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The ‘Anti-Imperialist’ Who Got Libya Wrong Serves Up The Same Failed Analysis on Syria

Paris Match: Many people say the solution lies in your departure. Do you believe that your departure is the solution?

Syrian president Assad: What was the result (of NATO policy when they attacked Gaddafi)? Chaos ensued after Gaddafi’s departure. So, was the departure the solution? Have things improved, and has Libya become a democracy? [1]

Updated January 23, 2016
Originally posted December 24, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

For a professed socialist and anti-imperialist, Gilbert Achcar is surprisingly mainstream, in fact, so much so that he could be appointed to a key position in the US State Department and fit in quite comfortably. He replicated the basic understanding of the nature of the conflict in Libya in 2011, as presented by the US government, in his own analysis, and dissents in no significant way from Washington on how to end the conflict in Syria (Achcar and the US president, and, for that matter, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, all agree that Assad must go.)

In 2011, he supported the overthrow of Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi, arguing wrongly, it turns out, that a post-Gaddafi Libya, whatever its faults, would be an improvement on what preceded it, which indeed it is, if chaos, societal breakdown, and various fanatical Islamist armies, including ISIS, vying for control of the country by arms, counts as an improvement. Said Achcar on March 24, 2011: “And if there is no clarity about what a post-Gaddafi Libya might look like….it can’t be worse than Gaddafi’s regime.” [2] It’s difficult to imagine he could have been more wrong. But then he’s in good company. NATO leaders—the architects of the debacle—said the same.

Achcar’s assurance that Gaddafi was an unparalleled evil, thus justifying his extermination without regard to the consequences, paralleled a similarly stunningly wrong prediction offered by supporters of the US-British war on Iraq. That argument held that elimination of the Iraqi leader couldn’t help but improve Iraq’s humanitarian situation—and it relied on a technique Achcar liberally uses of demonizing secular Arab nationalist leaders. Of course, it was not the expunction of Saddam Hussein that promised to ameliorate the humanitarian situation in Iraq but the abandonment by Western powers of their policy of murdering countless Iraqis through economic and conventional warfare in order to eliminate an impediment to their hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. It is curious that the last remaining leaders of the principal obstacle to Washington’s hegemonic designs in the Arab world, namely, the secular Arab nationalist governments of Libya and Syria, should fall squarely within the sites of both Achcar and Washington; curious because Washington is clearly imperialist, and Achcar says he’s an anti-imperialist. So how is it that the anti-imperialist Achcar and the imperialist US foreign policy establishment see eye-to-eye on so much?

On Libya, Achcar had cast doubt, in error it turns out, on the idea that the uprising had a substantial Sunni Islamist component, dismissing this as a canard originated by Gaddafi to mobilize US support. Gaddafi’s implicating Al-Qaeda in the uprising “was his way of trying to get the support of the West,” Achcar said. [3] We know now that the uprising was, as Gaddafi averred, largely Islamist.

Similarly, Achcar blundered in declaring as preposterous the idea that “Western powers are intervening in Libya because they want to topple a regime hostile to their interests.” [4] As it turns out, Western powers did indeed view Gaddafi’s “resource nationalism” and efforts to “Libyanize” the economy as hostile to the economic interests of Western investors, a group that exercises considerable, if not decisive, influence over Western foreign policy. [5]

One year after then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton declared in connection with Gaddafi’s overthrow that “we came, we saw, he died,” The Wall Street Journal revealed evidence that the Achcar-supported NATO military intervention in Libya was rooted in objections to the Gaddafi government’s economic policies. According to the newspaper, private oil companies were incensed at the pro-Libyan oil deals the Gaddafi government was negotiating and “hoped regime change in Libya…would bring relief in some of the tough terms they had agreed to in partnership deals” with Libya’s national oil company. [6]

For decades, many European companies had enjoyed deals that granted them half of the high-quality oil produced in Libyan fields. Some major oil companies hoped the country would open further to investment after sanctions from Washington were lifted in 2004 and U.S. giants re-entered the North African nation.

But in the years that followed, the Gaddafi regime renegotiated the companies’ share of oil from each field to as low as 12%, from about 50%.

Just after the fall of the regime, several foreign oil companies expressed hopes of better terms on existing deals or attractive ones for future contracts. Among the incumbents that expressed hopes in Libyan expansion were France’s Total SA and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

‘We see Libya as a great opportunity under the new government,’ Sara Akbar, chief executive of privately owned Kuwait Energy Co., said in an interview in November. ‘Under Gaddafi, it was off the radar screen’ because of its ‘very harsh’ terms, said Mrs. Akbar. [7]

The Journal had earlier noted the “harsh” (read pro-Libyan) terms the Gaddafi government had imposed on foreign oil companies.

Under a stringent new system known as EPSA-4, the regime judged companies’ bids on how large a share of future production they would let Libya have. Winners routinely promised more than 90% of their oil output to NOC (Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corp).

Meanwhile, Libya kept its crown jewels off limits to foreigners. The huge onshore oil fields that accounted for the bulk of its production remained the preserve of Libya’s state companies.

Even firms that had been in Libya for years got tough treatment. In 2007, authorities began forcing them to renegotiate their contracts to bring them in line with EPSA-4.

One casualty was Italian energy giant Eni SpA. In 2007, it had to pay a $1 billion signing bonus to be able to extend the life of its Libyan interests until 2042. It also saw its share of production drop from between 35% and 50%—depending on the field—to just 12%. [8]

Oil companies were also frustrated that Libya’s state-owned oil company “stipulated that foreign companies had to hire Libyans for top jobs.” [9] A November 2007 US State Department cable had warned that those “who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and that there was “growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism.” [10] The cable cited a 2006 speech in which Gaddafi said: “Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money.” [11] Gaddafi’s government had forced oil companies to give their local subsidiaries Libyan names. Worse, “labor laws were amended to ‘Libyanize’ the economy,” that is, turn it to the advantage of Libyans. Oil firms “were pressed to hire Libyan managers, finance people and human resources directors.” [12] The New York Times summed up the West’s objections. “Colonel Gaddafi,” the US newspaper of record said, “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” [13] Achcar completely missed this. Worse, he declared the very opposite to be true. He wrote: “The idea that Western powers are intervening in Libya because they want to topple a regime hostile to their interests is just preposterous. Equally preposterous is that what they are after is laying their hands on Libyan oil.” [14]

Normally, a batter who swings and misses three times is thrown out of the batting circle, but Achcar’s strike out didn’t stop either Democracy Now or the Marxist publication Jacobin from recently offering the failed analyst a platform to hold forth on Syria. Achcar was treated fawningly in a Jacobin piece [15], with interviewer Nada Matta treating the US State Department echo-chamber as a docent for the Left. Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now interview with the failed Libya analyst [16] was also overly deferential, given Achcar’s uninspiring record on Libya, though to Goodman’s credit, she did challenge him on his support for NATO’s intervention in the North African country, an intervention which, now that it is widely acknowledged to have produced a debacle, Achcar claims not to have supported. This is indeed true if we accept that “intervention” means whatever Achcar says it means, but as we’ll see, he did support NATO’s intervention in Libya, notwithstanding his rather discreditable attempts since to obfuscate. But there’s another reason why Matta and Goodman might have passed on interviewing Achcar, apart from his egregious failures on Libya: they could have arranged an interview with a US State Department spokesperson and 90 percent of the answers would have been the same.

Having missed the chance to source the US State Department directly, Democracy Now and Jacobin had to settle for Achcar repackaging his failed Libya analysis to delineate a largely US State Department-consistent view of what is happening in Syria and of the kind of agenda the Left ought to support. Just as once he called for the elimination of Gaddafi as the only way to stop what he claimed was an impending massacre, and as the best way to open space for a popular democratic uprising, so too in Syria does he urge the Left to support the elimination of Assad as the only way to stop the war in Syria, and as the best way to open space for a true democratic awakening. A democratic flowering won’t happen in Syria, he says, until ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra take over from Assad and Syrians realize that salafists are as hostile to their interests as Achcar says Assad is. (What Achcar seems completely oblivious to, or doesn’t give a damn about, is that either of these groups coming to power would mean the massacre of Syria’s Alawite, Druze, Kurd, Christian and other minority populations.)

The problem with the view that the only way to bring about democracy in Syria is to first let murderous sectarian madmen run roughshod over the country until Syrians realize they are hostile to their interests is that it ignores concessions the Assad government has already made in response to the uprising to open up political space by abrogating the Ba’ath Party’s status as primus inter pares and opening presidential elections to a multi-candidate slate [17], a development that would seem to be more conducive to the peaceful flowering of popular democratic forces than the bloody and austere theocratic rule of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Achcar also appears to be unaware of polling data that shows that Assad commands more support in Syria than does the armed opposition whose ascension to power he thinks would bring an end to the war. [18] By this fact alone, it wouldn’t. There is a significant opposition to Islamic fundamentalism in Syria. On top of this, Achcar swallows a fiction widely promoted by US officials and Western media that the war in Syria is a sectarian conflict between a Sunni majority and an oppressive Alawite minority. Western media unremittingly describe the armed opposition as predominantly Sunni, an undoubted reality, but hardly relevant, since the opposition’s major opponent, the Syrian Arab Army, is also predominately Sunni. Indeed, it may be said of the Syrian Arab Army that it is the only moderate armed Sunni fighting force in the country. The fundamental fault line in Syria is not between Sunnis and Alawis (or other minorities), but between proponents of a secular, non-sectarian constitution, on the one hand, and a political arrangement based on a Sunni fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran, on the other. Allowing Al-Qaeda affiliates to come to power in Syria would not bring peace to the country, since the Islamists’ rule would hardly be tolerated by the significant part of the population that opposes it and prefers a non-sectarian, secular government. It would also result in the massacre of populations the sectarian fanatics deem apostates and infidels. If Achcar expressed concern about the possibility of a massacre in Libya, and cited this as the basis for his support of NATO intervention in that country, how is it that he can so blithely accept the near certainty of massacres perpetrated by the fanatics he urges Western powers to give serious support to?

Achcar does not dissent from the US foreign policy establishment view on Syria at its most basic level, namely, the demand that Assad step down and for the same reasons the US State Department adduces: Because, says Washington and Achcar, Assad is a brutal dictator who is oppressing the Sunni majority and has lost the legitimacy that would allow him to govern the country peacefully. There is little space between Achcar’s views and the public views of the US government on the Syrian president, the nature of the opposition, and the route to peace, except that Achcar says he has arrived at his positions by taking an anti-imperialist stance. An ostensible anti-imperialist analysis which meshes comfortably with Washington’s position on Syria can be attractive to Marxists and other Leftists who would like to feel mainstream, while assuring themselves that they remain thoroughly Leftist. Therein may lie Achcar’s appeal to Leftist media. He’s like the TV pitchman who peddles a diet which promises rapid weight loss without sacrifice. In the summer of 1914, there were plenty of European socialists who discovered, as Achcar has today, that Marxist views can be forced to fit a Procrustean imperialist bed and made to appear to be Leftist justifications for supporting one’s own bourgeoisie. Lenin, who Achcar claims to have a sound knowledge of, called this social imperialism—socialism in words, imperialism in practice. It’s a label that fits Achcar’s views to a tee.

I believe that a number of Achcar’s positions on Libya and Syria (most, essentially US State Department positions) are mistaken. Below is a look at some of them.

Libya

While his views may have changed since, in the late winter of 2011 Achcar described the Libyan rebels as a progressive force. “What unites all the disparate forces (of the opposition to Gaddafi) is a rejection of the dictatorship and a longing for democracy and human rights,” he said. [19] Of course, we know today that the rebels did not yearn for democracy and human rights, and that the only dictatorship they opposed was a secular one. Neither do the rebels in Syria yearn for democracy and human rights. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US National Security Adviser and a principal figure in the influential Council on Foreign Relations put it: “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.” [20] The preference for the rebels in Libya was, as it is for rebels today in Syria, a dictatorship of the Quran, or at least their version of it. Dismissing the idea that the uprising was Islamist in character, Achcar argued that Gaddafi’s implicating al-Qaeda in the uprising “was his way of trying to get the support of the West” [21]. Achcar was clear on what position the Left should take: We “should support the victory of the Libyan democratic uprising,” [22] he said.

Gaddafi, as it turned out, had a firmer grasp on what was happening in Libya than Achcar did. The late Libyan leader, murdered at the hands of rebels Achcar urged the Left to support, 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.” [23]

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 were making it out to be. Indeed, from the very first day of the revolt, anyone equipped with knowledge of Libyan history 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. [24]

“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.” [25] As they stormed government sites, the rampaging demonstrators didn’t chant, “We want democracy”, “We want human rights”, or “No to dictatorship,” as Achcar might lead us to believe. Instead, they chanted “‘No God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of Allah’.” [26]

Achcar vehemently denies that he supported intervention in Libya, but this is true only if intervention is defined as Western boots on the ground. Achcar was clear in 2011 that he was opposed to NATO ground forces entering Libya. But then so too was NATO. What Achcar did support was Western powers arming the opposition and neutralizing the Libyan air force—also NATO’s position.

Achcar’s position on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 establishing a no-fly zone over Libya was an exercise in double-talk. He acknowledged that the resolution could be used by Western powers to pursue their own agendas in Libya. “Now there are not enough safeguards in the wording of the resolution to bar its use for imperialist purposes,” [27] he concluded. All the same, he urged the Left not to come “out against the no-fly zone” but instead to “make sure” the Western powers “don’t go beyond protecting civilians.” How the Left was to do this, once the no-fly zone was in place, was never said, and why anyone would want to stop NATO from carrying on until Gaddafi was toppled was unclear, given that Achcar had described the Libyan leader and his government as thoroughly repugnant and hardly one any self-respecting Leftist should like to see survive. Indeed, it was clear than Achcar fervently hoped for Gaddafi’s demise. Achcar wrote:

“Does it mean that we had and have to support UNSC resolution 1973? Not at all. This was a very bad and dangerous resolution, precisely because it didn’t define enough safeguards against transgressing the mandate of protecting the Libyan civilians. The resolution leaves too much room for interpretation, and could be used to push forward an imperialist agenda going beyond protection into meddling into Libya’s political future. It could not be supported, but must be criticized for its ambiguities. But neither should it be opposed.” [28]

It should not be supported, but neither should it be opposed?! Perhaps, Achcar thought he was being clever. If NATO abused the resolution (as he thought it might) and a disaster ensued he could say “I predicted this, and never supported the resolution.” On the other hand, by counseling the Left not to oppose the no-fly zone, he was effectively calling for the absence of any obstacle to its implementation— in other words, supporting it, while claiming not to.

Achcar vehemently denies that he “supported intervention in Libya,” calling this “a canard.” “I never supported the intervention in Libya” he told Amy Goodman. “This is a falsity which has been spread all the time.” In Achcar’s recounting, “As soon as the siege of (Benghazi) was broken and there was no longer any threat, I said, I mean, I’m against the bombing…” [29] But Achcar’s criterion for when NATO’s bombing (that is, its direct intervention) should end was when the Libyan air force was neutralized, or more specifically when Libyan forces were so thoroughly weakened that they could no longer win a war against the rebels. Explained Achcar at the time: “It remains morally and politically wrong to demand the lifting of the no-fly zone—unless Gaddafi is no longer able to use his air force. Short of that, lifting the no-fly zone would mean a victory for Gaddafi” (emphasis added.) [30]

Achcar, then, did support intervention in Libya, despite all his vehement denials to Amy Goodman. He supported the direct intervention of Western warplanes to neutralize the Libyan air force in order to prevent “a victory for Gaddafi.” This was more than simply supporting a no fly zone to protect civilians. It was supporting bombing (that is, direct intervention) to tilt the war in favor of the rebels. As it turned out, Canadian pilots who participated in the direct intervention acknowledged privately that they were “al-Qaeda’s air force,” [31] supporting rebels who Achcar claimed falsely weren’t Islamists.

As he was railing against the lifting of the no-fly zone until the possibility of a Gaddafi victory was eliminated, and as NATO was intervening directly through a bombing campaign to accomplish this end, Achcar was hypocritically mouthing anti-imperialist shibboleths. “I mean, I’m against…direct intervention, because I know that the United States and its allies, when they intervene anyway, even if it is on the side of a popular revolt, it would be to control it, to try to steer it to their own interests. And that’s why I’m against them intervening directly.” [32] It might be pointed out that there’s no reason to believe that direct intervention is any more likely to be used to control and steer a popular revolt than is indirect intervention. Are rebels who are funded, trained and armed by Washington any less likely to be steered toward satisfying the agenda of their patron than those who receive direct battlefield support? Achcar’s distinction, then, between direct and indirect intervention is confused, to say the least, and on two levels. First, defining direct intervention as only “boots on the ground” is far too narrow. The violation of Libyan airspace by NATO warplanes was clearly a direct intervention, and clearly supported by Achcar. Secondly, indirect intervention is no less driven by imperialist ambition to control the forces on whose side the intervention is undertaken than is direct intervention. Direct or not, it’s still intervention, and it’s not done without the expectation of a pay off.

Syria

In a 17 December 2015 interview in Jacobin, interviewer Nada Matta asked Achcar, “Why are so many in the global Left confused over Syria? The Syrian regime is extremely oppressive and sectarian, and yet the Syrian revolution has not received the support that others have.”

Matta’s question itself reveals confusion over Syria. Embedded within it are a few untenable assumptions: that the Syrian government is a “regime”; that it is “extremely oppressive;” and that it is “sectarian.” But Achcar doesn’t object, and replies this way: Because “those who don’t know the history of the region think that because the Syrian regime is allied to Iran and to the Lebanese Hezbollah, it is anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist.” He then proceeds to tell us that the Syrian government is neither of these things. Indeed, says Achcar, “there is strictly nothing anti-imperialist about the Assad regime.” [33]

One might wonder whether Achcar has invested “anti-imperialism” with the kind of idiosyncratic meaning he’s given the phrase “direct intervention;” perhaps something like, “any government I don’t like cannot be anti-imperialist or anti-Zionist,” irrespective of its actual behavior.

The Syrian government defines itself as anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist, as evidenced by the preamble of the 2012 constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic, written under Assad’s leadership in response to the uprising and ratified by referendum. Syria is “the beating heart of Arabism, 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.” [34] One can dismiss this as cant, but explaining why such cant has been adopted by the Syrian government, in a world where the balance of power favors governments that capitulate to imperialist demands and accept the Zionist conquest of Palestine and the Golan Heights, is a far more difficult challenge, and one Achcar fails to rise to. Explaining, too, why Assad is loathed in Israel and opposed by the imperialists, and has been since well before the uprising of 2011—let’s not forget that Syria was designated in 2003 as part of a junior varsity axis of evil by the Bush administration and targeted for regime change—is no less challenging. Still, far from being anti-imperialist, Achcar assures us that the Syrian government is “a purely opportunistic mafia-like regime pursuing its own interest.” [35] Well, every government can be described in more or less the same terms, its interests varying depending on the class that dominates the state, and that this is so should hardly be a foreign idea to Marxists. The Obama administration is clearly a purely opportunistic mafia-like regime pursuing the interests of the dominant financial sector of the US capitalist class. Assad’s government pursues the interests of Syrian Arabs, and secondarily, the Arab nation, and the dominant economic class within it. It is not a Marxist government, privileging the working class; it is a secular Arab nationalist government. Indeed, the Syrian constitution forbids the formation of political parties based on class (as well as religion, gender, tribe, region, race, color and occupation [36]), consistent with a secular Arab nationalist orientation which emphasizes national identification over that of class and other groupings and liberation from the weight of a colonial past and defense against the predations of an imperialist present, rather than defense against capitalist exploitation. Therein may lie the reason the global Left is divided over Syria, namely, because it is already divided over the question of whether its allegiance is to all anti-imperialist governments, regardless of their class character, or only those that are working-class-led (combined with hostility to those that aren’t.)

Achcar further slanders the Syrian government, describing it as “one of the most despotic regimes in the region practicing extremely brutal repression.” [37] I use the word “slander,” not to deny that the Syrian government has been brutally repressive at times. It has been, though one would be hard pressed to name a single government that hasn’t at some point been despotic and brutally repressive in the face of existential threats, not to mention the United States, which has been despotic and brutally repressive even in the face of mild and virtually non-existent threats. During two world wars the United States centralized decision-making authority in the presidency to an extent that made the president a virtual dictator, and interned Japanese, German and Italian citizens, even though the safety of the United States was virtually assured by two vast oceans which separated it from its enemies. US economic, conventional and proxy warfare has been carried out throughout the world to brutally repress socialist, communist and national liberation movements that posed not even the mildest threat to the security of US borders or US citizens. Yet it is doubtful that Achcar would ever unreservedly launch a diatribe against US governments, denouncing them as mafia regimes that have practiced extremely brutal repression, but appears to have no reservations, and if anything, to delight, in unqualified denunciations of the Syrian government, all the while failing to acknowledge that states, by definition, are repressive in one way or another, and the more thoroughly threatened, the more repressive they are; and that, additionally, Syria has faced since its independence an unremittingly precarious security situation, beset by multiple existential threats, from Israel, the West, the reactionary Gulf states, and militant Islam, and multiple attempts by the United States to overthrow governments in Damascus. But even beyond this, what is additionally objectionable about Achcar’s characterization is its obvious hyperbole, since anyone of an unbiased mind will know that the despotic and repressive character of a number of governments in the region, from Saudi Arabia, to Bahrain, to Jordan, to Egypt, and Israel, are at least comparable to that of Syria, if not on an altogether different plane. Achcar is clearly way off base in describing Syria, a republic with an elected president and elected legislature as one of the most despotic regimes in a region that includes the Saudi autocracy, with its official misogyny, decapitations and amputations, and almost total abhorrence of representative democracy.

To the list of failings Achcar sees the Syrian government possessing, we must add its alleged embrace of neo-liberalism. “The Syrian regime has been implementing thorough neoliberal changes over the last 15 years with very visible results,” says Achcar. [38] This, however, hardly fits the reality. Odd would be a neo-liberal regime that wrote the following into its country’s constitution, as the Syrian government has its constitution: “Natural resources, facilities, institutions and utilities shall be publicly owned, and the state shall invest and oversee their management for the benefit of all people.” [39] Equally at odds with Achcar’s characterization of the economic policies of the Syrian government is the following: The U.S. State Department complains that Syria has “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, has failed to follow the neo-liberal prescription of turning over its state-owned enterprises to private investors. The State Department is aggrieved that “ideological reasons” continue to prevent the Assad government from liberalizing Syria’s economy. As a result of the Ba’athists’ ideological fixation on socialism, “privatization of government enterprises is still not widespread.” The economy “remains highly controlled by the government.” [40]

The neo-liberally-inclined Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation are equally displeased. “Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, has failed to deliver on promises to reform Syria’s socialist economy,” they complain.

Moreover,

The state dominates many areas of economic activity, and…marginalizes the private sector and prevents the sustainable development of new enterprises or industries. Monetary freedom has been gravely marred by state price controls and interference…[H]eavy state intervention, continues to retard entrepreneurial activity… Labor regulations are rigid, and the labor market suffers from state interference and control…[S]ystemic non-tariff barriers severely constrain freedom to trade. Private investment is deterred by heavy bureaucracy, direct state interference, and political instability. Although the number of private banks has increased steadily since they were first permitted in 2004, government influence in the financial sector remains extensive.” [41]

The U.S. Library of Congress country study of Syria refers to “the socialist structure of the government and economy,” points out that “the government continues to control strategic industries,” mentions that “many citizens have access to subsidized public housing and many basic commodities are heavily subsidized,” and that “senior regime members” have “hampered” the liberalization of the economy. [42] This sounds far from neo-liberalism.

If the Syrian government is not anti-Zionist, is not anti-imperialist, and has embraced neo-liberalism, it is difficult to understand how it is that foreign policy decision-makers in Washington have taken such an obvious dislike to it. Surely, a neo-liberal, pro-imperialist, non-anti-Zionist government in Syria would be defended and nurtured by Washington, as other Arab governments of the same ilk have been. That’s not to say that the Syrian government ought to be defended simply because it’s opposed by Western powers and Israel. But if the Syrian government is all that Achcar says it is, how are we to explain the hostility to the Syrian government of the pro-imperialist, pro-Zionist, neo-liberal centers of the world? It’s difficult, then, not to conclude that Achcar has deliberately set out to blacken the reputation of the Syrian government through a series of mischaracterization in order to portray it as the sort of government that Leftists could not possibly support. The problem is that his logic is tortured and premises are mistaken.

Equally tortured is Achcar’s logic with regard to the nature of the Syrian opposition, and equally fallacious are his premises. He pursues his usual tactic of making an argument based on two mutually contradictory claims. “In order to justify their support for the Assad regime, some people argue that the Syrian uprising, unlike other Arab countries, was led by reactionary Islamic forces,” he observes, before telling us: “This again is completely untrue…the basic fact is that there have been popular uprisings across the region.” [43] And yet Achcar grudgingly acknowledges that “Islamic fundamentalist forces (have) managed to become dominant among the organized forces.” [44] The apparent contradiction is resolved by arguing that reactionary Islamist forces did not initiate the uprising, but soon after moved into the vanguard. However, the question of whether militant Islamists were absent at the beginning of the uprising is a moot point, but let’s accept for the moment that they were. In that case, we’re still faced with the reality that the uprising is dominated today, and has been for some time, by al-Qaeda-linked militants. The question of why this is so—Achcar favors the view that it is due to the “weakness of the Left” [45]—is of no relevance whatever to the questions of whether the opposition ought to be supported, whether the global Left in supporting Damascus is confused, and whether Syria will be a better or worse place should the Assad government yield to the reactionary opposition that Achcar urges the global Left to support.

In a further instance of congruence with the US State Department positions, Achcar embraces a sectarian understanding of the conflict in Syria, much favored not only in Washington but in Riyadh as well, which amounts to the invoking of religious identity to mobilize militants for profane ends, in this case, the elimination of a secular Arab nationalist government which stands in the way of almost total US hegemony in the Arab world. Asked by interviewer Matta, “Aren’t the fighters on the ground in their vast majority Syrians who are fighting the dictatorship?” Achcar replies: “They are indeed.” He continues:

It’s out of the question that you could defeat ISIS through any alliance with Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, because that’s precisely what ISIS is pretending, that they are fighting all these people in defense of the Sunnis. So you need people who are seen as representing the overwhelming majority of the Syrian population, who are—who belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, and are seen as such, as representing this. [46]

But the majority of people in Syria are Sunni, including, not only the armed opposition, but also the Syrian Arab Army, and Assad’s wife. [47] The conflict is not one between Sunnis on the one hand and Shiites and Alawis on the other, but between religious fundamentalists, who seek to impose a sectarian religious dictatorship on the country, and non-sectarian Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the army, and are defending a vision of non-sectarian secular government. This isn’t a fight between an Alawite dictatorship that oppresses a Sunni majority, but between non-sectarian secularists and sectarian fanatics.

Compounding their mischaracterizations, Matta and Achcar continually refer to the Syrian government as a dictatorship. This is totally false. Syria is a republic, with authority divided among legislative, judicial and executive branches of government. Members of the legislature are elected. Assad, the president, was elected in a multi-candidate election in 2014. Calling the Syrian government a dictatorship is about as meaningful as defining intervention as nothing more than boots on the ground. It either reveals an ignorance of what’s really going on in Syria, sloppy analysis, or an attempt to mislead.

In addition to his other errors, Achcar embraces a position that Western leaders have tried to advance without success, for lack of evidence, and to much derision. “And that’s the opposition,” says Achcar, “I mean, the only force representing (the Sunnis) is this group of opposition forces, which are fighting Assad and fighting ISIS at the same time.” [48] Anyone who has followed events in Syria since 2011 will know that there is no opposition force of significance fighting both the Syrian government and ISIS, and that efforts to suggest there is have been regularly met with deserved disdain. The latest high profile attempt to propagate this nonsense was that of British prime minister David Cameron who claimed that there are 70,000 “moderate” rebels in Syria. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk estimates that at best there are 700, and more likely only 70. [49]

Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn writes:

Western leaders have said they do not have to choose between IS and Assad, because there is a moderate opposition prepared to fight both. The mythical nature of this claim was revealed earlier this year when a US general admitted that it had just four such ‘moderate’ fighters in Syria after spending $500 million in training them. Others had either defected to Jabhat al-Nusra or been murdered by it. [50]

Note that just about the only people claiming that there is a moderate opposition prepared to fight both ISIS and Assad are Western leaders and Achcar. Even the CIA estimated that just 1,500 militants “might be labelled moderate, but only operate under license from the extreme jihadists.” [51] And the extreme jihadists are fighting the Syrian Arab Army, not themselves.

But wait! Achcar appears, after all, to agree with Fisk that there are no moderate rebels in Syria fighting both the Syrian Arab Army and militant Islamists. Coming to his senses, he acknowledges that the main battle is between the government and sectarian theocrats: “The end result in Syria is indeed that the situation is dominated by a clash between two…forces: on one side, the regime and its allies, and, on the other side, an armed opposition in which the dominant forces uphold political perspectives that are deeply contradictory with the initial progressive aspirations of the uprisings as expressed in 2011.” [52]

That the main forces in the battle are both, in Achcar’s words, “counter-revolutionary,” means, according to the failed Libya analyst, that at “this moment, there are no prospects whatsoever for a progressive outcome.” [53] Syria getting out from under the yoke of domination by outside forces and eradicating the menace of murderous sectarian fanaticism doesn’t count as a progressive outcome in Achcar’s book. Instead, “the best that can happen,” he says is that “Assad must go.” [54] Predictably, on this score, Achcar agrees with the US State Department.

But with what or who is Assad to be replaced?

On this question, Achcar becomes vague and departs from the US State Department line, but his argument appears to be this: If Assad’s secular, non-sectarian government steps down, it will be replaced by Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. The strength of the Islamist fundamentalists lies in Assad’s oppression of Sunnis (or what Achcar mistakenly sees as such.) With the source of the oppression removed, support for Islamic fundamentalism will dry up, and “people will see the vanity of both camps who have no solutions for the country’s problems.” [55] At that point, a progressive democratic movement will flourish.

To get there, Achcar advocates “serious support to the opposition, giving it the means seriously to defend itself, and again, especially with regard to airstrikes.” [56] Of course, this means serious support to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist forces. Achcar would rather see Baghdadi in Damascus than Assad. For Achcar, eliminating secular, non-sectarian Arab nationalists is more important than preventing the rise of Sunni jihadists prepared to exterminate en masse apostates and infidels. And this from the ‘anti-imperialist’ who claims to have supported NATO’s direct intervention in Libya out of concern for the possibility that civilians might be massacred by the Libyan air force, but is prepared to support the massacre of the Alawite, Christian, Druze, and Kurdish populations of Syria, as surely these and other minorities would be massacred by the sectarian madmen Achcar urges Western powers to “give serious support to,” backed by a global Left he hopes to seduce to his morally bankrupt and politically offensive views. In this, Achcar is even more repellent than are Western leaders, for even they have no wish to bring the murderous sectarian fanatics of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS to power in Damascus.

To grasp the kind of Syria Achcar is willing to tolerate (easy for him to do, since he’ll never experience the miseries himself) “consider the situation in the province of Idlib, where the rebels rule.”

Schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls. Government offices were looted and a more effective government has yet to take shape. With the Talibanization of Idlib, the 100-plus Christian families of the city fled. The few Druze villages that remained have been forced to denounce their religion and embrace Islam; some of their shrines have been blown up. No religious minorities remain in rebels-held Syria, in Idlib, or elsewhere. [57]

The not so charitable view of Achcar is that he deliberately promotes US State Department talking points to the global Left by dressing them up in Leftist language as a way of undercutting opposition to the United States pursuing its hegemonic ambitions around the world. A more charitable view is that he rejects simple binary explanations in favor of recognizing a multiplicity of opposing forces in the Middle East. His schema might include four major forces: (A) secular Arab nationalists; (B) Western powers; (C) reactionary Islam; and (D) popular, democratic forces. In Achcar’s view, the secular Arab nationalists are opposed to B, C, and D; Western powers are opposed to A and D but are willing to collude with C against A and D. And popular democratic forces are opposed to A, B, and C. Achcar, it would seem, is willing to support B against A in the service of D (for example, in supporting NATO against Gaddafi or the West against Assad, to clear the way, in his view, for the eventual victory of popular, democratic forces.) However, if opportunistic alliances are permissible, we might ask why Achcar hasn’t supported secular Arab nationalists against Western imperialism and reactionary Islam in the service of popular, democratic forces? Surely, Western imperialism and reactionary Islam are significant obstacles to “the victory of a popular democratic uprising” whose clearing away might well be desired, especially in Syria where the Assad government has opened space for these very same forces to flourish through a new constitution which allows for multi-candidate presidential elections and ends the Ba’ath Party’s lead role in Syrian society. But Achcar’s deep loathing of secular Arab nationalists leads him, not only to traduce them, serving up false and invidious descriptions seemingly aimed at drawing the Left into his campaign of hatred against them, but to reliably side with Western imperialism against them, as if secular Arab nationalists are holding back the working class from leading a proletarian revolution in the Middle East and must therefore be swept away by Western powers. It’s difficult to say whether this is a crafty effort to mislead the global Left by pushing its hot buttons, or is simply the lunacy of a man in the grips of a naive fantasy. Whatever the case, the old warning should come to mind whenever the failed Libya analyst is invited to hold forth on Syria. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

1. President al-Assad: Syria won’t be a puppet state for the West “full Text”, Syrian Arab News Agency, http://sana.sy/en/?p=20381

2. Gilbert Achcar, “Libya: A legitimate and necessary debate from an anti-imperialist perspective,” Z-Net, March 24, 2011.

3. Gilbert Achcar, “Libyan Developments,” Z-Net, March 19, 2011.

4. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

5. Stephen Gowans, “Gaddafi’s crime: Making Libya’s economy work for Libyans,” what’s left, May 6, 2012.

6. Benoit Faucon, “For big oil, the Libya opening that wasn’t”, The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012.

7. Benoit Faucon, “For big oil, the Libya opening that wasn’t”, The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012.

8. Guy Chazan, “For West’s oil firms, no love lost in Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2011.

9. Guy Chazan, “For West’s oil firms, no love lost in Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2011.

10. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.

11. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011

12. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.

13. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.

14. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

15. Gilbert Achcar and Nada Matta, “What happened to the Arab Spring?”, Jacobin, December 17, 2015.

16. “Obama Touts U.S. Strikes on ISIL, But Can Military Escalation Make Up for Failed Strategy?” Democracy Now, December 15, 2015.

17. Stephen Gowans, “What the Syrian Constitution says about Assad and the Rebels,” what’s left, May 21, 2013.

18. Stephen Gowans, “Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that Bashar al-Assad has more support than the Western-backed opposition. Would that not be major news?” what’s left, December 11, 2015.

19. Achcar, March 19, 2011.

20. 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

21. Achcar, March 19, 2011.

22. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

23. Stephen Gowans, “Al-Qaeda’s Air Force”, what’s left, February 20, 2012. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/al-qaedas-air-force/

24. Ibid.

25. David Pugliese, “The Libya mission one year later: Into the unknown”, The Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2012.

26. Ibid.

27. Achcar, March 19, 2011.

28. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

29. Democracy Now.

30. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

31. Pugliese.

32. Democracy Now.

33. Jacobin.

34. “Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic – 2012”, Voltaire Network, 26 February 2012, http://www.voltairenet.org/article173033.html

35. Jacobin.

36. “Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic – 2012”, Article 8:4.

37. Jacobin.

38. Jacobin.

39. “Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic – 2012”, Article 14.

40. U.S. State Department website. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm#econ. Accessed February 8, 2012.

41. Index of Economic Freedom 2012. http://www.heritage.org/index/country/syria. Accessed February 8, 2012.

42. U.S. Library of Congress. A Country Study: Syria. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sytoc.html

43. Jacobin.

44. Jacobin.

45. Jacobin.

46. Jacobin.

47. “Mr. Assad’s wife, Asma al-Akhras, comes from a prominent family of Sunni Muslims from Homs.” Neil MacFarquhar, “Assad’s response to Syria unrest leaves his own sect divided”, The New York Times, June 9, 2012.

48. Jacobin.

49. Robert Fisk, “Is David Cameron planning to include al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra in his group of 70,000 moderates?”, The Independent, December 1, 2015.

50. Patrick Cockburn, “The West has been in denial over how to tackle the threat of Islamic state,” Evening Standard, November 19, 2015.

51. Patrick Cockburn, “Britain is on the verge of entering into a long war in Syria based on wishful thinking and poor information,” The Independent, December 1, 2015.

52. Jacobin.

53. Jacobin.

54. Jacobin.

55. Jacobin.

56. Jacobin.

57. Joshua Landis and Steven Simon, “Assad has it his way: The peace talks and after,” Foreign Affairs, January 19, 2016.

Written by what's left

December 23, 2015 at 11:07 pm

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