would do were it genuinely keen on protecting all Syrians from chemical attack, no matter which side of the conflict they’re on.
Significantly, US regime change policy in Syria antedates Syria’s civil war. The outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in Syria, and Damascus’s response to it, didn’t start the ball rolling on US efforts to force Assad from power. US regime change policy, linked to Damascus’s refusal to become a “peace-partner” with Israel, its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, and its refusal to fully open its economy to US capital, existed long before the Syrian government cracked down on opposition forces. In fact, one element of US foreign policy was to encourage opposition to the Assad government,  that is, to foment the kind of civil unrest that eventually morphed into a full blown civil war.
Multi-party representative democracy, a tolerant attitude to dissent, and eschewal of chemical weapons, have not been relevant components of US foreign policy decision making. Indeed, Washington has shown itself willing to overlook the absence of multi-party representative democracy, to ignore an intolerant attitude to dissent, and to turn a blind eye to the deployment of chemical weapons, where US corporate interests are promoted, either directly, or indirectly through the strengthening of United States’ geostrategic position. For example, Washington and its NATO allies have adopted a tolerant attitude to the violent suppression (aided by Saudi tanks) of a Shiite rebellion in Bahrain against an absolutist Sunni monarchy, while at the same time casually dismissing the UN’s concrete suspicions that the Syrian rebels used sarin gas. Significantly, Bahrain, a paragon of free-markets and free-enterprise, is home to the US Fifth Fleet; Saudi Arabia is a source of generous profits for US oil majors and New York investment banks; and the Syrian rebels are instruments through which US foreign policy goals of regime change in Damascus are to be achieved. If US foreign policy was indeed driven by democracy-promotion, human rights objectives, and non-proliferation goals, its attitude toward Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and the possibility of sarin gas use by Syrian rebels, would be very different.
There are sound strategic reasons for the Syrian army to leave chemical weapons in storage. Deploying them would play into Washington’s hands by providing the United States with a pretext to escalate its intervention in the Syrian civil war. On the other hand, any force that would benefit from a more muscular US intervention on the rebels’ behalf has an interest in manufacturing evidence of the use of chemical agents by Syrian forces. This would include the rebels themselves and those of the United States’ allies that would like Washington to refashion Syria in their political or sectarian interests.
Much as intervention by the United States is sold as a humanitarian exercise, it fails the humanitarian test on two levels. First, it would create substantial harm. US military officials have warned that direct military intervention—which would take the form of US air strikes—would create massive civilian casualties. Second, US foreign policy is based on commercial, financial, and geostrategic goals, not the promotion of multi-party representative democracy, tolerance of dissent, and anti-proliferation. This is clear from a simple examination of the countries Washington supports: those with a congenial attitude to US free enterprise and a willingness to submit to US domination, regardless of their practices in connection with multiparty representative democracy, civil liberties and weapons of mass destruction.
For all these reasons the United States should not bomb Syria, and nor should it provide military, diplomatic, or any other kind of assistance to the Syrian rebels. Of course, what it should do and what it will do are very different matters, but all the same we should be clear that the chemical weapons case against Syria is a fraud, as is the idea that direct US military intervention in the Syrian conflict would have either a humanitarian basis or humanitarian outcome.
2. Adam Entous, Joshua Mitnick and Stephen Fidler, “Syria used chemical arms, Israel says”, The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2013.
4. Alex Lantier, “UN says US-backed opposition, not Syrian regime, used poison gas”, World Socialist Web Site, May 7, 2013
5. Elisabeth Bummiler, “Military points to risks of Syrian intervention”, The New York Times, March 11, 2012.
6. Craig Whitlock, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by Wikileaks show”, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011.
By Stephen Gowans
According to the White House, Israel has the right to defend itself (1). I would argue that it doesn’t. Based on the theft of another people’s land and denial of their right to return to the homes from which they fled or were driven, Israel no more than any other thief has the right to defend itself.
Judging by its indulgent attitude to Israeli aggressions, Washington claims that Israel has the right to defend itself in any way it pleases: by unprovoked airstrikes across international borders; by meting out collective punishment; by carrying out extrajudicial assassinations; by invasions and occupations; and through other outrages against international law, sovereignty and humanity. In fact, by doing what the United States, itself, regularly does.
The White House says that the most recent Israeli aggression, airstrikes carried out over the last few days against Syrian military facilities, were intended to stop a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Iran to the Lebanese resistance organization, Hezbollah. Striking a dissenting note, The New York Times reported that, “Some American officials are unsure whether the new shipment was intended for use by Hezbollah or by the Assad government.” (2) Which means the airstrikes may have nothing to do with Israel “defending itself” and everything to do with Tel Aviv helping Syria’s Sunni rebels in what is, in large measure, a sectarian war, inflamed by outside interference, against an Alawi-dominated state that has (from Washington’s perspective) the wrong attitude to US free enterprise and (from Israel’s) the wrong attitude to the dispossession of the Palestinians. Or it may be that the missiles were intended for the Syrian military, but the Israelis struck as a precaution, in case the missiles were indeed destined for Hezbollah.
While indulging Israel for its aggressions, Washington denies North Korea the right to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for self-defense, for the obvious reason that North Korea’s self-defense is self-defense against the United States. Likewise, the threat posed to Israel of Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles in Hezbollah’s hands is that they bolster the resistance organization’s ability to defend both itself, and its benefactor, Iran, from Israeli attack. It’s no secret that Israel has been threatening war on Iran for some time on grounds that Iran’s civilian nuclear energy industry may, at some point, provide Tehran with the capability of developing what Israel already has in abundance: nuclear weapons.
What’s more, if Israel has the right to defend itself, why not Syria? It’s not as if the Assad government’s actions, in defense of secular pan-Arabism, have come anywhere close to matching the level of barbarity regularly visited by the Zionist regime on its opponents in defense of its settler ideology, or in helping to promote the imperial interests of its American benefactor and sponsor.
Earlier, the White House declared that Syria’s use of chemical weapons against terrorist insurgents would be a red line whose crossing would trigger a strong US response, presumably direct US military intervention in Syria’s civil war. Recent claims by Israel, Britain and one US intelligence agency of evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against rebel forces—evidence the White House says is inconclusive—touched off a controversy over whether the Obama administration had blundered in setting a red line, and whether failure to act on even weak evidence undermines US credibility.
Lost in the polemic is the telling reality that Washington has set no red line for the insurgents’ use of the same weapons.
And that can’t be because there are no grounds to believe rebel forces would use deadly gas against Syrian loyalists. The UN independent commission of inquiry on Syria says there are strong, concrete suspicions that the rebels have used sarin gas (but has no evidence the Syrian government has deployed chemical weapons against the rebels.) (3)
Okay, let’s assume that the UN’s strong and concrete suspicions do reflect the rebels’ actual use of sarin gas against loyalist forces.
The obvious question (unasked as far as I can tell by the mass media) is where did the rebels’ chemical weapons come from? Were they captured from the Syrian military, or procured through a supplier of the rebels’ other weapons—Saudi Arabia, Qatar or a NATO state?
And does the United States plan to act on the UN’s strong and concrete suspicions?
The answer to the first question is uncertain. As to the second, the US might intervene to secure the rebels’ chemical weapons if the weapons have been captured from the Syrian army by jihadists acting independently of US control, but it would likely be done quietly, to avoid raising embarrassing questions about the rebellion putting dangerous weapons into the hands of Islamists who might use them later against US targets (including, if the Assad government falls, a US-client regime in Damascus.)
On the other hand, if the weapons have been used by US-controlled opposition factions, an intervention won’t occur, unless the weapons were used without US approval. If so, measures—again quiet ones—will likely to be taken to curb their use, or to use them only at Washington’s direction.
Another possibility is that Washington colluded in the weapons’ use.
Clearly, Washington’s chemical weapons standards are contigent and not absolute. The red line against the Syrian defense forces provides Washington with a pretext for direct and open military intervention against Damascus when and if intervention is feasible. Since no intervention against the rebel forces is desired—on the contrary, only intervention on their behalf is on the agenda—a rebel red line is unnecessary, and restrictive. It’s not the use of chemical weapons that Washington opposes, but their use by a government fighting for survival against US predations. Anyone else can use chemical weapons with impunity so long as it’s done in the service of US foreign policy goals.
Finally, we might ask whether the country that has the greatest store of weapons of mass destruction, is the world’s largest manufacturer of them, and has been the most ardent user of them, would act to stop their use by rebel forces it has backed against a pan-Arab nationalist regime it has for decades sought to overthrow? Again, subject to the condition the rebels were under US control, not likely.
The United States professed opposition to weapons of mass destruction is entirely one-sided. It is applied selectively to governments and organizations that it, itself, or its proxies, are opposed to, typically because they have the wrong attitude to US free enterprise, or the wrong attitude to their proxies’ plunder of the land, natural resources and markets of other people.
1. Sam Dagher, Nour Malas and Joshua Mitnick, “Strikes in Syria raise alarm”, The Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2013.
2. Anne Barnard, Michael R. Gordon and Jodi Rudoren, “Israel targeted Iranian missiles in Syria attack”, The New York Times, May 4, 2013.
3. “Syrian rebels may have used Sarin” Reuters, May 5, 2013: “UN: ‘Strong suspicions’ that Syrian rebels have used sarin nerve gas,” Euronews, May 6, 2013.
By Stephen Gowans
New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, writing on January 16 about the “hazy threat from Mali militants,” note that, “The group most worrisome to American officials is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged out of Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s and originally was strictly focused on overthrowing Algeria’s government.”
US officials didn’t find AQIM so worrisome when the Islamist group was focused on overthrowing Libya’s government. At the time, Washington was happy to allow Islamist militants to destabilize a government that wasn’t wholly congenial to US business interests.
As the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese reported last year, Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi had “said the rebellion had been organized by AQIM and his old enemies the (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group), who had vowed to overthrow the colonel and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Sharia law.”
AQIM’s goals for Libya raised no alarm in Washington, but according to Mazzetti and Schmitt, the organization’s vow to convert Mali to Sharia law is setting off alarm bells in Washington.
To assist AQIM and other Islamist rebels in Libya, the United States led NATO into an air war against the Gaddafi government. Acknowledging AQIM’s role in the Libyan rebellion, some of the Canadian pilots who participated in the NATO air campaign jokingly referred to themselves as part of “Al-Qaeda’s air force.”
Washington’s use of jihadists to topple leftist and nationalist governments stretches back to its 1980s alliance with Islamist rebels, including Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan. Today, al Qaeda-linked militants play an important part in the US-backed effort to overthrow the Syrian government.
To mobilize public support for jihadist rebellions, US officials and news media sanitize Islamist militants as “freedom fighters” or part of a “popular movement for democracy.” Few people anymore believe that the Islamists seeking to overthrow the Syrian government represent a popular movement for democracy. They are, instead, a movement for Sunni religious domination.
After the AQIM triumph in Libya, the organization turned to attacking the US consular building in Benghazi. With its transition from US cat’s paw to US enemy, Washington changed its naming protocol. Now AQIM would go by the moniker Gaddafi favored–terrorists. Which is also how Western officials and news media prefer to describe the organization today, now that AQIM’s goals in Mali collide with the West’s goal of maintaining a puppet regime in the country.
Were the AQIM working in Mali to topple a leftist or economically nationalist government, Washington and Western news media would be hailing the jihadists as a force for democracy.
Reprinted from Mark Thomas, “The Syrian conflict is not about democracy”, October 22, 2012 http://www.extension.harvard.edu/hub/blog/extension-blog/syrian-conflict-not-about-democracy
By Mark Thomas
Many foreign policy advocates are dismayed by the lack of US leadership in establishing no-fly, no-drive zones along the Syrian borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Along these lines army defectors and rebels could stage military operations to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime.
The truth about US support of Syrian rebels
The Obama administration has thus far provided political support to the Syrian rebels. But it has limited military aid to intelligence, training, and logistics.
The administration is betting this kind of qualified support will help overturn the regime. And the United States will appear to be on the side of victors.
Its real motive is to weaken Iran’s regional influence by a proxy war that would destroy its ally.
The Syrian rebellion is more antigovernment than prodemocracy
US support for the rebels and those who call for an interventionist US policy are under the illusion that the antigovernment rebellion is a prodemocracy one. But the rebels have no conception of freedom and democracy in the Western tradition.
The spontaneous rebellion that aimed to topple the Syrian regime soon mutated into a sectarian civil war between two sects: Sunnis and Alawis.
The Sunnis are represented by local fighters, international jihadists, and regional Sunni states, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
The Alawis control the army and have grassroots support from secularists, heterodox Muslim sects, Christians, leftists, nationalists, and feminists.
Classified intelligence briefings have made Congress aware of this. Yet the administration, the republican presidential candidate, and the mainstream media still present a misleading picture to the US public.
The conflict in Syria is not simply between a tyrant and his people. If that were the case, Assad would have been overthrown in a few weeks, like Ben Ali of Tunis and Mubarak of Egypt.
The sectarian character of the conflict
The advocates for military intervention underplay the sectarian character of the conflict. They claim that the Assad family fomented sectarian strife to convince members of their sect, the Alawis, that the fall of the regime would be catastrophic for Alawis.
But the Alawis needed no convincing. Their nonliteral reading of Islamic scriptures makes them susceptible to secular ideology. They are apostates in the eyes of the dominant Sunni orthodoxy. And apostasy in Islam is a capital offense.
Throughout history, the Alawis were subjected to campaigns of mass murder. The first religious judgment was issued against them in 1305 by a Damascus based Sunni religious scholar. The Sunni Ottoman state issued similar decrees in 1516 and 1820 to kill Alawi men, enslave their women and children, and loot their property.
When the Alawis were not being pursued, they were boycotted and ostracized. They lived for centuries in appalling conditions, often forced to give up their children into servitude to escape starvation.
After Syria’s independence from France, Alawis filled the ranks of the army and the emerging secular Baath party, whose ethos suited them as much as it did the rest of the persecuted heterodox Muslims and Christians who sought equality.
Democracy would mean majority rule, not constitutional democracy
The Alawis, rich and poor alike, understand that democracy in the Middle East implies majority rule rather than a constitutional democracy. They understand that under the pretense of democracy, Syria would gradually become like Saudi Arabia.
For them, giving up power implies the tyranny of the Sunni majority. Sunni religious authorities have shown for the past millennium that there is no place for freedom of thought and religious heterodoxy within Islam.
Indeed, the religious orthodoxy that emerged by the end of the Crusades was only sidelined after the 1966 Alawi officers’ coup that endorsed the more enlightened Sufi clerics among Sunni religious scholars. The latter focused on the universal values of Islam. They sought reconciliation with other sects and religions.
The Alawis have two options
For those of us who grew up in the Middle East, the sectarian divide is a reality. Those who claim that Assad stirred up sectarianism either are ill-informed outsiders, who formed their image of Syria by reading politically correct discourse, or are in denial.
Bear in mind that this secular authoritarian and arguably brutal Alawi regime granted religious freedom to all sects. It appointed the first woman vice president in the entire Muslim world.
Convinced that the present rebellion is not a prodemocracy one, the Alawis have two options. They can continue to rule Syria to guarantee their security and thereby continue their repression of the rebellious Sunnis. Or they can rule their own territories in the Alawi Mountains and the Syrian coast, thereby provoking painful sectarian cleansing.
The second option would leave the rest of Syria in chaos, fighting to host the armed groups the West dreads (much like the Syrian regions currently under rebel control).
A recommended US policy
A wise US policy toward the Syrian crisis would persuade its Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari allies to stop arming and recruiting international jihadists to fight a war that would further destabilize a volatile region.
Moreover, the United States should encourage the domestic opposition to negotiate a settlement with the regime that ensures a reasonable transition to a pluralistic and secular political system and saves what is left from pre-Abrahamic civilizations from imminent destruction.
Most importantly, it should cease emboldening the rebels by continuing to predict the demise of the regime, thereby causing more unnecessary bloodshed.
By Stephen Gowans
Last June world powers called for a transitional government to succeed the current government in Syria.
The United Nations and Arab League appointed Lakhdar Brahimi to negotiate a settlement with the Syrian government and opposition forces.
So far, Brahimi has made little headway. That’s to be expected. The deck is stacked against him.
With Washington, London, Paris and various Sunni Arab monarchies providing political and military support, the opposition has little motivation to negotiate. They must see their eventual victory as all but guaranteed.
At the same time, Washington must see recent rebel military gains as a sign that an opposition military victory is a very real possibility. It, too, then, has little motivation to see a settlement arrived at which stops short of its regime change objective.
Brahimi met this week with Syrian president Bashar Assad and various opposition groups and will meet with Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Saturday. Russia has also held talks with Syria.
One proposal under discussion, which has the backing of Assad’s allies in Moscow, would see the Syrian president’s authority gradually transferred to a transitional government, while Assad stays on as a figurehead president until his term expires in 2014. At that point, elections would be held.
If accepted, the proposal would end a civil war that has displaced hundreds of thousands and killed tens of thousands. It would also allow Syrians to decide their future peacefully in free elections, rather than at the point of a gun.
Given that (1) Assad’s ally, Russia, floated the proposal; (2) that Assad’s position is weakening; and (3) that the proposal allows him to stay in the game, it’s likely that Assad is onboard.
Not so the other side.
Predictably, Radwan Ziadeh of the Syrian National Council dismissed the proposal, while Washington, equally predictably, insists that Assad step down as a precondition for talks.
But that’s not all. Washington is also demanding Assad’s disqualification from running in future elections.
Neither condition helps end the conflict, nor serves the interests of Syrians as a whole.
Allowing Assad to stay on as a figurehead president is a concession of little significance, since power would eventually reside with a transitional government.
And why shouldn’t Assad be permitted to stand for re-election? If Syrians truly despise him, and wish to see him gone—as Washington and its allies would have us believe—he won’t survive an election.
Moreover, if the opposition is truly a popular movement for democracy, it can hardly object to Assad standing for election.
On the other hand, if Assad isn’t as unpopular as Washington and the rebels insist, he might emerge from a free election as victor, dashing the regime change agenda of the Sunni jihadists and US imperialists who object to Assad’s secular Arab nationalism.
By Stephen Gowans
Will the United States, or its proxies, directly intervene militarily on the side of Syrian rebels? If they do they will invent a pretext, and it may be this: Syrian leader Bashar Assad, desperate to cling to power, is poised to use chemical weapons against civilians. An intervention is necessary to prevent a massacre.
Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said: “We are concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.” (my emphasis) (1)
The Syrian Foreign Ministry denies the allegation, ruling out the use of chemical weapons against Syrians “under any circumstances.” (2)
All the same, Washington points to “transfers” of chemical weapons stocks that suggest “the Syrian leader could be planning to use the gas against civilians.” (my emphasis) (3)
It might be that the Syrian military is moving its supplies beyond the rebels’ reach. It could be that the Syrians are transferring the weapons to prevent them from falling into the hands of Jordanian special-forces. Under the direction of a US military task force, the Jordanians have been putting together a plan to make a dash across the border to seize Syria’s chemical weapons. (4) Or it’s possible that the transfers haven’t happened, and like Iraq’s mythical WMDs, this is another example of a falsehood intended to conjure up an imperative for war.
Washington says that the Pentagon is opposed to a direct US military intervention. But it has proxies in place which it can press into war on its behalf and “lead from behind.” These include the already mentioned Jordanians, along with Israel–recipient of billions of dollars annually in US military transfers—which says “it might be forced to take military action to prevent the use or spread of weapons of mass destruction in Syria.” (5)
At the same time, NATO has approved the deployment of Patriot missiles to Turkey. While the military organization says the missiles will defend against Syria launching a ballistic missile attack, possibly tipped with chemical weapons, NATO could use the missiles to establish a no-fly zone over northern Syria. This would give Syrian rebels a larger territory from which to attack the Assad government. (6)
It’s unclear whether Washington will go any further in its attempt to engineer concern over a possible looming massacre of civilians, and whether Patriot missiles will enforce a no-fly zone.
Still, it’s a simple matter for Washington to invent impending massacres as excuses to use military force to topple governments it doesn’t like. It did so in Libya, invented a genocide in Kosovo that never happened, and fabricated a story about Saddam Hussein hiding WMDs.
The possibility that the United States has begun to create another fiction, this time centered on the Assad government’s possible use of chemical weapons against civilians, cannot be discounted, and we should be alert to the possibility that the Obama regime is heading down this road.
1. Jay Solomon and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. warns Syria on chemical arms”, The Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2012
2. Anne Barnard and Ellen Barry, “Assad suffering reversals in fighting and diplomacy”, The New York Times, December 3, 2012
3. Solomon and Barnes, December 3, 2012
4. Solomon and Barnes, December 3, 2012s; Jay Solomon and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S., Jordan discuss securing Syria cache”, The Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2012
5. Solomon and Barnes, December 3, 2012
6. Anne Gearan in The Washington Post of December 4, 2012 (Nato says anti-missile defense for Turkey does not open door to Syrian intervention) writes that while NATO denies the Patriot missiles will be used to establish a no-fly zone, they “could be repurposed as part of a wider campaign or provide air cover for action in Syria should NATO change its mind.”
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton says Washington needs “an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution,” (1) but fails to add that it must also be open to the United States doing the same.
By Stephen Gowans
Uprisings aimed at overthrowing governments are often divided between militants who do the heavy lifting on the ground and politicians who lead the fight in the political sphere. Outside powers scheme to anoint an acceptable politician as a leader-in-waiting to step into the void if and when the current government is toppled. The leader must be both acceptable to his or her foreign backers and to the militants on the ground.
Washington has decided that the Syrian National Council, which it “initially charged” to “galvanize opposition” (2) to Syria’s Ba’thist government is unacceptable to Syrian rebels and therefore has no hope of leading a successor government. As an alternative to the failed council, it has handpicked the leaders of a new government-in-waiting, to be unveiled in Doha on November 7, and soon after receive the pre-arranged blessing of the Arab League and Friends of Syria. Make no mistake. What emerges from Doha will be a US creation, intended to represent US interests in Syria and the Middle East.
At a press conference following an October 30 meeting with the president of Croatia, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton revealed that the Syrian National Council, Washington’s initial pick to lead the opposition to the Asad government, no longer had Washington’s support. The SNC, in Washington’s view, had become irrelevant. The armed opposition to the Asad government is happening outside the leadership of the SNC, an organization of exiles with no legitimacy within Syria and internally divided by incessant squabbling between its Islamist and secularist factions. The SNC, commented one armed rebel, “has been over with for a long time now; fighters only talk about it sarcastically.” (3)
Equally problematic for Washington was the SNC’s narrow base of political support. “From the beginning, the council was seen as a prime vehicle for the long-exiled Muslim Brotherhood” (4) and therefore “failed to attract significant representation from minority groups,” (5) including Alawites, Christians and Kurds. Its failure to win support from fighters on the ground, and to expand beyond a narrow sectarian base, hardly recommended it as a viable government-in-waiting. Sounding the council’s death knell, Clinton decreed “that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.” (6)
For weeks now, Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, has been putting together a plan to anoint a new US-approved government-in-the-wings. The initiative is known as the “Riad Seif plan” (7) named after a wealthy Damascus businessman and former Syrian parliamentarian who has long played an active role in the opposition to the Asad government. Acceptable to Washington owing to his businessman politics (as against the Ba’athist’s ideological commitment to state domination of the economy, marginalization of the private sector, and controls on foreign investment (8)), Seif has been endorsed by Washington to lead a post-Ba’athist government. It is hoped that his opposition credentials—he was jailed by the Syrian government for his activities—will put him in good stead with the rebels on the ground.
The plan calls for the creation of a “proto-parliament” comprising 50 members, 20 from the internal opposition, 15 from the SNC (i.e., the exile opposition), and 15 from various other Syrian opposition organizations. An executive body made up of 8 to 10 members—who have been endorsed by the US State department (9) — will work directly with the United States and its allies. (10) Washington and its subordinates, the Arab League and misnamed Friends of Syria, both democracy-hating clubs of plutocracies and oil monarchies, will attempt to make the body acceptable to Syrians by recognizing it as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
There’s no guarantee the plan will work. One of its goals is to marginalize the influence of the Jihadists, many though not all of whom have spilled into Syria from other countries, bent on overturning a secular regime led by a president whose Alawi faith they revile as heretical. If the Jihadists can be sidelined, Washington may be able to funnel arms to “acceptable” militant groups, without fear of their being used later against US targets. But there’s a question mark hanging over Seif’s appeal to religiously-inspired militants, especially when the hands of the marionette-master, the US State Department, are so visible. The same goes for the new council’s appeal to the anti-imperialist secular opposition, who “are against any new political entity that becomes subject to the agendas of foreign countries.” (11) And there’s no mistaking that the new ‘Made-in-the-USA’ council will be subject to the political agenda of the United States.
We needn’t tarry long on debunking the naive belief that Washington’s intervention in Syrian affairs has the slightest connection to promoting democracy. If democracy promotion motivated US foreign policy, absolutist monarchies with execrable records of human rights abridgements and violent repression of popular uprisings against their dictatorial rule would not make up the bulk of the United States’ Arab allies. The last thing the wealthy investors, bankers and corporate heavyweights who make up the US ruling class want is democracy, either at home or aboard. They want its polar opposite—plutocracy, rule by people of wealth in the interests of piling up more wealth through the exploitation of the labor of other people and the land, resources and markets of other countries.
When Saudi Arabia sent tanks and troops into Bahrain on March 14, 2011 to crush a local eruption of the Arab Spring, the United States did nothing to disturb their democracy-abominating ally’s assault on the popular uprising, except issue a meaningless call for “political dialogue.” As the New York Times explained,
The reasons for Mr. Obama’s reticence were clear: Bahrain sits off the Saudi coast, and the Saudis were never going to allow a sudden flowering of democracy next door…In addition, the United States maintains a naval base in Bahrain…crucial for maintaining the flow of oil from the region. “We realized that the possibility of anything happening in Saudi Arabia was one that couldn’t become a reality,” said William M. Daley, President Obama’s chief of staff at the time. “For the global economy, this couldn’t happen.” (12)
Considering that William Daley is an investment banker from a politically well-connected family; that “maintaining the flow of oil” means “maintaining the flow of oil revenues to US oil giants”; and that “the global economy” means “investors’ returns,” it’s clear why the plutocracy condoned their ally’s repression of the Bahrain uprising. Under plutocratic rule, steps toward democracy—even baby ones—are not allowed to get in the way of profits.
Nor need we tarry on the naive belief that a government that has been handpicked by Washington—the US State Department has “recommended names and organizations that ….should be included in any leadership structure,” disclosed Clinton (13)—will represent Syrian interests against those of its sponsor. US interests in Syria have no intrinsic relationship to protecting Israel, which—with its formidable military, yearly $3 billion dollop of US military aid, and an arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons—hardly needs further assistance defending itself against Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas, none of which are significant threats to Israel anyway but are threatened by it. Weakening Iran, Syria’s ally, may be one of Washington’s objectives in trying to orchestrate Asad’s ouster, but not because Iran may acquire nuclear power status and therefore threaten Israel (which it could hardly do anyway considering that it’s severely outclassed militarily (14)), but because, like Syria, it zealously safeguards its economic territory from the US plutocracy’s designs, allowing the state to dominate its economy and protect its domestic enterprises, land and resources from outside domination. The real reason the US plutocracy wants to topple the Syrian and Iranian governments is because they’re bad for the plutocracy’s business interests. Democracy, existential threats to Israel, and nuclear non-proliferation, have nothing to do with it.
The Syrian government is no stranger to formidable challenges. It has waged a longstanding war with Islamists who have rejected the Ba’athist’s secular orientation from the start. Its war with the ethnic-cleansing settler regime in Tel Aviv oscillates between hot and cold. The United States has waged economic warfare against Syria for years, and has connived at overthrowing its government before. Still, Damascus is in a particularly bad spot now. The world’s strongest plutocracies have escalated their hostility. Jihadist terrorists from abroad—to say nothing of home-grown ones—are doing their best to upset Ba’athist rule. But the support of the Syrian military and a substantial part of the Syrian population, plus assistance from Russia and Iran, have allowed it to hang on.
In the face of imperialist and Islamist opposition, its future looks grim, but governments have faced bleaker prospects before and survived, some even going on to thrive. To be sure, there are profound differences between the Asad government and the early Bolshevik regime, but the Syrian government and its supporters may take heart knowing that at one point it seemed all but certain that Lenin’s fledgling government would fail. Famine had gripped the cities. An imperialist war had thrown Russia’s industry into chaos and all but ruined its transportation system. Civil war had broken out and predatory hostile states had launched military invasions to smother the infant government in its cradle. Yet, in the face of these tremendous challenges, the Bolsheviks survived and over the next seven decades went on to build a great industrial power that eliminated unemployment, overwork, economic insecurity, extremes of inequality, and economic crises, while almost singlehandedly eradicating the scourge of Nazism. And it did so without exploiting other countries but helping to build them economically and escape colonialism and imperialist domination, often at great expense to itself. Similarly the Syrian government may overcome its challenges, both internal and external, and carry on a course of independent, self-directed development, free from the backwardness of Islamic fundamentalism, sectarianism and domination by the world’s great plutocracies. Let’s hope so.
1. Neil MacFarquhar and Michael R. Gordon, “As fighting rages, Clinton seeks new Syrian opposition”, The New York Times, October 31, 2012
2. Jay Solomon and Nour Malas, “U.S. pulls support for key anti-Assad bloc”, The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2012
3. MacFarquhar and Gordon
4. MacFarquhar and Gordon
5. MacFarquhar and Gordon
6. Hillary Clinton’s Remarks With Croatian President Ivo Josipovic After Their Meeting, October 31, 2012. http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/10/199931.htm
7. Josh Rogin, “Obama administration works to launch new Syrian opposition council”, Foreign Policy, October 30, 2012. http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/10/30/obama_administration_works_to_launch_new_syrian_opposition_council
8. See the Syrian page of The Heritage Foundations’ Index of Economic Freedom, http://www.heritage.org/index/country/syria
9. Andrew Quin, “Hillary Clinton calls for overhaul of Syria opposition”, The Globe and Mail, October 31, 2012
11. MacFarquhar and Gordon
12. Helene Cooper and Robert F. Worth, “In Arab Sprint, Obama finds a sharp test”, The New York Times, September 24, 2012
14. Stephen Gowans, “Wars for Profits: A No-Nonsense Guide to Why the United States Seeks to Make Iran an International Pariah”, what’s left, November 9, 2011. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/wars-for-profits-a-no-nonsense-guide-to-why-the-united-states-seeks-to-make-iran-an-international-pariah/
For half of the last century, Arab nationalists, socialists, communists and others were locked in a battle with the Muslim Brothers for hegemony in the Arab world.—Tariq Ali 
The Jihadists who toppled the secular nationalist Gaddafi government—and not without the help of Nato bombers, dubbed “al Qaeda’s air force”  by Canadian pilots who participated in the bombing campaign—are no longer disguised in the pages of Western newspapers as a popular movement who thirsted for, and won, democracy in Libya. Now that they’ve overrun the US consulate in Benghazi and killed the US ambassador, they’ve become a “security threat…raising fears about the country’s stability” —exactly what Gaddafi called them, when Western governments were celebrating the Islamists’ revolt as a popular pro-democracy uprising. Gaddafi’s description of the unrest in his own country as a violent Salafist bid to establish an Islamic state was doubtlessly accepted in Washington and other Western capitals as true, but dismissed in public as a transparent ploy to muster sympathy. This was necessary to sanitize the uprising to secure the acquiescence of Western publics for the intervention of their countries’ warplanes to help Islamic guerillas on the ground topple a secular nationalist leader who was practicing “resource nationalism” and trying to “Libyanize” the economy– the real reasons he’d fallen into disgrace in Washington. 
The uprising of militant Muslim radicals against a secular state was, in many respects, a replay of what had happened in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, when a Marxist-inspired government came to power with aspirations to lift the country out of backwardness, and was opposed by the Mullahs and Islamist guerillas backed by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China.
An Afghan Communist explained that,
“Our aim was no less than to give an example to all the backward countries of the world of how to jump from feudalism straight to a prosperous, just society … Our choice was not between doing things democratically or not. Unless we did them, nobody else would … [Our] very first proclamation declared that food and shelter are the basic needs and rights of a human being. … Our program was clear: land to the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all. We knew that the mullahs in the villages would scheme against us, so we issued our decrees swiftly so that the masses could see where their real interests lay … For the first time in Afghanistan’s history women were to be given the right to education … We told them that they owned their bodies, they would marry whom they liked, they shouldn’t have to live shut up in houses like pens.” 
That’s not to say that Gaddafi was a Marxist—far from it. But like the reformers in Afghanistan, he sought to modernize his country, and use its land, labor and resources for the people within it. By official Western accounts, he did a good job, raising his country’s standard of living higher than that of all other countries in Africa.
Gaddafi claimed that the rebellion in Libya had been organized by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had vowed to overthrow him and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Sharia law. A 2009 Canadian government intelligence report bore him out. It described the anti-Gaddafi stronghold of eastern Libya, where the rebellion began, “as an ‘epicenter of Islamist extremism’ and said ‘extremist cells’ operated in the region.” Earlier, Canadian military intelligence had noted that “Libyan troops found a training camp in the country’s southern desert that had been used by an Algerian terrorist group that would later change its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”  Significantly, US officials now believe that the AQIM may have plotted the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. 
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the Libyan rebellion’s most powerful military leader, was a veteran of the U.S.-backed Jihad against the Marxist-inspired reformist government in Afghanistan, where he had fought alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaeda. Belhaj returned to Libya in the 1990s to lead the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was linked to his al-Qaeda comrades. His aim was to topple Gaddafi, as the Communists had been toppled in Afghanistan. The prominent role Belhaj played in the Libyan uprising should have aroused suspicions among leftists in the West that, as Western governments surely knew, the uprising was not the heroic pro-democracy affair Western media—and those of reactionary Arab regimes—were making it out to be. Indeed, from the very first day of the revolt, anyone equipped with knowledge of Libyan history that went back further than the last Fox News broadcast, would have known that the Benghazi rebellion was more in the mold of the latest eruption of a violent anti-secular Jihad than a peaceful call for democracy. 
“On Feb. 15, 2011, citizens in Benghazi organized what they called a Day of Anger march. The demonstration soon turned into a full-scale battle with police. At first, security forces used tear gas and water cannons. But as several hundred protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails attacked government buildings, the violence spiraled out of control.” 
As they stormed government sites, the rampaging demonstrators didn’t chant, “Power to the people”, “We are the 99 percent”, or “No to dictatorship.” They chanted “‘No God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of Allah’.”  The Islamists touched off the rebellion and did the fighting on the ground, while U.S.-aligned Libyan exiles stepped into the power vacuum created by Salafist violence and Nato bombs to form a new U.S.-aligned government.
Syria’s Hafiz Asad, and other secular nationalists, from his comrade Salaf Jadid, who he overthrew and locked away, to his son, Bashar, who has followed him, have also been denounced as enemies of Allah by the same Islamist forces who violently denounced Gaddafi in Libya and the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party in Afghanistan. The reason for their denunciation by Islamists is the same: their opposition to an Islamic state. Similarly, Islamist forces have been as strongly at the head of the movement to overthrow the secular nationalists in Syria, as they have the secular nationalists in Libya and the (secular) Marxists in the late 1970s-1980s Afghanistan.
The secular nationalists’ rise to power in Syria was a heavy blow to the country’s Sunni Islamic militants who resented their society being governed by secular radicals. Worse still from the perspective of the Islamists, the governing radicals were mostly members of minority communities the Sunnis regarded as heretics, and which had occupied the lower rungs of Syrian society. From the moment the secular nationalists captured the state, Islamists went underground to organize an armed resistance. “From their safe haven deep in the ancient warrens of northern cities like Aleppo and Hama, where cars could not enter, the guerrillas emerged to bomb and kill.” 
In 1980, an attempt was made to group the Sunni opposition to the secular nationalists under an “Islamic Front’, which promised free speech, free elections, and an independent judiciary, under the banner of Islam. When militant Islamic terrorists murdered Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a year later in Egypt, Islamists in Damascus promised then president Hafiz Asad the same fate. Then in 1982, Jihadists rose up in Hama—“the citadel of traditional landed power and Sunni puratinism” —in a bid to seize power in the city. The ensuing war of the Islamic radicals against the secular nationalist state, a bloody affair which costs tens of thousands of lives, convinced Asad that “he was wrestling not just with internal dissent, but with a large scale conspiracy to unseat him, abetted by Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the United States.”  Patrick Seale, a veteran British journalist who has covered the Middle East for decades, described the Islamists’ movement against Syria’s secular nationalists as a “sort of fever that (rises) and (falls) according to conditions at home and manipulation from abroad.” 
Media accounts of Syria’s civil war omit mention of the decades-long hostility between Islamists and secular nationalists—a fierce enmity that sometimes flares into open warfare, and at other times simmers menacingly below the surface—that has defined Syria in the post-colonial period. To do so would take the sheen off the armed rising as a popular, democratic, progressive struggle, a depiction necessary to make Western intervention in the form of sanctions, diplomatic support, and other aid, against the secular nationalists, appear just and desirable. Today, only Trotskyists besotted by fantasies that the Arab Spring is the equivalent of the March 1917 Petrograd uprising, deny that the content of the Syrian uprising is Islamist. But the question of whether the uprising was initially otherwise—a peaceful, progressive and popular movement aimed at opening democratic space and redressing economic grievances–and only later hijacked by Islamists, remains in dispute. What’s clear, however, is that the “hijacking”, if indeed there was one, is not of recent vintage. In the nascent stages of the rebellion, the late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid noted that the “most puritanical Islamists, known by their shorthand as Salafists, have emerged as a force in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, with suspicions that Saudi Arabia has encouraged and financed them.”
Secular nationalists, socialists and communists in Muslim lands have struggled with the problem of Islamist opposition to their programs, to their atheism (in the case of communists) and to the secular character of the state they have sought to build. The Bolsheviks, perhaps alone among this group, were successful in overcoming opposition in the traditional Muslim territories they controlled in Central Asia, and improving the lives of women, who had been oppressed by conservative Islam. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, veiling (as well as circumcision of males, considered by the Bolsheviks to be child abuse) were outlawed. Women were recruited into administrative and professional positions and encouraged – indeed obligated – to work outside the home. This followed Friedrich Engels’ idea that women could only be liberated from the domination of men if they had independent incomes. 
Western governments, led by the United States, have made a practice of inflaming the Islamists’ hostility to secular nationalists, socialists and communists, using militant Muslim radicals as a cat’s paw to topple these governments, which have almost invariably refused to align themselves militarily with the United States or cut deals against the interests of their own people to fatten the profits of corporate America and enrich Wall Street investment bankers. But whether Washington aggravates fault lines within Muslim societies or not, the fact remains that the fault lines exist, and must be managed, but have not always been managed well.
For example, no matter how admirable their aims were, the reformers in Afghanistan had too narrow a political base to move as quickly as they did, and they rushed headlong into disaster, ignoring Moscow’s advice to slow down and expand their support. The Carter and Reagan administrations simply took advantage of their blunders to build a committed anti-communist guerilla movement.
The leftist Syrian regime of Salah Jadid, which Hafiz Asad overthrew, did much that would be admired by leftists today. Indeed, Tariq Ali, in an apology apparently intended to expiate the sin of seeming to support the current Asad government, lauds Jadid’s regime as the “much more enlightened predecessor whose leaders and activists…numbered in their ranks some of the finest intellectuals of the Arab world.”  It’s easy to see why Ali admired Asad’s predecessors. Jadid, who lived an austere life, refusing to take advantage of his position to lavish himself with riches and comforts, slashed the salaries of senior ministers and top bureaucrats. He replaced their black Mercedes limousines with Volkswagens and Peugeot 404s. People connected with the old influential families were purged from government. A Communist was brought into the cabinet. Second houses were confiscated, and the ownership of more than one was prohibited. Private schools were banned. Workers, soldiers, peasants, students and women became the regime’s favored children. Feudalists and reactionaries were suppressed. A start was made on economic planning and major infrastructure projects were undertaken with the help of the Soviets. And yet, despite these clearly progressive measures, Jadid’s base of popular support remained narrow—one reason why the Soviets were lukewarm toward him, regarding him as a hothead, and contemptuous of his claim to be practicing “scientific socialism.”  Scientific socialism is based on mass politics, not a minority coming to power through a conspiracy (as Jadid and Asad had) which then attempts to impose its utopian vision on a majority that rejects it.
Jadid backed the Palestinian guerrillas. Asad, who was then minister of defense, was less enamored of the guerrillas, who he saw as handing Israel pretexts for war. Jadid defined the bourgeoisie as the enemy. Asad wanted to enlist their backing at home to broaden the government’s base of support against the Muslim Brothers. Jadid spurned the reactionary Arab regimes. Asad was for unifying all Arab states—reactionary or otherwise—against Israel. 
Asad—who Ali says he opposed—recognized (a) that a program of secular nationalist socialism couldn’t be implemented holus bolus without mass support, and (b) that the government didn’t have it. So, after toppling Jadid in a so-called “corrective” movement, he minimized class warfare in favor of broadening his government’s base, trying to win over merchants, artisans, business people, and other opponents of the regime’s nationalizations and socialist measures. At the same time, he retained Jadid’s commitment to a dirigiste state and continued to promote oppressed classes and minorities. This was hardly a stirring program for Marxist purists—in fact it looked like a betrayal—but the Soviets were more committed to Asad than Jadid, recognizing that his program respected the world as it was and therefore had a greater chance of success. 
In the end, however, Asad failed. Neither he nor his son Bashar managed to expand the state’s base of support enough to safeguard it from destabilization. The opposition hasn’t been conjured up out of nothing by regime change specialists in Washington. To be sure, regime change specialists have played a role, but they’ve needed material to work with, and the Asad’s Syria has provided plenty of it. Nor did Gaddafi in Libya finesse the problem of mixing the right amount of repression and persuasion to engineer a broad enough consent for his secular nationalist rule to survive the fever of Salafist opposition rising, as Patrick Seale writes, according to conditions at home and manipulation from abroad . The machinations of the United States and reactionary Arab regimes to stir up and strengthen the secular nationalists’ opponents made the knot all the more difficult to disentangle, but outside manipulation wasn’t the whole story in Gaddafi’s demise (though it was a significant part of it) and hasn’t been the sole, or even a large part of the, explanation for the uprising in Syria.
The idea that the uprisings in either country are popular, democratic movements against dictatorship and for the redress of economic grievances, (a) ignores the significant history of struggle between secularist Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brothers, (b) mistakenly minimizes the role of Salafists in the uprisings, and (c) turns a blind eye to Washington’s longstanding practice of using radical Muslim activists as a cat’s paw against Arab nationalist regimes that are against sacrificing local interests to the foreign trade and investment interests of Wall Street and corporate America. With Islamists lashing out violently against US embassies in the Middle East, their depiction by US state officials and Western media as pro-democracy fighters for freedom may very well be supplanted by the labels used by Gaddafi and Asad to describe their Islamist opponents, labels that are closer to the truth –“religious fanatics” and “terrorists.”
Reactionary Islam may have won the battle for hegemony in the Muslim world, as Tariq Ali asserts, and with it, the United States, which has often manipulated it for its own purposes, but the battle has yet to be won in Syria, and one would hope, never will be. That’s what’s at stake in the country: not a fragile, popular, egalitarian, pro-democracy movement, but the last remaining secular Arab nationalist regime, resisting both the oppressions and obscurantism of the Muslim Brothers and the oppressions and plunder of imperialism.
1. Tariq Ali, “The Uprising in Syria”, http://www.counterpunch.com, September 12, 2012.
2. Stephen Gowans [A], “Al-Qaeda’s Air Force”, what’s left, February 20, 2012. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/al-qaedas-air-force/
3. Patrick Martin, “Anti-American protests seen as tip of the Islamist iceberg”, The Globe and Mail, September 13, 2012.
4. Gowans [A]
5. Rodric Braithwaite. Afghantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989. Profile Books. 2012. pp. 5-6.
6. Gowans [A]
7. Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous, “U.S. probing al-Qaeda link in Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2012.
8. Gowans [A]
9. David Pugliese, “The Libya mission one year later: Into the unknown”, The Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2012.
11. Patrick Seale. Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. University of California Press. 1988, p.324.
12. Seale, p. 333.
13. Seale, p. 335.
14. Seale, p. 322.
15. Anthony Shadid, “After Arab revolts, reigns of uncertainty”, The New York Times, August 24, 2011.
16. Stephen Gowans [B], “Women’s Rights in Afghanistan”, August 9, 2010. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/women%e2%80%99s-rights-in-afghanistan/