After NATO overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, a question raised by media outlets is whether Syria will be “Libya 2.0?” Will the imperialists succeed in removing another nationalist state and replacing it with a client one?
On Aug. 18, President Obama called on Syrian President Bashar-al Assad to step down. European leaders have joined the calls for Assad’s ouster. On Sept. 2, the European Union banned all crude oil imports from Syria. As the EU is Syria’s main trading partner, the oil embargo is far more severe than the earlier sanctions, which mainly placed travel restrictions on Syrian officials. The sanctions and the embargo are implemented to impose a severe economic crisis on Syria.
NATO member and Syria’s neighbor Turkey has joined in, with Turkish President Abdullah Gul stating: “We’ve lost our confidence” in Assad. In addition, the Arab League, comprised mainly of U.S. client states, has called on the Syrian regime “to follow the way of reason before it is too late.”
The same line-up of international forces that called for the overthrow of the Libyan government, and eventually overthrew it through NATO’s military campaign, is now lined up against the Syrian regime.
Since March, Syria has been the scene of rallies and armed attacks against the Ba’ath Party regime headed by Assad. Long before the demonstrations, Syria was targeted for regime change by the U.S. government and its imperialist allies. This is why the business media quickly labeled the rallies as “pro-democracy,” a characterization signaling that the attempt to overthrow the regime meets the approval of the imperialists.
Whatever the term “pro-democracy” means, it is not an accurate summary of the opposition, which is a heterogeneous mix of various forces. The people who have joined large rallies have actually had different, and sometimes contradictory, political demands.
There are those demonstrators, led or influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, who oppose the secular nature of the rule of the Ba’ath Party and are fighting for the establishment of a Sunni Islamic state. There are Kurds who are protesting the underdevelopment and impoverishment of predominantly Kurdish areas of the country. There are those, heavily represented among bloggers and tweeters, who favor a pro-Western regime.
Many have grievances against economic problems, brought about by corruption of the people in and around the regime, and exacerbated by the world capitalist economic crisis. And all of those in opposition have grievances against the regime’s repressive apparatus, which has a reputation for being ruthless.
Opposition to the regime is stronger in certain regions and cities, such as the southern city of Dara and the Kurdish areas in the northeast. The opposition also appears to be stronger among Sunni Muslims, far less so among Christians and Alawites. In some instances, opposition actions appear to be well-organized, as evident by the launching of armed attacks against the regime. In others, it is simply unarmed people walking out of mosques and forming spontaneous protests.
There is no clear leadership among the opposition forces. Imperialist leaders are ever conscious that, irrespective of the demands and grievances of individual demonstrators, the determining factor is the leadership of a movement, not the sentiments of the rank and file. This is why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said, “Just as we have done in Libya, we are also encouraging the Syrian opposition to set forth their own roadmap.”
NATO did, in fact, encourage the Libyan opposition to set forth a roadmap. But the roadmap was not as much their own as it was that of the imperialist powers. The true function of the new government was aptly described by a Reuters article: “A new Libyan government could herald a bonanza for Western companies and investors.”
Another National Transitional Council, another media campaign
NATO leaders should have taken heart at developments on Aug. 23. A group of opposition figures met in Ankara, Turkey, and announced the formation of the “Syrian National Transitional Council.” The group chose 94 people as members of the council, most of whom live abroad, including the group’s leader, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, a university professor living in Paris.
There were statements from opposition figures within Syria protesting the fact that the group had little grassroots basis within Syria. However, reaction from imperialist states indicated a high level of satisfaction with the formation of this group.
The fact that the group chose the name National Transitional Council is no accident. This is the name that the Libyan pro-imperialist opposition chose for itself. The Libyan National Transitional Council’s signature political characteristic was inviting an imperialist invasion. First, it called for a NATO intervention. Then, realizing that the rebels’ contribution to the overthrow of the regime would be minimal, it called for a more intense bombing of the country. Finally, the NTC turned itself into the foot soldiers of the imperialists, officially serving under the command of NATO.
By choosing the same name, the Syrian National Transitional Council is signaling its pro-imperialist political character.
As might be expected, mainstream media portrayal of the situation in Syria has been nothing less than an intense propaganda campaign.
Al Jazeera, reflecting the class interests of its funders, the ruling class of Qatar, has led the propaganda charge against the Syrian regime. Al Jazeera’s coverage of events in Libya has been even more pro-NATO than networks such as CNN and BBC. Qatar was the only Arab country that actually had forces and military equipment on the ground in Libya, directly contributing to the NATO intervention.
The image one gets from the business media’s coverage of Syria is one of a revolution intensifying by the day and extending deeper and deeper into all sectors of Syrian society. The Syrian state is depicted as being on the verge of collapse.
In fact, even judging by the specifics of the reports from sources supportive of the opposition, the size of demonstrations and rallies have significantly subsided. It is certainly true that the opposition is still active, particularly in certain parts of the country. It is also true that the Syrian state is going through a serious crisis. But developments of the past few months suggest that, without foreign intervention, the regime in Damascus is highly unlikely to collapse under the force of the demonstrations. From the imperialist point of view, this makes intervention all the more necessary.
Pierre Piccinin, a Belgian professor who visited Syria in July to study the developments, characterizes the Western media’s reports of Syrian demonstrations as disinformation. He wrote about his visit to Hama, the center of opposition, and about spending time among the people there. On July 15, Piccinin witnessed an opposition demonstration and even had a chance to observe it from a high-rise in the area. He estimated the crowd to be a maximum of 10,000. That same night, he received a feed from AFP reporting 500,000 demonstrators in Hama. Piccinin also reports that he was “able to roam the country at liberty,” including in “all places where the media had signaled outbursts of violence.” Piccinin continued: “I was surprised that the image of Syria, portrayed by the Western media as a country undergoing full-scale revolution, does not correspond in any way whatsoever to the reality of the situation.”
The business media’s favorite portrayal of a complex array of forces, where people display a variety of tendencies and loyalties, is a childishly simplified image of “the people vs. Assad.” This is a repeat of the propaganda tactic used in Libya, whereby the people of the world were deliberately misled into believing that Gaddafi had no popular support and that the people were uniformly behind the Benghazi rebels. This image was obviously refuted by the million-strong anti-NATO rally in Tripoli on July 1, not to mention the steadfast resistance of those fighting for Libyan sovereignty against the NATO onslaught.
While it is hard to determine the percentage of the Syrian people who support the regime, it is unquestionably true that the Assad regime has some base of popular support. Support and opposition to the regime also crosses class lines. Even the New York Times acknowledged that “Mr. Assad still enjoys support in Syria.” Asia News reported a June 15 rally of hundreds of thousands in Damascus in support of Assad’s government. On June 21, Salon.com reported that tens of thousands of people converged on Syria’s main city squares, waving flags and pictures of Bashar al-Assad.
There have even been pro-government demonstrations abroad, as in late May at an opposition meeting in Antalya, Turkey. The Turkish publication Today’s Zaman reported, “The Antalya meeting also stirred reactions from a few hundred Syrians who staged a demonstration in support of Assad with banners in front of the hotel that hosted the conference.”
To imperialism, not all states are alike
The “people vs. Assad” narrative of Syria is no more accurate than was the “people vs. Gaddafi” narrative of Libya. But in both cases, as in all cases when the imperialists have targeted a country for regime change, the narrative serves the purpose of minimizing public opposition in the imperialist countries to military intervention. “Surely, we have to do something” is the reaction elicited by the demonization campaign.
It is common to lump together uprisings in all Arab countries, characterizing all such movements as “people vs. autocrats.” But the fact is that uprisings have occurred in states with different characters: client and nationalist, of which Libya and Syria are examples. If this distinction is not enough to impress liberals in the United States, it is more than sufficient to determine imperialist strategy towards these states. The fundamental difference of the approach of the United States and its allies towards the two different types of states is obvious.
As one example, in the kingdom of Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, opposition mass demonstrations were violently suppressed, not just by the Bahraini police and army, but with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia, another U.S. client state. The U.S. government and its European allies did not call for Bahrain’s king and princes to step down, nor did they urge its leaders to respect the people’s will. They did not place Bahrain under sanctions or charge the Khalifa royal family with human rights violations.
The Bahraini opposition could much more easily have been called a pro-democracy movement, given that the royal family directly controls all aspects of government and has no democratic pretenses, especially to the oppressed majority Shi’a population of the country. Nor did Washington call for an end to Saudi meddling in Bahraini affairs. Instead, at the height of the bloodbath, imperialist leaders called on both sides to “exercise restraint”—the two sides being the unarmed demonstrators and the military shooting at them.
When mass protests break out in client states, the Western approach is to support the repressive regime as long as safely possible, and when change becomes inevitable to sacrifice the client leaders while attempting to save the system. In contrast, imperialists greet mass protests in independent states by immediately calling for the leaders to step down, imposing sanctions and making threats of military invasion, a threat that all too often is carried out.
The stakes are high in Syria. Syria is not only one of few independent states in the region. It is also one of the few supporters of Palestinian resistance and of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Syria is an ally of the Iranian government. The United States and Israel would like nothing more than the toppling of the Syrian regime and replacing it with a client, a Libya 2.0.
The conflict is a complex one that does not offer the simple choice of progressive versus reactionary. But it is necessary for progressives and revolutionaries in the United States to have a comprehensive understanding of the dynamic and evolving lineup of forces in Syria.
Our task, first and foremost, is to oppose imperialist-imposed sanctions and military intervention in Syria. A U.S./NATO intervention will not result in gains for the Syrian people, or for the people of the region struggling for independence against the United States and its regional watchdog, Israel.
The future of Syria must be determined by Syrians and Syrians only. U.S./NATO hands off Syria!
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