Disasters in Syria and Yemen

an interview with Gilbert Achcar

GILBERT ACHCAR IS the author of the forthcoming book Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising. A longtime Marxist analyst of Middle Eastern social movements and politics, he currently teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. A recent interview on the status of the “Arab Spring” is online at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/12/achchar-arab-spring-tunisia-egypt-isis-isil-assad-syria-revolution/. Against the Current editor David Finkel interviewed him by phone on March 3, 2016 to discuss the current crises in the region as well as the impact of the horrific refugee crisis.

Against the Current: What does the recently announced “cease fire” in Syria mean, and what are the chances it will hold?

Gilbert Achcar: Please note, first of all, that it is not officially called a cease-fire but rather a “cessation of hostilities.” The main difference is that Russia and the Syrian regime, and the US-led coalition, will continue to fire on so-called terrorist forces, supposedly meaning ISIS and the Nusra Front.

For Russia and the Assad regime, this can be seized as a pretext for targeting other groups in the opposition, which is what the opposition has been denouncing. This shows you how fragile this whole agreement is. If it’s more or less holding right now, it’s because all parties need to take a deep breath after the intensive battles of the past few weeks.

However, the continuation of that will depend on the resumption of political negotiations. Nothing has emerged up to now that would lead to any optimism in that respect. We shall see, probably in the next few days rather than weeks: if the “cessation of hostilities” collapses, it will bode ill for the whole process.

ATC: Do you see any possible track toward ending the war?

GA: This can only happen if there’s a major change in the position of the Syrian regime. The minimum that might be seen by the opposition as the basis of agreement would be a transitional government, with Bashar al-Assad stepping down — any transitional set-up that would be presided over by Assad would be a non-starter.

The United States has been waffling on this whole question — sometimes saying Assad must step down, other times talking about him staying in place during a transition period. If Obama and Kerry try to impose on the opposition an agreement with Assad remaining in position, it’s bound to fail, all the more because U.S. leverage is limited for having done nothing to stop Russia, let alone Iran, from intervening massively on the side of the regime.

The United States has consistently vetoed the main means that the opposition needed from the start and still needs, i.e. anti-aircraft weapons. The major leverage Washington could have now would be to promise to lift this veto! But that would be a complete change of strategy on Washington’s part, going back to when parts of the Obama administration advocated enabling the opposition to become a real threat to the regime. This policy was not accepted by Obama.

There was a basic contradiction in Obama’s position, when he said in 2012 that he wanted a “Yemen solution” for Syria, by which he meant the agreement that ended the 2011 uprising in Yemen, with a coalition government formed and the president stepping down while keeping main instruments of power in his hands.

That was what the whole Obama administration wanted in Syria: none of them was in favor of toppling the Assad regime. But Obama thought he could get his “Yemen solution” by refraining from giving the opposition the means to fight effectively, fearing that the situation might get out of control and lead to state collapse.

The result, however, has been that the regime felt free to use all its means in destroying the country and massacring the people, believing that it could thus win eventually. And yet it has been twice close to a major defeat. But each time, it has been rescued by a massive involvement of its patrons, first by Iran in 2013 and then Russia since last fall, with Washington passively contemplating, if not acquiescing.

ATC: At the present moment, how would you describe U.S. strategic policy — or paralysis, as the case may be — with regard to both Syria and now Libya?

GA: Barack Obama was elected in part on the argument that he had opposed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He came in with a view that appeared to be catering to the antiwar sentiment, although he kept some ambiguity in making a distinction between the “good war” in Afghanistan and the “bad” or “stupid war” in Iraq. He actually organized a “surge” in Afghanistan that proved such a total failure.

Obama took part very reluctantly in the intervention in Libya in 2011. He thought he could operate by some kind of remote control as he was quite reluctant to put “boots on the ground,” and the Libyan insurgents themselves were clearly opposed to any such perspective. The result, here again, has been dismal failure.

So there you are — an administration that gives the image of a weak and paralyzed United States, which annoys much of the U.S. imperial establishment, especially due to the sharp contrast with the interventionist boldness of Putin’s Russia.

ATC: Why do you think we hear so little about the terrible war in Yemen, and how do you read that situation?

GA: You don’t hear much because, first of all, the poorer a country is the less you hear about it. That‘s why millions of people in Central Africa can die from war or famine with hardly any notice. It‘s never the scale of the tragedy that dictates media attention, but the country’s strategic importance.

Syria became a major issue rather recently, and the key determinant has been the impact of the refugee crisis. When big waves of refugees began reaching the European Union, the panic started in Western capitals. The Russian military intervention took advantage of this Western panic, thus contributing to giving the Syrian crisis such a global dimension.

On the other hand, the situation in Yemen is quite complex. Basically, you have the former president Saleh, the one who was brought down by the 2011 uprising, attempting a comeback using the resources of power that he had maintained and allying with one religious fundamentalist movement (the Houthis, repressed by Saleh when he was in power) from the sect to which he himself belongs, which is related to Shia Islam. Hence Iran’s support of this alliance.

The “legitimate” regime of president Hadi, who was elected in 2012, is fighting back, with the Saudis and their allies intervening on behalf of this government. In sum, it is as if Morsi, the 2012-elected president in Egypt, was fighting back against the coup led by Sisi. The Saudi-led bombing is causing a lot of civilian damage, however, which is the inevitable result of using air force against densely populated areas.

It is a criminal intervention, which must be condemned. But to condemn it while saying nothing about Russia’s bombing of Syria and Iran’s heavy involvement in that same country — which are equally destructive and murderous, and actually much more so — amounts to using a double standard.

There’s no way to predict the outcome of these ongoing conflicts. No one can say how any of them will end, and insofar as they’re stalemated they can go on for a very long time. Western governments, with John Kerry leading the chorus, are trying to foster negotiated agreements everywhere — Libya, Syria, Yemen, even Egypt — so as to stop the descent into mayhem and try to stabilize the region again.

ATC: The scale of the refugee crisis has become overwhelming. What do you see as its longterm implications both for the Middle East and for Europe? (NOTE: This conversation preceded the announcement of a horrific deal in progress between the Turkish regime and the European Union to force refugees who have reached Greece back to Turkey.)

GA: The country where I am based in Europe, Britain, like the United States, has taken in a very small number of refugees compared to countries like Sweden relative to its population, or Germany. This is utterly indecent and shameful.

The fact is that Europe and, above all, the United States bear a major responsibility for all the tragedies that are producing the recent refugee waves, whether Afghanistan and Iraq, which many of them invaded, or Syria where they have let the ongoing catastrophe unfold. It is the moral duty of these countries to welcome the refugees and to stop these wars.

The European Union members engaged in a “beggar-thy-neighbor” attitude on the issue of the refugees, especially the countries where the refugees first arrive coming from Turkey. Several EU governments refuse the principle of population-proportional quotas for accepting refugees. It shows again the limitations of an institution like the EU, when faced with an economic crisis that has already created huge strains on the euro (common currency) and provoked a potential British exit.

ATC: Tell us a little about what to expect in your new book.

GA: It will be coming out in May. The main title Morbid Symptoms <http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=28113 is taken from the famous quote by Gramsci about when the old order is dying and the new one cannot be born, and it applies to the situation in the Arab countries described by the book’s subtitle: Relapse in the Arab Uprising.

It is basically an analysis of the present stage of the regional situation, against the background that I analyzed in The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising <http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520280519.

I discuss the counterrevolution taking place since 2013 within what I have called from the start a long-term revolutionary process, which will see a lot more ups and downs over the course of decades. The book focuses on two especially salient cases, Syria and Egypt, which are of central importance, but it also gives an overview of the broader regional situation.

May/June 2016, ATC 182


  1. There are some very good reasons to oppose U.S. military intervention in Syria or elsewhere. Experience shows that there is no situation so horrible and appalling that imperialism can’t find a way to make it even worse.

    However, there are also some very bad arguments circulating on the left in the guise of “anti-imperialism” in regard to the Syrian catastrophe. Dave Richardson presents them with unusual baldness in stating that the solution would be “allowing the Government to re-unify the country, perhaps leaving the Kurds an autonomous zone.”

    The basic reason that Assad cannot “re-unify” the country is the level of popular opposition. This is fortunate: For the Assad regime to “re-unify” Syria, if it were possible (it’s not), would mean the massacre of hundreds of thousands more people, millions more refugees — and a Kurdish genocide, not an “autonomous zone.”

    It’s hard to figure out what Dave Richardson means by “Gilbert Achcar supporting U.S. war aims in Syria and the Middle East.” Achcar stated clearly enough that the U.S. aimed at the kind of “solution” that Washington thought it had achieved in Yemen, i.e. change at the top of the regime while preserving the state structures. In the hope of replacing Assad without overthrowing the Syrian state, the Obama administration withheld the anti-aircraft weaponry that the Syrian opposition needed to defend itself and the population – leaving the regime with unchallenged use of its air power with Russian and Iranian support.

    Richardson’s assertion that in Syria and elsewhere “the Arab Spring was very largely the CIA Spring, with Washington promoting the almost immediate turn to violence on the part of the opposition,” is entirely mistaken. Quite the contrary, the Arab Spring caught the United States by surprise, and Washington – initially trying to save the Mubarak regime – was left to play catch-up.

    Those of us who are anti-imperialists understand that in countries where there is a massive repressive apparatus the left will rarely have enough roots to quickly build the necessary infrastructure to win public office. In the case of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood did, and unfortunately used its power to do so — until its own performance discredited it, enabling the military to take over and put much worse repression in place. (Interested readers can consult Achcar’s new book Morbid Symptoms. Relapse in the Arab Uprising for accounts of events in Syria and Egypt.)

    I suppose that Dave Richardson’s view of the Middle East is indicated by his referring to the grotesque figures of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Assad as “secular Arab modernizers.” (As Lenin might have said, WTF??!?) As for the United States, far from “systematically eliminating regimes” of this type, Washington collaborated with them for decades, especially in crushing the Arab left.

    Anyway, Dave apparently misunderstood Achcar’s statement – a self-evident observation, really — that “by its cruelty, the regime has created the resentment that bred the development of jihadism, up to ISIS.” Achcar referred to the growth of jihadism in Syria, not globally – so Richardson’s reference to the Afghan War, while relevant in a different context, is a pointless polemic here.

    A discussion of the complexities of the Syrian tragedy and imperialism’s role in it – for example, allying with the Turkish regime that has coddled and enabled ISIS while turning massive fire against the Kurdish population – is necessary. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get there from a starting point that sees Assad as a “secular Arab modernizer” or the struggle of the Syrian people as a CIA conspiracy.

    David Finkel

  2. I was surprised to find in the May-June ATC an interview with Gilbert Achcar supporting US war aims in the Syria and the Middle East. According to Wikileaks, the United States has been attempting to overthrow the Syrian Government at least since 2006, apparently because it didn’t/doesn’t like its policy with respect to Iran. Thus the real issue in the current Syrian War is whether Syria will be allowed to have an independent foreign policy or not.

    The United States has repeatedly stated that the war won’t end until Bashar al-Assad is out of power. This is a declaration of war, 21st Century style. Interpreting, it means that the United States will continue its unprovoked aggression against Syria until Assad is gone, and that all the humanitarian hand-wringing is for show. In fact the United States could end the humanitarian crisis almost immediately by withdrawing its and its allies support for the rebels and allowing the Government to re-unify the country, perhaps leaving the Kurds an autonomous zone.

    Until 2011, the main focus for the United States was the funding of subversives within Syria. While Obama in 2009 stated that he wanted to reset relations with Syria, the subversion didn’t cease, and the Americans lived in fear that the secret funding would blow up the political initiative. Thus in Syria, and some other countries as well, the Arab Spring was very largely the CIA Spring, with Washington promoting the almost immediate turn to violence on the part of the opposition. While Assad was very much the dictator, Wikipedia doesn’t cite anything brutal until the outbreak of the War, when anything goes became the modus operandi of both, or rather all three, sides. In this context, the Achcar interview is particularly unhelpful.

    Achcar states that the regime “has been twice close to a major defeat.” Thus when Achcar states that “ISIS’s spectacular expansion took place more than one year ago, and neither Russia [which wasn’t particularly engaged in Syria at the time] nor the Assad regime did anything serious to fight it”, it is, totally inappropriate. Further, a look at the map will show that in the relatively populated north, the American-funded opposition groups hold territory between ISIS and the Government, thus making direct engagement impossible. This isn’t true in the desert south, which is why the Government was recently able to retake Palmyra.

    When David Finkel asked if it were possible to end the war, Achcar said that “[t]he minimum that might be seen by the opposition as the basis of agreement would be a transitional government with Bashar al-Assad stepping down”. While this is an accurate statement of US war aims, I was astounded to see it presented without comment in a socialist publication.

    Achcar goes on to say “If Obama and Kerry try to impose on the opposition an agreement with Assad remaining in position, it is bound to fail, all the more because US leverage is limited for having done nothing to stop Russia, let alone Iran, from intervening massively on the side of the regime.” Actually there is no leverage aside from the fact that the opposition would collapse immediately without the support of the United States and its allies. It should also be pointed out that Russia and Iran are in Syria legally, at the behest of the Government, while the United States and its allies are engaged in unprovoked aggression, the quintessential war crime.

    It is preposterous to say, as Achcar does in his interview with Ilya Budraitskis, that “by its cruelty, the regime has created the resentment that bred the development of jihadism, up to ISIS.” Didn’t the Afghan War against the Soviets in the 1980s, where the United States deliberately promoted jihadism, have something to do with it? Didn’t the US policy of systematically eliminating regimes headed by secular Arab modernizers, e.g., Hussein, Gaddafi, and now Assad, have something to do with the creation of a power vacuum which has now been filled by religious fanatics? Didn’t the US policy of murdering people in their beds with drones play a part?

    Achcar also accuses the United States of pulling its punches, both in Syria and Libya, with the implication that a more aggressive policy would have been more successful. This is very strange, given that the more aggressive US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in two failed states. Obama can claim some success in Libya, however, in that he created a failed state there for $2 – $4 billion, while it cost George W. Bush $2,000 – $4,000 billion, 1000 times as much, to create a failed state in Iraq. Thus the Democrats can claim that, while they implement Republican policies, they do so more efficiently.

    The real tragedy in both Syria and Libya is the overwhelming refugee tide. Evidently Muammar Gaddafi was preventing refugees from debarking for Europe, and now that he’s gone, the failed state that replaced him has no power/interest in continuing the policy. Similarly Syria now lacks the means to keep its people productively employed at home. Is the humanitarian and refugee crisis worth it for the United States to achieve a simple change in Syrian foreign policy?

    Dave Richardson

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