Between Imperialism and Repression
by Sami Ramadani, Samuel
See full interview at New Left Project
See article on Pentagon planning for Syria invasion here
Sami Ramadani is a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan
University and has been an active participant in campaign's against Saddam's
regime and anti-imperialist struggles for many years. In an in-depth
interview, he spoke to Samuel Grove about the dynamics of the conflict in
Syria, arguing that democratic resistance to Assad's brutal regime has
been eclipsed by reactionary forces, backed by Western and Gulf states, with
potentially momentous implications for the Middle East.
Grove: The upheaval in Syria is an enormously difficult subject for Western outsiders to get a handle on. One of the reasons for this is the sheer number of different interests jostling for position and power, from both within and outside the country. Let us start with the regime itself. Can you give us a brief history of where the Al-Assad family came from and the direction they have taken the country since they came to power in 1970?
Ramadani: Following the magnificent peoples' uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, toppling two entrenched dictators, there developed a tendency not to closely examine the nature of the various forces competing for political power both within the opposition movements and the Arab regimes. Events in Libya and NATO's intervention there have alerted most people to the dangers of hijacking the peoples' struggle for freedom by reactionary forces. A brief look at the nature of the Syrian regime and its changing role in the region is crucial in trying to understand the current conflict and the reactionary forces' success in hijacking the people's struggle for radical change.
Syria has been run by a ruthless, corrupt regime. Syrian left activists have been on the receiving end of severe repression since Hafiz Assad's coup in 1970. It was after that coup that Henry Kissinger described Syria as "a factor for stability," despite Soviet military backing for the regime. Hafiz Assad's regime, funded by the Saudi medieval dictators, played a leading role in the 1970's and early 80's in weakening the Palestinian resistance. During the 1975-6 civil war in Lebanon Syrian troops sided with pro-Israeli Phalange and other extreme right wing forces. The regime, in return for US promises over the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights and Saudi petro-dollars, also backed the 1991 US-led war over Kuwait.
The Syrian forces' presence in Lebanon had the full support of the US and Saudi rulers and the tacit support of Israel. It was only after Syria's gradual foreign policy shift and reversal of roles from enemies to allies of the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements that the US and Saudi rulers shifted their stance. They pursued an aggressive campaign to force a Syrian withdrawal (1985) from Lebanon, particularly after the 2003 occupation of Iraq. US forces even killed some Syrian soldiers on the Iraqi-Syrian borders.
The opposition to the Syrian regime was not confined to the left, but included the Moslem Brotherhood, who led a popular revolt in 1982 in their stronghold of Hama. The regime crushed the uprising by bombarding the City and killing thousands of people. Nevertheless, Arab nationalism has for a century or more been Syria's main ideological current, developed in the struggle against Ottoman rule and, much more deeply, against French colonial rule. Syria won its independence from France in 1946.
The Brotherhood today are backed by the Qatari and Saudi dictators, but the media rarely dwell on the irony of these dictators championing democracy in Syria while crushing any opposition to their rule and sending their troops to help crush the people's uprising in Bahrain.
In 1967 Syria was invaded and a strategic part of its territory, the Golan Heights, was occupied by Israel. Since then, successive regimes legitimised their rule partly by working for or at least appearing to be actively trying to liberate Syria from occupation. However, US promises of rewarding Syria by forcing Israel to pull out of the occupied lands came to nothing despite Syria's compliant policies.
Concurrently with the failure of the US to deliver on its promises, a number of factors changed Syria's role. These include the rise of Iran as a formidable anti-US anti-Israeli power, the Palestinian uprisings, the unstoppable rise of the Lebanese resistance, led by Hizbullah, leading to the liberation of southern Lebanon from occupation and defeat of Israeli-Saudi-US backed forces, the arrival of hostile US forces along Syria's borders with Iraq, and the rise of Iraqi resistance and defeat of US forces in Iraq.
The Syrian armed forces and security apparatus, with its multi-layer pyramids of informers, form the backbone of the regime's control over Syrian society. Much is made of the sectarian nature of the Syrian regime and its reliance on the Alawite communities. I think this is highly exaggerated and ignores the much wider circles of support that the regime has acquired, whether this support is active, passive or of the `better devil you know' type.
The powerful, mostly Sunni, merchant classes of Syria, particularly in Damascus and Aleppo, have close links with the regime. Indeed, the US-led economic sanctions are partly directed at this merchant class to force it to shift its stance. Sections of the middle and upper middle classes also tacitly support the regime. Syria's religious minorities, including Christians who form 10% of the population, are fearful of the Moslem Brotherhood's social and cultural agenda for Syria. They too would rather have the secular regime than a state dominated by a Saud-Qatari backed Brotherhood. Importantly, the Kurdish minority are also fearful of the influence of Turkey on the Muslim Brotherhood and the fact that the Syrian Free Army is headquartered in Turkey, which has a horrific record of killing over 20,000 Kurdish people in Turkey. Millions of women also fear the social programme of the Brotherhood.
In the context of the current conflict, the poor, the unemployed and students who were supportive of the initial, largely spontaneous protest movement are now much more reticent, partly due to regime repression but primarily because of their opposition to the NATO-Saudi-Qatari meddling and the militarisation of the sections of the opposition, particularly the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army which are dominated by the Brotherhood.
Grove: This puts us in a difficult situation. As left wing activists we support the rights of people to freedom, equality and self-determination. As activists based in the imperial centres we are opposed to the actions of our governments to deny people these rights. So our support for
freedom and equality and our opposition to imperialism tend to go hand in hand. However the picture you are depicting in Syria is tied to the implication that we cannot do both these. Is it possible to support Syria's democratic struggle AND oppose foreign intervention? Or is this a luxury we cannot afford?
Ramadani: You raise a very important question. Let me make it crystal clear: it is vital for the left to always oppose both imperialism and regimes that repress the masses. This is a matter of principle that should never be abandoned. Movements that abandoned one or other of these inseparable objectives have committed serious and sometimes fatal errors.
For me the complexity of the problem resolves itself in determining whether the people's struggle for civil rights and social emancipation are clearly directed against both domestic reaction/repression and imperialism. In Iraq and Libya yesterday and Syria today, imperialism has succeeded in exploiting the struggle for democracy and eclipsing the progressive opposition forces. The left has to face the facts and not sweep inconvenient developments under the carpet. Syria today has NATO-backed armed groups, led by Saudi/Qatari-funded reactionaries. Syria is a major target of US-led imperialism to install a client regime or, failing that objective, to plunge the country into a sectarian blood bath. The duty of the left in Britain is to firmly uphold and raise the banners high: "Hands off Syria", "don't Iraq Syria", "don't Iraq Iran", "It is for the Syrian people to determine their future"...
Grove: How do you see this conflict playing out? Do you see a victory for the reactionary forces as moving us closer to a war with Iran? Is there still a potential for revolutionary change in Syria?
Ramadani: Yes, I think that a victory for the Saudi and Qatari ruling classes, backed by the US, will be a major setback for the people in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and the entire region. It will plunge Syria and the entire region into a sectarian bloodbath, and will strengthen plans to attack Iran.
In an alarming move pointing to future developments, a major US-led military exercise is taking place in Jordan. 12,000 multinational forces from 20 NATO members and Arab states are taking part in Operation Eager Lion 2012, the first of its type in the region. US military sources do not hide the fact that the simulation of amphibious landings and other war manoeuvres were intended to be "noticed" by Syria and Iran.
Syria is of pivotal importance not only due to its historic role and strategic location but also because it is Iran's only ally in the region. Installing a pro-US regime in Damascus, or crippling Syria through severe sanctions, terrorist attacks and sectarian civil war will apply further pressure on Iran to either concede to US demands or be attacked.
I think that Iran's nuclear energy programme is not the major US concern, especially given that the CIA itself has admitted that there was no evidence that Iran was working on producing nuclear weapons. Iran is a formidable regional power, and one of the world's largest oil producers, which happens to be implacably opposed to US and Israeli policies. Its policies run counter to US plans and have created problems for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq and for Israeli policies in Palestine and Lebanon.
Following the uprisings, the Saudi and Qatari rulers are being encouraged by Washington to strengthen their influence in the Middle East by restoring their lost influence in Syria and Lebanon. In the latter, defeating Hizbullah (and its Christian and left and nationalist allies) is the main objective. They are trying to drag Hizbullah into another Lebanese civil war. Al-Jazeera and Arab states' media have been conducting a prolonged and intense racist and sectarian campaign against Iran, portraying it as the main enemy and
accusing Syria and Hizbullah of being stooges of Iran. [Ramadani talks much more about Al-Jazeera in the extended interview.]
This is not to argue that the counterrevolutionary onslaught will be successful. The people of Syria are overwhelmingly opposed to political and social change in their country that is funded and backed by the dictatorships of Riyadh and Doha. Women, most of whom enjoy vast social rights compared to Saudi women, ethnic and religious minorities and the democratic left in Syria are a formidable force against Saudi-Qatari-funded forces and are opposed to calls for NATO intervention. Militarisation of the conflict and resorting to terrorist attacks are signs of failure of the reactionary forces to gain mass support for their line. However, the struggle of the anti-imperialist left and other democratic forces in Syria, as in Iraq, remain difficult and very complex, due to the brutality of and corruption-ridden regime on the one hand and the intervention of NATO and Saudi-Qatari rulers on the other.
Years of repression by the dictatorships, backed by colonial and imperialist powers for so many decades, has organisationally weakened the left and other democratic forces. It is obvious that with Saudi-Qatari backing, the leaderships of the Brotherhood and Salafi forces are, in the short term, reaping the fruits of the uprisings. These forces have always played a dual role amongst the poorest sections of the population, giving voice for their demands while acting as a lid on the more politically and socially radical demands of the people. At critical times, as in Egypt, Iraq and Syria today, they have played a counter-revolutionary role and were accommodated by imperialist powers.
However, the uprisings in the region have unleashed massive popular energies that bode well for the future.
In the short term I am quite pessimistic about radical democratic transformation in Syria. I think that is no longer possible in the current phase of the struggle, because of the weakness of the left organisations and the foothold gained by the reactionary forces in the country. But longer term the uprisings across the Arab world are laying new foundations for the left to organise and prepare for the protracted battles to come. The masses have flexed their muscles in an unprecedented way. I think their triumphs and setbacks are massive schools for the new generations to develop more effective means and organisations to lead the struggle forward.