The Myth of the Secular, Pro-Democracy Syrian Rebel
You know, we started helping the rebels, whatever they are, and they’re certainly not fighting for democracy, given their sponsorship, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as far back as early spring of last year, 2012, without saying it publicly.–Zbigniew Brzezinski*
By Stephen Gowans
Asked to justify his support for what his interlocutor called “Islamo-fascists,” a leftist sympathetic to the Syrian rebellion replied, “I’m not supporting radical Islamists. I support the Free Syrian Army’s fight for democracy.” With al-Qaeda aligned jihadists beheading some of their enemies and eating the organs of others, that’s the best case supporters of the Syrian rebellion can make these days. Unlike the radical Islamists, who dominate the rebellion and want to build a theocracy atop the hoped-for ruins of Syria’s secular Arab nationalist regime, the uprising’s Western leftist supporters are against dictatorship and for democracy. That’s why, they say, they’re backing the FSA.
But much as they believe they’re on the side on the angels, they’re not. The idea that the FSA is the secular, democratic front of a popular uprising ignores a number of problems, from a misunderstanding of what the FSA is, to blindness to the democratic reforms already carried out in Syria, to an unwarranted fondness for a political arrangement that would open the doors to US domination of Syria.
The “moderate” rebels
Let’s begin with the misunderstanding about the Free Syrian Army. There’s nothing secular about the FSA, and nothing democratic about it, either. The US-backed rebel army exists, according to its leaders, for one reason—to remove Bashar al-Assad as president.  Its sole program, then, is negative, without positive (either democratic or secular) aspirations.
You don’t have to be committed to a secular society to belong to the FSA. Indeed, according to Reuters, the organization’s military command is “Islamist dominated”.  The Associated Press says that “Many of the participating groups have strong Islamist agendas, and some have fought in ways that could scare away Western backers. They include the Tawheed Brigade, whose ideology is similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Falcons of Damascus, an ultraconservative Islamist group.”  The Wall Street Journal reports that Brig. Gen. Mithkal Albtaish, an FSA leader, says that the organization is “dominated by Islamist groups that are in close coordination with al Nusra,”  the al-Qaeda aligned terrorist group. The idea, then, that the FSA is secular is mistaken.
Neither does the FSA have a political program committed to democracy. “Eliminate Assad” does not necessarily mean “create democracy.” It could mean “create theocracy” or “create a US-puppet regime.” Hence, what the FSA wants to replace Assad with, is not defined, but given that the organization is backed, armed, supported and guided by the United States, its European satellites, and Arab royalist dictators (an iconoclast has dubbed the loose alliance of rebel groups the Foreign Supplied Army) we can guess that the answer is: whatever the FSA’s backers, prime among them Washington, say. And let’s be clear. The FSA’s goal isn’t to eliminate Assad per se, but the policies Assad and his allies are committed to: economic nationalism; anti-colonialism; alliance with Iran; and so on, about which more in a moment. It is inconceivable that the United States and its FSA marionette would tolerate a successor to Assad who maintained Assad’s foreign and economic policies.
US foreign policy
The aim of US foreign policy is to defend and promote the interests of that section of the country’s citizens which has the greatest sway over its formation. This is by no means a unique feature of the foreign policy of the United States, but is a universal characteristic of the foreign policies of all countries. French, Russian, Chinese and British foreign policies are no different. For example, the basic priority of foreign policy in Britain—where the country’s business interests have a commanding influence over state policy— “is to aid British companies in getting their hands on other countries’ resources,” according to British foreign policy analyst Mark Curtis. Pointing to the role of one instrument of British foreign policy, the country’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, Curtis observes,
As Lord Mackay, then Lord Chancellor, revealed in the mid-1990s, the role of MI6 is to protect Britain’s ‘economic well-being’ by keeping ‘a particular eye on Britain’s access to key commodities, like oil or metals [and] the profits of Britain’s myriad of international business interests.’ 
The aim of US (or British) foreign policy is not to promote a particular kind of political regime in other countries. It, does not, contrary, to its own rhetoric, favour liberal democracies over other political systems, nor promote liberal democracy abroad, except insofar as liberal democratic political arrangements are congenial to the business interests of its most influential citizens. If fascist dictatorship, military autocracy or absolutist monarchy best serves the profit-making interests of preeminent US investors, banks and corporations at a particular time and place, the United States is happy to promote and defend these alternative regimes. For example, royal dictatorships abound among Washington’s Arab allies. Washington is comfortable having Arab dictators as friends because these regimes are congenial to US business, financial and military interests—recycling petro-dollars through US investment banks; cooperating with the US military, and in some case hosting US military bases; purchasing US military equipment; and implementing pro-US foreign investment and trade policies. When Arab dictators have become less accommodating, and more interested in promoting local interests, Washington has turned against them, reviling them as dictators to galvanize support at home for interventions to topple them, and replace them with more congenial (to wealthy US investor) rulers. “Rebel” journalist Wilfred Burchett put it this way: “The truth of the matter is that any country which can guarantee safety for British and American investments, no matter what the color of its regime, is acceptable to Whitehall and the White House, whether it be a personal dictatorship in Santo Domingo, clerical Fascist in Spain, semi Fascist in South Africa, or a gangster regime in a South American republic.” 
There are, then, two points—the first about goals and the second about means.
• The goal of US foreign policy is to promote the profit-making interests of its super-wealthy citizens who have goods to export and capital to invest.
• Liberal democracy is sometimes seen as the best way to achieve this goal, but sometimes not. When liberal democracy is understood as the best arrangement, Washington will promote it. When a different political arrangement is understood to best support fundamental US foreign policy aims, Washington will promote that different political arrangement.
Is the United States promoting liberal democracy in Syria?
If it is, it is only doing so incidentally, and we don’t even know if it’s doing that. All we know is that Washington, like the FSA (or more precisely the FSA like Washington) wants to topple the Ba’ath regime and it’s easy to infer why. Damascus pursues too many objectionable policies from Washington’s point of view. First, there’s economic nationalism (subsidies to domestic firms, restrictions on foreign investment, tariffs to protect domestic industry, displacement of free enterprise by state-ownership—all of which limit US profit-making opportunities). Then there’s Syria’s refusal to recognize the Zionist conquest of Palestine (i.e., to recognize Israel.) Syria’s support for Hezbollah and alliance with Iran are also irritants, as is the country’s military cooperation with Russia. So, all we know is that Washington wants Assad gone—because his policies fail to mesh with the US foreign policy goal of making US investors, corporations and financiers richer.
At the moment, we can seriously doubt that the United States is working through the rebels to promote liberal democracy, because (a) the dominant part of the rebellion, the radical Islamists, abhor liberal democracy and are committed to a theocracy, and (b) the FSA is only committed to ousting Assad, and has no commitment to promoting democracy. But suppose the United States is indeed working to promote liberal democracy in Syria. Would a US-imposed liberal democracy be better than what currently exists in the country? Syria is in transition from a political arrangement which defined the Arab nationalist and socialist Ba’ath Party as the country’s lead political organization to a multi-party electoral democratic arrangement in which no party is primus inter pares. A constitutional amendment introduced under pressure of the Syrian revolt, and ratified by referendum, stripped the Ba’athists of their lead role in Syrian society, and scheduled a presidential election for 2014. Anyone who meets basic requirements can stand for election. At the same time, restrictions on civil liberties, implemented because Syria is in a technical state of war with Israel, were lifted. Thus, whoever backs the Syrian rebels on grounds that they’re bringing to birth a new liberal democratic order in Syria (of which we have no evidence that they are or even intend to do so) needs to show how the child that will be delivered through the pain of more war will be any different from the child that has already been delivered through Assad’s reforms.
There’s something else they need to explain. What’s so wonderful about a US-approved liberal democratic order? Liberal democracy appeals to the US’s power elite because it creates an “open society”—one which affords the wealthy elite plenty of room to use their command over their considerable resources to dominate the political process. They use their wealth and connections to place themselves and their representatives in key state decision-making positions; to lobby politicians and regulatory agencies; to bribe politicians with campaign funding and the promise of lucrative post-political jobs; and to hire public relations firms and establish foundations to set media and scholarly agendas. Through these means they concentrate state power in their hands (complementing their considerable economic power); win most political battles; and monopolize the society’s benefits.
An open Syrian society would allow the United States to act in Syria as the US corporate elite acts in the United States. It could buy influence by funding political candidates and parties that are pro-West, pro-US, pro-free-trade, pro-Israel, and pro-foreign-investment. It could allow the State Department to funnel money to local media to promote US positions (openly, through the National Endowment for Democracy, or covertly, if necessary). And Washington could bankroll NGOs, either directly or through private foundations, to garner popular support for policies favorable to US interests. The outcome would be that state power would be concentrated in the hands of US lackeys; US interests would win out in political battles with local interests; and the US corporate elite would monopolize the benefits of the Syrian economy. That’s not democracy. It’s neo-colonialism.
There are two kinds of rebels in Syria. Those who openly promote theocracy. And those whose only public commitment is to eliminate Assad. The military command of the latter includes secular elements but is Islamist-dominated. Their goals, beyond eliminating Assad, are undefined—perhaps concealed. They may want to create a theocracy, or a US-puppet regime, or both, or something else altogether. They are also armed, trained, backed and politically supported by the United States, its European satellites, and Arab royal dictatorships.
The United States supports foreign organizations that can help advance the interests of that section of the US population which holds sway over US foreign policy formation—wealthy bankers, major investors and huge corporations looking for export and investment opportunities abroad. It does not support democratic organizations—those that seek to promote the interests of the people in the countries in which US investors and corporations seek to do business. The belief, then, that there exists a popular uprising in Syria for democracy that, despite its being backed by the United States, can still be an instrument for promoting the interests of Syrians, is found on mistaken ideas about who the rebels are and a misunderstanding of the nature of US foreign policy. To square this circle, one would have to believe that the interests of the US corporate elite are congruent with, and not inimical to, the interests of the vast majority of Syria’s people.
But even if, indeed, we could say that Washington is backing some of the rebels on the ground with the aim of creating a liberal democracy in Syria, we would still have to ask two questions. First, would this political system, which is to be secured at the cost of many more tens of thousands of lives in a continued war, be any better than the one already conceded by the Assad government? Second, would an open society—one affording plenty of room for US forces to dominate Syria’s public and economic life—be preferable to a less open one, whose restrictions guard against foreign domination and allow the state to pursue local interests?
1. Zeina Karam, “In rare public appearance, Syrian president denies role in Houla massacre”, The Associated Press, June 3, 2012.
2. “Syrian rebels elect head of new military command,” Reuters, December 8, 2012.
3. Bassem Mroue and Benn Hubbard, “Syria rebels create new unified military command,” Associated Press, December 8, 2012.
4. Inti Landauro and Stacy Meichtry, “Rebels in Syria move to show moderation”, The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2013
5. Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage, 2003, pp.210-211.
6. Wilfred Burchett, excerpt from People’s Democracies, in George Burchett and Nick Shimmin (eds.), Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 45.
* “As Assad Makes Gains, Will New U.S. Strategy for Syria Change the Dynamics?” PBS Newshour, June 14, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/jan-june13/syria2_06-14.html