Archive for the ‘Libya’ Category
March 2, 2015
Canadian military intelligence knew that NATO’s March 2011 intervention in Libya would aid militant theocratic Islamists aligned with al-Qaeda and could create long-term chaos in the country, according to David Pugliese, a reporter with The Ottawa Citizen, who obtained Canadian intelligence documents.
At the time, NATO military leader, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, denied that opposition to the secular leftist Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi was dominated by rightwing Islamist theocrats, calling the bulk of the opposition forces “responsible men and women.”
But Canadian intelligence was clear-eyed about the nature of the Libyan opposition.
Pugliese revealed that “A Canadian intelligence report written in late 2009 described the anti-Gadhafi stronghold of eastern Libya,” from which the uprising against Gaddafi erupted, “as an epicentre of Islamist extremism.”
And Canadian pilots joked privately that they were part of al-Qaeda’s air force, “since their bombing runs helped to pave the way for rebels aligned with the terrorist group.”
Pugliese reports that just days before NATO’s intervention in Libya,
Canadian intelligence specialists sent a briefing report shared with senior officers. ‘There is the increasing possibility that the situation in Libya will transform into a long-term tribal/civil war,’ they wrote in their March 15, 2011 assessment. ‘This is particularly probable if opposition forces receive military assistance from foreign militaries.’
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper later denied that NATO’s intervention created the chaos that has paralyzed Libya, despite his own military’s warning that there was a good chance it would.
This reveals a dishonest attempt to manipulate public opinion through outright deception, in line with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to mobilize support for military intervention in Iran by warning in 2012 that Iran was only a year away from making a nuclear bomb when his own intelligence agency had concluded that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”.
Pugliese’s report can be read here.
By Stephen Gowans
In the January 20th New York Times, Steven Erlanger justifies the French intervention in Mali on these grounds:
• It responds to “a direct request from a legitimate government.”
• It combats “the spread of radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
Erlanger uses the word “legitimate” to describe Mali’s government. “Democratic” carries more weight, but Mali is governed by a military dictatorship, a truth one suspects Erlanger would prefer not to draw attention to. Neither does Erlanger’s report mention that Human Rights Watch accuses the Malian military of killing civilian Tuareg and Arab minorities (1). Being every bit a salesman, Erlanger presses “legitimate” into use as an inferior, though still high-sounding, surrogate for “democratic” and ignores the civilian killings. A military operation to help a legitimate government must be legitimate, right? In any event, it sounds a whole lot better than the truth, namely, that the West has mounted a military operation to prop up a dictatorship that kills its own people.
The intervention, of course, is far from legitimate. How can a French military operation in a North African country be legitimate, when not too long ago France undertook what was then called a legitimate intervention in another North African country, Libya, with the opposite aims:
• Not to support, but to topple a legitimate government;
• Not to stop the spread of radical Islam, but to help radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, overthrow a legitimate government?
In other words, the Mali operation is the very antithesis of the Libyan one. Yet, according to state officials in France, the United States and Britain, along with their jingoist Western mass media cheerleaders, both interventions are legitimate. Where the Mali intervention protects a legitimate government, the Libyan intervention toppled one. Where the Mali operation opposes radical Islamists, the Libyan operation aided them.
It can’t possibly be true that Western governments are against radical Islamists as a matter of principle, when the principal financial and ideological backer of militant Sunni Islamism, Saudi Arabia, is a treasured ally.
Nor can it be true when Western powers backed radical Islamists against:
• The leftist Afghan government in the 1980s,
• Yugoslavia’s social democracy in the 1990s,
• Gaddafi’s economic nationalism in Libya,
• Assad’s secular nationalist government in Syria.
It can’t be true that Western powers are against despots, dictators, and absolutist monarchs, when they’ve backed so many of them in the past, and continue to back them in the present, from the potentates of the Gulf Cooperation Council to the military regime in Mali.
Neither are Western powers committed to backing struggles against tyrannies as struggles against tyrannies. On countless occasions, they’ve either stood idly by as tyrannies repressed democratic rebellions, or energetically aided their autocratic allies’ efforts to crush opposition. For a recent example, we need only turn to the crackdown on the rebellion in absolutist Bahrain, assisted by the same countries which supplied arms to misnamed “democrats” in Libya and equip the Muslim Brothers and foreign jihadists in Syria. Washington has done nothing to stop the crackdown in Bahrain, let alone vigorously protested it. The British, for their part, invited the offending tyrant to the royal wedding of Kate and William.
What then is the intervention all about? Profits. According to the New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon, the West needs to intervene militarily in northern Africa because the “region is rich with oil, gas, uranium and other international ventures that clearly represent Western interests and in some cases are poorly defended” (my emphasis) (2). That natural resources in northern Africa clearly represent Western interests defies both geography and democracy. It does, however, fit imperialist logic to a tee.
Erlanger notes that the Mali intervention “has been popular” and that it commands the support of three quarters of the French, according to one poll. This is a nod to the prowess of Erlanger’s cohorts in the trade of shaping public opinion, and the superficial attention most people pay to foreign affairs. It’s also an attempt to prop up his argument that the intervention is legitimate. After all, a military operation supported by a solid majority can hardly be a base affair, corrupted by hypocrisy and crass commercial interests, can it? And if you should happen to be against the French helping an ally defend itself against jihadists, Erlanger’s letting you know you’re on the wrong side of public opinion.
“The French people are ready to support a military operation as long as the objectives are clear and seem legitimate,” a French analyst told Erlanger. Well, no, the French people are willing to support a military operation so long as no one calls upon them to risk their lives and pay higher taxes, what “support for war” used to mean. No longer. Today, support means feeling good about France and nothing more.
The French will continue to feel good about their country so long as there are few French fatalities in Mali and so long as the connection between covering the costs of the war and higher taxes, is obscured. Payment for the war must be deferred, and then concealed, preferably in tax hikes on the poor and middle class to cover (wink-wink) skyrocketing social welfare expenditures.
So here we are. Gaddafi was sneered at when he said that the rebellion that erupted against him in Benghazi was the work of radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He was just as contemptuously dismissed when he warned, “if he fell, chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa.” Now that chaos and holy war threaten to overtake a Western client, Gaddafi’s words are being treated with new respect. In death, the man once ridiculed as a buffoon has become a sage.
1. Geoffrey York, “Ethnic violence flares in Mali”, The Globe and Mail, January 21, 2013
2. Michael R. Gordon, “North Africa is a new test”, The New York Times, January 20, 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.
The next time that empire comes calling in the name of human rights, please be found standing idly by
By Stephen Gowans
Maximilian C. Forte’s new book Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (released November 20) is a searing indictment of NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya, and of the North American and European left that supported it. He argues that NATO powers, with the help of the Western left who “played a supporting role by making substantial room for the dominant U.S. narrative and its military policies,” marshalled support for their intervention by creating a fiction that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was about to carry out a massacre against a popular, pro-democracy uprising, and that the world could not stand idly by and watch a genocide unfold.
Forte takes this view apart, showing that a massacre was never in the cards, much less genocide. Gaddafi didn’t threaten to hunt down civilians, only those who had taken up armed insurrection—and he offered rebels amnesty if they laid down their arms. What’s more, Gaddafi didn’t have the military firepower to lay siege to Benghazi (site of the initial uprising) and hunt down civilians from house to house. Nor did his forces carry out massacres in the towns they recaptured…something that cannot be said for the rebels.
Citing mainstream media reports that CIA and British SAS operatives were already on the ground “either before or at the very same time as (British prime minister David) Cameron and (then French president Nicolas) Sarkozy began to call for military intervention in Libya”, Forte raises “the possibility that Western powers were at least waiting for the first opportunity to intervene in Libya to commit regime change under the cover of a local uprising.” And he adds, they were doing so “without any hesitation to ponder what if any real threats to civilians might have been.” Gaddafi, a fierce opponent of fundamentalist Wahhabist/Salafist Islam “faced several armed uprisings and coup attempts before— and in the West there was no public clamor for his head when he crushed them.” (The same, too, can be said of the numerous uprisings and assassination attempts carried out by the Syrian Muslim Brothers against the Assads, all of which were crushed without raising much of an outcry in the West, until now.)
Rejecting a single factor explanation that NATO intervened to secure access to Libyan oil, Forte presents a multi-factorial account, which invokes elements of the hunt for profits, economic competition with China and Russia, and establishing US hegemony in Africa. Among the gains of the intervention, writes Forte, were:
1) increased access for U.S. corporations to massive Libyan expenditures on infrastructure development (and now reconstruction), from which U.S. corporations had frequently been locked out when Gaddafi was in power; 2) warding off any increased acquisition of Libyan oil contracts by Chinese and Russian firms; 3) ensuring that a friendly regime was in place that was not influenced by ideas of “resource nationalism;” 4) increasing the presence of AFRICOM in African affairs, in an attempt to substitute for the African Union and to entirely displace the Libyan-led Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD); 5) expanding the U.S. hold on key geostrategic locations and resources; 6) promoting U.S. claims to be serious about freedom, democracy, and human rights, and of being on the side of the people of Africa, as a benign benefactor; 7) politically stabilizing the North African region in a way that locked out opponents of the U.S.; and, 8) drafting other nations to undertake the work of defending and advancing U.S. political and economic interests, under the guise of humanitarianism and protecting civilians.
Forte challenges the view that Gaddafi was in bed with the West as a “strange view of romance.” It might be more aptly said, he counters, that the United States was in bed with Libya on the fight against Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorists, since “Libya led by Gaddafi (had) fought against Al Qaeda years before it became public enemy number one in the U.S.” Indeed, years “before Bin Laden became a household name in the West, Libya issued an arrest warrant for his capture.” Gaddafi was happy to enlist Washington’s help in crushing a persistent threat to his secular rule.
Moreover, the bed in which Libya and the United States found themselves was hardly a comfortable one. Gaddafi complained bitterly to US officials that the benefits he was promised for ending Libya’s WMD program and capitulating on the Lockerbie prosecution were not forthcoming. And the US State Department and US corporations, for their part, complained bitterly of Gaddafi’s “resource nationalism” and attempts to “Libyanize” the economy. One of the lessons the NATO intervention has taught is that countries that want to maintain some measure of independence from Washington are well advised not to surrender the threat of self-defense.
Forte, to use his own words, gives the devil his due, noting that:
Gaddafi was a remarkable and unique exception among the whole range of modern Arab leaders, for being doggedly altruistic, for funding development programs in dozens of needy nations, for supporting national liberation struggles that had nothing to do with Islam or the Arab world, for pursuing an ideology that was original and not simply the product of received tradition or mimesis of exogenous sources, and for making Libya a presence on the world stage in a way that was completely out of proportion with its population size.
He points out as well that “Libya had reaped international isolation for the sake of supporting the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the African National Congress (ANC)”, which, once each of these organizations had made their own separate peace, left Libya behind continuing to fight.
Forte invokes Sirte in the title of his book to expose the lie that NATO’s intervention was motivated by humanitarianism and saving lives. “Sirte, once promoted by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi as a possible capital of a future United States of Africa, and one of the strongest bases of support for the revolution he led, was found to be in near total ruin by visiting journalists who came after the end of the bombing campaign by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). “ This,” observes Forte, “is what ‘protecting civilians’ actually looks like, and it looks like crimes against humanity.” “The only lives the U.S. was interested in saving,” he argues “were those of the insurgents, saving them so they could defeat Gaddafi.” And yet “the slaughter in Sirte…barely raised an eyebrow among the kinds of Western audiences and opinion leaders who just a few months before clamored for ‘humanitarian intervention.’”
Among those who clamored for humanitarian intervention were members of the “North American and European left—reconditioned, accommodating, and fearful—(who) played a supporting role by making substantial room for the dominant U.S. narrative and its military policies.” While Forte doesn’t name names, except for a reference to Noam Chomsky, whom he criticizes for “poor judgment and flawed analyses” for supporting “the no-fly zone intervention and the rebellion as ‘wonderful’ and ‘liberation’”, self-proclaimed Africa expert Patrick Bond may be emblematic of the left Forte excoriates. Soon after the uprising began, Bond wrote on his Z-Space that “Gaddafi may try to hang on, with his small band of loyalists allegedly bolstered by sub-Saharan African mercenaries – potentially including Zimbabweans, according to Harare media – helping Gaddafi for a $16,000 payoff each.” This was a complete fiction, but one Bond fell for eagerly, and then proceeded to propagate with zeal, without regard to the consequences. As Forte notes, “the only massacre to have occurred anywhere near Benghazi was the massacre of innocent black African migrant workers and black Libyans falsely accused of being ‘mercenaries’” by the likes of Bond.
Forte also aims a stinging rebuke at those who treated anti-imperialism as a bad word. “Throughout this debacle, anti-imperialism has been scourged as if it were a threat greater than the West’s global military domination, as if anti-imperialism had given us any of the horrors of war witnessed thus far this century. Anti-imperialism was treated in public debate in North America as the province of political lepers.” This calls to mind opprobrious leftist figures who discovered a fondness for the obloquy “mechanical anti-imperialists” which they hurdled with great gusto at anti-imperialist opponents of the NATO intervention.
“NATO’s intervention did not stop armed conflict in Libya,” observes Forte—it continues to the present. “Massacres were not prevented, they were enabled, and many occurred after NATO intervened and because NATO intervened.” It is for these reasons he urges readers to stand idly by the next time that empire comes calling in the name of human rights.
Slouching Towards Sirte is a penetrating critique, not only of the NATO intervention in Libya, but of the concept of humanitarian intervention and imperialism in our time. It is the definitive treatment of NATO’s war on Libya. It is difficult to imagine it will be surpassed.
Maximilian C. Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa, Baraka Books, Montreal, ISBN 978-1-926824-52-9. Available November 20, 2012. http://www.barakabooks.com/
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. https://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. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/women%e2%80%99s-rights-in-afghanistan/