On Syria Crisis and Prospects

Against the Current, No. 167, November/December 2013

Val Moghadam

IF A U.S. bombing campaign against Syria takes place, what do you think would be its real objectives, and the likely consequences? And what would be the worst or most dangerous possibilities?

ONE CONSEQUENCE COULD be to hit the final nail in the coffin of U.S. global hegemony and legitimacy. Another could be the destruction of a once-stable country and the ascendancy of warring political factions — very much like the result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

For some decades, the United States has been undergoing a decline in its economic power relative to other countries in the world economy, and its global moral authority and political leadership have dissipated. To reassert its authority and to stimulate the military-industrial complex, the United States periodically engages in military adventures abroad.

U.S. governments generally do not believe in multilateralism, which is why they refuse to sign on to many international agreements (such as the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court), and they prefer to conduct foreign affairs unilaterally, sometimes with the veneer of mobilizing a “coalition” of sorts. What is never part of the equation is the impact on ordinary citizens, or the longer-term consequence on socio-economic development, or the regional balance of power.

This is how we should understand recent decisions such as the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and the bombing of Libya. And for a while, the prospect of an assault on Syria loomed large. It is very fortunate that rational heads now seem to be prevailing, as a result of massive international opposition to a military strike, the Russian initiative, the Syrian government’s agreement to hand over control of its chemical stockpile to an international body, and the new Iranian government’s outreach to the United States.

The situation in Syria began very simply but has become quite complicated. In 2011, it was about protests against an authoritarian regime — as had already occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya — and about a regime that was hitting back, as had also occurred in Bahrain (with the support of Saudi Arabia). But regional dynamics came into play.

Turkish prime minister Erdogan, with his grandiose notion of himself and of Turkey’s role in the region, decided to turn against the Syrian regime and support a growing rebel movement. (This in a country that has waged a long war against its own Kurdish rebel movement.) Saudi Arabia did the same, no doubt determining that this would be a good way of undermining the region’s uppity Shias — the Assad regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Qatar, a tiny state with huge ambitions, joined what was becoming a Sunni coalition, now in an alliance of sorts with western powers that had decided early on that “Assad must go” — France, Britain and the United States.

Attempts to pull another Libya through the Security Council failed, and ugly accusations against the Russians (and to a far lesser extent, China), emerged by the likes of Susan Rice, who called the Russian stance “disgusting.” This is why several attempts at political dialogue and a peace conference were dismissed out of hand.

Meanwhile, militant Islamists began to join the ranks of the Syrian rebel movement, as anyone with any knowledge of the Middle East/North Africa region would have predicted. And they were encouraged — openly and surreptitiously — by the Western-Saudi-Turkish alliance.

Never mind that the Islamists have declared their intention to rid Syria of Alawites and Christians. Never mind that we have seen what jihadist Islamists are capable of — in Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia. Never mind the double standards and hypocrisies of international relations. For some reason, “Assad has to go.”

The use of chemical weapons (by whom?) was the unilateral “red line” that meant some sort of punishment. And if the British government would not undertake a bombing campaign, thanks to the wisdom of its parliament, and if French public opinion was overwhelmingly against such aggression, the “international community” could always count on the United States to undertake its historic mission to wage war.

Were the United States to bomb and overthrow the Syrian regime, the outcome would be similar to that of Iraq — the collapse of a state and its apparatus, decentralization and fragmentation, infighting among the former rebels, further massive outmigration, and terrorist attacks.

Alawites, Christians, and many Sunni Syrians would seek refuge elsewhere, and a once stable country with beautiful historical sites would be destroyed.

At this writing, that tragedy has been averted by the Russians, who have come up with a way to prevent U.S. aggression by working with the Syrian regime to place its chemical weapons arsenal under international control.

Will this end the civil conflict in Syria? That prospect seems unlikely. The rebels will continue to wage attacks on cities and government forces, encouraged and armed by external forces, and the government will continue to defend its position and retaliate against the rebels.

It remains to be seen if international peace talks finally take place, and if all the parties to this internationalized conflict agree to put aside the military option and prioritize the rebuilding of the country and of institutions and legal frameworks that would ensure political inclusion and human security.

Lessons of Libya

What should be the stance of the international left toward the popular uprising, the civil war and massacres in Syria? Some believe that the entry of sectarian Islamist forces has changed the nature of the popular struggle. How do you view the current configuration of forces?

When the Libyan uprising was occurring, I had many discussions and arguments with left-wing friends who felt that Qaddafi was threatening massive human rights violations and that he had to go. Analogies were made to the Bosnian war and even to Hitler. I was appalled by the reasoning and could only think of what had happened in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So after Qaddafi fell and rebels stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans, how surprising was this? After all, Bin Laden and other Islamists had received early training in CIA-funded camps in Pakistan to wage war against the left-wing government of Afghanistan and its Soviet military backers — only to turn against the United States. Why have no lessons been learned?

I have the same feeling about Syria. Hawks like John McCain claim that the Islamists are a minority within the overall rebel movement in Syria, but quite apart from McCain’s ignorance and mendacity is the fact that Islamists create mayhem. Even the parliamentary Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was aggressive in its political and cultural agenda (and totally inept on economic issues).

In the 1980s, in the choice between Afghanistan’s left-wing government and the tribal-Islamist Mujahidin, I chose the government. In the 1990s, in the choice between Algeria’s government and the Islamist rebellion, I chose the state. I regard the U.S./UK invasion and occupation of Iraq to constitute a war crime.

I was never a friend of the Libyan regime (unlike my position on the Afghan regime of the 1980s and early 1990s), but intervention on the part of western powers with a terrible historical record in the Middle East and in a country that was fragile to begin with seemed completely wrongheaded.

But what do we do with governments that “kill their own people,” whether with conventional or chemical weapons? And with those that kill the people of other countries, whether through invasions and occupations or drone strikes? As members of the left, how can we begin to envision justice and call for prosecution of Syrian war criminals when not a single American or British politician has been prosecuted for war crimes?

In fact, we should continue to rely on existing institutions, despite their deficits. The existing system of global governance has its faults, but for the moment, the Security Council is what we have, and there is sufficient diversity within it to ensure debate and disagreement rather than hegemonic decision-making and action. Our global social movements can be influential, especially in applying pressure on their own governments, but at the level of the World Social Forum there is reluctance to take positions on matters of global concern.

There do appear to be times when external intervention can be beneficial; evidently, most of the people of Mali welcomed French military intervention to oust the extremists who had taken power. But in general, the left should oppose unilateral military action in favor of strengthening multilateral institutions and mechanisms, especially within the framework of the United Nations.

Do you see a hopeful future for the democratic upsurges in the Arab world?

I am hopeful of the emergence of vibrant civil societies and social movements in the region — of associations of feminists, trade unionists, progressive youth groups, human rights organizations. To the extent that these form the backbone of democratic upsurges in the Arab region and that they coalesce around common goals, there is hope for successful democratization. The challenge is to form coalitions with a clear political message and an agenda that addresses the socio-economic frustrations, aspirations and interests of ordinary citizens.

Surveys show that Arabs favor democracy as a political system, but that their expectation of democracy is one that provides social rights and economic citizenship: good schooling and healthcare, housing, jobs and decent wages. What is being called for, at a minimum, is a social democracy.

Building new institutions and legal frameworks that guarantee the civil, political, and social rights of citizens — of women, religious and ethnic minorities, workers — will be the pathway to democratic consolidation in the region. This is the message and the agenda that the progressive democratic forces should impose on any new governments.

November/December 2013, ATC 167


  1. What a remarkably disgusting way to describe Baathist Syria. I thought that Solidarity favored democracy. What a disappointment to read this abysmal interview.

  2. Obama plans to bring about regime change in Syria by selling F-16’s and Apache helicopters to the Iraq govt, which is supplying Assad with Shiite mercenaries to put down the USA created jihadi opposition. Makes sense to me.

    “In central Baghdad’s Liberation Square, posters eulogizing those who died while defending the Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine in Damascus have become a common sight. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged that Shiite militias are fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime. But Iraq has repeatedly denied that this is happening as part of “Iraqi government policy,” according to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
    – Omar al-Jaffal for Al-Monitor Iraq Pulse Posted on October 29

  3. I’m sure the Islamic reactionaries the US (and its fake-left apologists) are supporting will bring as much “democracy” to Syria (especially for women) as they did in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. And let’s not forget Yugoslavia, where the same people supported the US side in Bosnia and Kosovo. The record of these Soros socialists speaks almost as loudly as the cluster bombs and DU that they cheered on in the name of “human rights.” Maybe their slogan should be “money for war, not for jobs” instead of the traditional socialist position of “not one man, not not cent for imperialist war.” Or if they want to maintain a fig-leaf of “socialism” to cover their pro-imperialist policies, they can call for “taxing the rich to pay for their wars.”

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