Note from the editors: The following article is published in collaboration with the British socialist website, Counterfire.org.*
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat their mistakes. Surveying the arguments put forward on the left in response to ruling class debates about whether the imperialist countries should intervene in the Syrian conflict, there appears to be more than an echo of arguments from the past: there appear also to be many of the same mistakes. This article addresses some of these in response to Ilya Budraitskis’s interview with Gilbert Achcar on LeftEast.
Achcar’s central argument is that the regime of Bashar al-Assad should be seen by the left internationally as the main enemy, and that the main priority should be to stop the war. He states unequivocally:
“For now the best one can hope is ending the war…A progressive alternative will need to be rebuilt from the potential that still exists. Although there aren’t any significant organized forces representing a progressive alternative, there still is an important potential composed of many of the young people who initiated the uprising in 2011. Thousands of them are in exile now; others are in jail. And many others are still in Syria, but can’t play a determining role in the civil war. We need the war to stop first.”
It is unclear who the ‘we’ that Achcar refers to should be: we the left, we progressive opinion around the world, we the ‘international community’? But at a deeper level, there is an even more fundamental flaw in Achcar’s approach. Achcar repeatedly criticises the imperialist powers and their motives for intervention, but still refuses to condemn the idea that intervention is part of the solution. How a progressive solution would be easier to achieve were these same hypocritical imperialist powers to intervene and determine the fate of Syria is left unanswered.
Indeed, it will be argued in this article, the left is best served not encouraging illusions in international intervention. While Achcar makes it clear that he is not enthusiastic about direct international intervention, and would prefer indirect forms of support for a rebel-led victory, he clearly does see some form of intervention from abroad as condition for ending the war. Achcar very evidently judges the value of intervention from the standpoint of how efficiently it can stop the war by removing Assad.
This is all evident from the way Achcar speaks about American indecisiveness and condemns Russia’s attacks on non-ISIS groups, while never condemning American intervention, since he appears to see only an ISIS victory as worse than an Assad one, and the main reason for the need for intervention. Indeed, Archar explicitly criticises the Western powers for not backing the Free Syrian Army more energetically, saying it was ‘this mainstream Syrian opposition’s weakness, due to the lack of support from Washington and especially the US veto on its supply with anti-aircraft defensive means, which enabled Islamic “jihadist” forces to develop in parallel and later become more important in the armed opposition to the Syrian regime.’
This claim seems somewhat inaccurate, in that it underestimates the extent of support given by the US to the rebels. Western support for anti-Assad forces is demonstrable and significant. The Washington Post has written about massive CIA funding for rebels for several years. This massive support did not stop, as Archar claims, in 2012. It continues, sometimes, it seems, via the Balkans. Continuing public discussion of no-fly zones in the US, Turkey and the UK also suggests that the West sees Assad as the main enemy, since he has an air force, and backers like Russia, while ISIS does not.
Crucially, for Achcar, however, whatever support has arrived is not enough. Achcar attributes what he sees as Washington’s current lack of will to its belief that its attempt at regime change in Iraq, and the dismantlement of the army in particular, led to the post-invasion chaos. Yet he openly argues that the deteriorating situation in Syria, and the threat of ISIS, warrants action.
Indeed, when asked whether he thinks foreign intervention can help stop the war or is a factor in prolonging it, Achcar gives an initially very circumspect response. He merely states that Western intervention has targeted ISIS, while pointing out that Russia and Assad have done next to nothing against ISIS. He blames Russian intervention for the prolongation of the war and the Assad regime, while not at any point condemning Western intervention. He even states: “Eventually, of course, one can only wish that the West’s wishful thinking prove true and Putin force Assad to step down.” Shortly after presenting such a wish in the impersonal third person, Achcar concludes the interview, stating:
‘The rosiest dream of Syria’s ordinary people for now is the end of the war with a deployment of UN forces to maintain order and rebuild the state and the country.’
This is not an explicit call for intervention. Nonetheless, since Achcar declares himself a socialist, we should presume he has sympathies for ordinary people’s wishes. Since he merely states what he sees as ordinary people’s dream, and says nothing beyond that, one cannot but presume that Achcar, too, sees UN intervention as the least bad solution. Therein lies the contradiction and the flaw in his argument: Achcar presents the concerted intervention of the very same powers, all members of the Security Council, and all of whom he argues have hopes to maintain the Syrian regime, with Assad or without him, as the ‘rosiest dream of Syria’s ordinary people’.
Achcar’s basic argument, then, to repeat, is that ‘[a] progressive alternative will need to be rebuilt from the potential that still exists’ in Syria – but ‘[w]e need the war to stop first’. It is hard not to see parallels in this position with Achcar’s support for no-fly zones in the Libyan conflict, in which Western intervention contributed to the disaster that has followed. This is why we should pause to think through the full implications of his argument for socialists globally.
Back to the future?
Achcar’s logic stems from a similar set of arguments by leading figures on the left in the 1990s in the conflicts in the ex-Yugoslavia. As in the ‘Arab Spring’, popular mobilisation played a major role in the toppling of dictatorship in Eastern Europe in 1989. In Yugoslavia, as in some cases in the Middle East, regime elements attempted to save their power by diverting popular anger in a nationalist or sectarian direction. Slobodan Milošević’s regime in Serbia did so most decisively, sponsoring war in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, and imposing an apartheid regime in Kosovo.
Parallels are never exact, but there are undeniable similarities with Bashar al-Assad’s actions against the popular rising in Syria in 2011. In both cases, some on the left argued that, since the regime has a preponderance of organised force on its side, socialists should argue against arms embargoes on regime victims, and some even argued for arming opponents, decisive diplomatic support for them, and military intervention to redress the balance in one form or another, ending with UN peacekeepers to enforce a deal.
The trouble with all such arguments is that they assume a lack of prior or existing forms of intervention in the conflict by the very powers they accuse of inaction and lack of will, and they ignore their very real and deleterious effects.
The East European revolutions and the Yugoslav crises followed years of integration in the world economy, and IMF-imposed austerity in the latter case, as the regimes tried to resolve the crises of bureaucratic state capitalism through mounting debt. Moreover, Western military intervention, when it did come, reversed, rather than stopped ethnic cleansing.
Thus, various Serbian para-states and para-militaries initially carried out most of the atrocities and ‘ethnic cleansing’, with the help of Belgrade, until covert Western intervention tilted the balance the other way. Private military contractors and the CIA helped set up the Croatian Army, which ethnically cleansed Croatia’s Serbs in 1995 (for the role of Military Professional Resources Inc., an American private military contractor, see, for instance, Hannah Tonkin, State Control over Private Military and Security Companies in Armed Conflict, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 47-49). Meanwhile, NATO airstrikes against Bosnian Serb military positions helped cement an ethnic division of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Dayton Peace Accords, almost exactly 20 years ago.
The concert of powers in the form of various, effectively US-led, UN and EU missions has continued to oversee governance of Bosnia and Herzegovina ever since, and a short glance at its (lack of) achievements makes it clear it is not the stuff dreams are made of. The two entities of the country have separate administrations, the country is overseen by a rotating presidency, and this latter is supervised by a foreign-appointed High Representative, backed by NATO-led troops. It continues to be divided by a Western-sponsored and partly Zagreb-backed ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ and the Russian-sponsored and Belgrade-backed ‘Serbian Republic’.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has become one of the poorest countries in Europe. Moreover, various external aid programmes, neoliberal measures like wholesale privatisation, and more recently austerity have impoverished the vast majority, while giving rise to a small clique of tycoons and oligarchs in both entities.
When mass protests erupted last year, with industrial workers at the forefront of what many saw as a rebellion against neo-liberalism, however, Dayton showed its further limitations. The ‘Serbian Republic’ remained quiet because of nationalist fears of the centralisation of Bosnia, a programme increasingly associated with Washington. Meanwhile, Valentin Inzko, High Representative of the Western Powers warned that: ‘…if the hooliganism continues EUFOR [EU] troops may be asked to intervene’.
Rather than providing a breathing space for multinational forces to regroup and regenerate the country, then, UN intervention has merely cemented divisions and remains a block on progress.
This was the same for the NATO intervention against Serbia in the ‘Kosovo War’. NATO rebranded itself, on the basis of its Bosnian experience, as a force expanding eastwards and intervening for humanitarian reasons. Furthermore, it gained only retrospective UN cover for a continuing protectorate over Kosovo, after an illegal war in 1999. The protectorate persists despite Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, with similar results to those in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
NATO’s rebranding contributed to the US’s ability to launch its 2000s offensive in the Middle East and Central Asia, under the guise of the ‘War on Terror’.
With the spectacular failure of Western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, a tendency has emerged to re-energise the ‘War on Terror’ by returning to humanitarianism as a legitimising tool to stabilise Western hegemony across the region. This was evident in Libya, during the disastrous intervention there, but also now in Syria.
Intervention in the ex-Yugoslavia and in the Middle East is therefore not just linked by similarities of arguments on the left about the role of imperialism; they also represent a continuum, related to the global gamble of the US to use military power after the collapse of the USSR to ensure itself against its competitors by controlling key geographical locations and resources, and refreshing its leading role in the Cold War-era Western coalition. NATO’s eastward expansion is a central part of this process, and has had a clear and negative impact on international relations, most recently in Ukraine.
Consequently, while calling on UN intervention in Syria today may appear attractive amid mass killings and atrocities, the reality is that UN intervention would strengthen US imperialism more generally, and cause further atrocities in Syria itself. It would also help the imperialist powers to fashion a new regime based on the old, which would be unlikely to be truly representative or unifying, as well as stabilise ruling class rule. As with Dayton Bosnia, ‘peacekeepers’ would be used against anyone wishing to challenge the projected neoliberal order.
Indeed, it very much appears that, despite elements of the popular mobilisation against Assad remaining, the Free Syrian Army, with US backing, has become a force dominated by sectarian groups, as admitted by US officials. This has reinforced Assad’s ability to represent himself more widely, albeit falsely, as a protector of minorities. We have seen echoes of all this before in the ex-Yugoslavia, and the spectre of a ‘Dayton Syria’ appears to be looming on the horizon, less as a dream, and more as the continuation, in a new guise, of the current nightmare.
The Main Enemy is at Home
Thus, even if coming from the best humanitarian motives, backing a UN-sponsored solution would have profoundly un-humanitarian consequences, and it would structure institutions into a fundamentally externally-controlled form of ‘democracy’. The substance of democracy, however, would be lacking: and that is the free will of the people. This is additionally why, though often dressed as pro-revolutionary, support for external intervention ends up being anti-revolutionary. It displaces, in effect and at a fundamental level, the question of agency from ‘ordinary people’ to external, imperialist actors. Nothing of the oft-repeated parallel with arming the Spanish Republic against Franco remains in this position, for, in reality, intervention has already killed ‘the republic’.
Between equal rights, Marx wrote, force decides. Abstract calls for support for the revolutionaries, and criticisms of the West (or Russia) for ‘not doing enough’, is easily co-opted by powerful ruling class institutions like the media to back their own government’s actions and their own state’s interests, however contradictory these may be at any given point in time. Nuanced analyses trying to carefully allot blame to various imperialisms only open the door to imperialist exaggeration of others’ supposed wickedness and ‘our’ moral high ground.
For instance, even if the US administration and ruling class are to some extent divided over the best course of action in Syria, arguing in the West that it has ‘not done enough to help’ can only strengthen the most aggressive militarist forces in the US administration and ruling class. Rather than aiding it in winning the argument, by stating that ‘we have to do something’, or that ‘we have to stop the war’, socialists there should be underlining their opposition to intervention and mobilising against it. They should of course condemn Russian intervention, but their focus has to be on their own ruling class, because that is the only class they can directly affect.
Indeed, their actions are unlikely to significantly influence US policy on the ground in Syria. Their best hope is to create enough pressure to actually prevent US involvement. The Stop the War Coalition’s actions in the UK for over a decade after 2001 are a good example of this approach: STWC might not have prevented the Iraq War, but it won over public opinion, mortally wounded the UK Prime Minister and made a full-blown Syrian adventure too much of a risk for the UK coalition government to undertake in 2013. Indeed, the recently elected new leader of the opposition Labour Party served for a time as chairman of STWC: proof that decisive opposition can inflict major ideological blows on the ruling class, contributing to its foreign policy defeats, accelerating its domestic crisis, and shaping the political terrain on which domestic politics is fought.
Similarly, it is socialists in Russia who are best placed to oppose Russian intervention. Indeed, they have often exercised their internationalist duties with great honour and played a heroic role in organising street opposition to Russian intervention in Ukraine. This has occurred in difficult circumstances, with Putin’s authoritarian regime clamping down on basic political freedoms, while apparently riding a wave of popularity for being seen to stand up to the West’s eastward expansion over two and a half decades.
In much of Eastern Europe, to which LeftEast speaks most directly, it is necessary to publish pieces which find concrete ways of opposing each state’s actions in the Middle East, from a domestic perspective. Many of these countries may have historic links with regimes in the Middle East, but they are now mostly also members of NATO, and they likely face pressures to side in one way or another with the US. They are certainly aided and abetted by Russia’s dramatic recent response to NATO expansion, which is why the voice of the Russian left has to be heard loud and clear on LeftEast, as hitherto. While modest in the region, the left can still make it clear that in each country there is a militant opposition to their government’s collusion in dictatorship and imperialist meddling, and thus build support domestically on an internationalist basis.
Far from representing ‘campism’, this approach of focusing on opposing the enemy at home is in fact the most concrete form of help that could be given to the masses of the Middle East. It is this approach which places the greatest faith in the capacity of ordinary people to change their lives. Rather than calling on UN intervention, the left should be weakening the capacities of various dictatorships to subsist by attacking their countries’ support for them, and for one or other imperialist camp. The ‘Arab Spring’ showed the capacity of ordinary people to deal with local dictators, if these were not upheld by various imperialist powers.
Popular forms of solidarity, like the Gaza Flotilla, or activities to support Syrian refugees, are also a better road than UN intervention.
It is thus possible and necessary to look beyond the seemingly bleak picture of Syria today, and see a region still in turmoil, with progressive anti-imperialist forces still alive, among the Palestinians under Israeli terror, among the Egyptians suffering under a military coup, among the Kurds under attack in Turkey and Syria, and, hopefully, in Syria itself. By weakening imperialism’s ability to intervene in the region, we strengthen those forces on the ground, who can play a decisive role in the revolutionary process still unfolding in the Middle East, and bring to the fore the class element that can help unite the region on the basis of freedom, social justice and federal equality. This should be our principle task: internationalism starts at home.
This also suggests that framing the question around Syria alone or Assad as the main enemy decreases socialists’ ability to take on our ruling class wherever we are, in the immediate term, but also in the long term. By contrast, if we manage to prevent intervention, and thus facilitate the growth of genuine revolutionary forces on the ground in the Middle East, we weaken our own ruling class and potentially open up revolutionary crises in our own countries. While it may be difficult to stop intervention, if we are not clear in our opposition, at least at the level of argument, then we are doomed to fail. This is why it is high time to learn from history, and decide that the main enemy is at home.
I would like to thank Lindsey German and Chris Nineham for helpful suggestions with this article.
Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a a member of Marks21 in Serbia. He is a historian and researcher who is currently a Lecturer at the University of Glasgow. His upcoming book entitled “The Economic Struggle for Power in Tito’s Yugoslavia: From World War II to Non-Alignment” will be released soon.
*While the article comes from one of the editors of LeftEast, it is not an expression of the opinion of the editorial board as a whole, but is one position in a broader debate, which we would like to bring to the attention of our readers.