Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. Again?


republished from portside

April 5, 2012

On April Fools Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, representatives of right-wing Middle East oil states, assorted other states and the "Syrian National Council" met in Turkey as "Friends of Syria" to plot new approaches to end the Assad regime's ongoing battles with an insurgent movement. Despite the fact that the insurgents constituted a complex and contradictory mix of authentic democrats, religious fundamentalists, even elements of Al Queda - the wealthy Arab states pledged to shell out $100 million to pay opposition fighters while Clinton promised "communications equipment" to help the insurgents evade Syria's military.

Based on past experiences, such seemingly modest beginnings of foreign interventions in domestic conflicts inexorably lead to escalations when the objects of such pressure refuse to yield. That may be the case in Syria where Clinton, with characteristic institutional arrogance, called upon the uncontrollable Bashar Assad to leave his presidency - something that is not at this political moment in the cards.

The peace movement, to this point, has been virtually silent
on the Syrian conflict - despite the existence of peaceful
alternatives that are worthy of support. That
silence is perhaps understandable in light of an urgent
priority to prevent an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
There is also the unmistakable reality of Syrian forces
engaged in killing and maiming thousands of civilians in a
war that for many is ambiguous - with a corrupt and
repressive regime facing ill-defined forces backed by
reactionary foreign powers and anchored by a "Free Syrian
Army" - itself charged with torture and summary executions.

Another reason for ambiguity and confusion is imperialism's
historic legacy in the Middle East. The French trusteeship
over Syria after World War I planted the seeds of sectarian
conflict when various religious and ethnic groups were
either arbitrarily thrown together or split apart. After
Syria gained independence in the wake of World War II, the
Alawite minority (2 million out of 22 million), an offshoot
of Shi'a Islam, had been so politically welded to the larger
Syria that it could not separate despite its fervent wish
to end discrimination it suffered by becoming

Post-colonialist instability in Syria had bought fifteen
postwar coups that culminated in the seizure of power in
1970 by a faction of the Ba'ath Party led by Alawite General
Hafez al-Assad.

One of the characteristic legacies of colonial rule is
stunted development of the working class, repressed unions
and a brutalized, scattered left. Under such circumstances,
the military (or a faction within) whose officers are often
educated and trained in matured industrial countries becomes
the crucial -- and contradictory -- force for modernization.

Assad in power launched extensive public works, improved
health care and education. He also stacked the military and
government with faithful Alawites while opening business
opportunities for majority Sunnis as well as extending equal
citizenship for Christians and Druzes. In foreign policy
Assad cultivated independence from the US-NATO bloc,
establishing close strategic and military relations with the
USSR. At the same time, Assad and his Alawite and Ba'ath
compatriots clamped a mercilessly repressive regime upon the
country, employing a huge security system to assure
political control. In the words of one of the leading
experts on Syria, Elaine Hagopian: "For his ability to bring
stability to Syria after years of dismal coups ...  he was
loved by his people. For his tight control over political
freedom of expression and patronage of his faithful Alawite
followers, they hated him."

That contradictory situation in part explains the murkiness
of the present lethal struggle going on in Syria. Bashar al-
Assad, who succeeded his deceased father, helped bring about
a relatively more open and relaxed society. While the
security apparatus did not go away, it became less
intrusive. But beneath the surface of a seemingly self-
confident society, the continuing smothering of democracy
and Alawite corruption finally brought about a Syrian
variant of the Arab Spring and a murderous response by the
military and security forces that has claimed more than
nine-thousand lives to this point.

The desire of large segments of Syrian society for an end to
repression, for democratic change, for economic opportunity
and a better life free from corruption-driven Alawite
domination has moved them into the streets to face the
military's guns. On the other side are large numbers who
have benefited from largesse bestowed by the Assad
modernization drive, privileged Alawites and various
religious minorities that have won equality and now fear its
loss should fundamentalist elements and al-Queda fractions
emerge from within the rising insurgency.

Their fears are not allayed by the existence of the "Free
Syrian Army," that contains rogue elements along with little
political coherence, and the Syrian National Council,
materially and perhaps spiritually distant from the
democratic forces in the streets. Expatriate opportunists
within the Council offer little hope for a corruption-free
post-Alawite regime. The Council appears to be united only by a
desire to get rid of Bashar, while eager to enlist the
intervention of the US, NATO and reactionary oil states to
force his removal.

Silence among peace activists cannot be justified in the
light of historic experience that no matter how seemingly
minimal foreign military intervention may initially appear;
more violence and killing are inevitable. At this moment the
US and the Arab oil states are willing only to dole out
money instead of guns to the insurgents - fearing that guns
could wind up in the hands of al Queda-type operatives. But
with Hillary Clinton's stated aim of ridding Syria of Bashar
(sure to stiffen the Alawites" resistance), with chances
that a projected ceasefire may not take hold - lethal
weapons will be next; there will be escalating violence and
many more deaths.

With Washington at this moment handing out "communications
equipment" to the insurgents, its intervention on one side
of the conflict hardens the other side, deepens suspicions
on all sides, opens the path to arms flows and undermines
chances for peace. In light of all this, public declarations
by peace and justice activists opposing outside intervention
and supporting an immediate ceasefire brokered by the
UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan can be a
constructive voice filling a dangerous void.

Something must be said about "humanitarian interventions"
that have often confused and immobilized peace activists.
Such interventions by imperial powers never transcend the
material and institutional requirements of empire.
Intervened countries have experienced looting and sell offs
of their resources (especially if the key resource is oil);
social fragmentation, weakened democracy under parliaments
dominated by privilege, assaults on labor movements and the
left, growing poverty, debilitated health and educational
systems and rotting infrastructures. That in varying degrees
has been the fate of Iraq and Libya where internal killing
has not ended, Haiti, Afghanistan; the dismembered,
impoverished states of the former Yugoslavia, etc. On the
other hand, repressive regimes such as Bahrain and Yemen in
alliance with imperial states are rarely if ever subjected
to "humanitarian interventions." In some cases regimes
tottering under the pressure of mass upsurges (Egypt, for
example) are abandoned by imperial powers that then maneuver
to maintain influence through new political arrangements.

A genuine humanitarian response to the Syrian carnage is to
demand a UN-supervised ceasefire, withdrawal of all military
forces and heavy weapons from population centers, the
immediate creation of secure corridors to transit medical
supplies and other urgent assistance, release of arbitrarily
detained people, the right to peacefully assemble and
demonstrate. Such agreement can open a political dialogue
among all contending forces to create an honest and fully
representative constitutional order.

Kofi Annan has set April 10 for the implementation of such
agreements. Washington's voice channeled through Clinton has
expressed skepticism that the Assad regime will observe its
provisions based on the failure of previous cease fires to
take hold. However, the latest proposal to stop the killing
has the unanimous support of the UN Security Council.
Significantly, Russia, that largely maintains its Soviet era
relationship with Syria, has called on Assad to take the
first step in pulling troops from city streets, adding that
the insurgents should quickly reciprocate. Political forces
with the ability to decisively influence events are aligned
for success, especially with the worldwide support of vocal
peace movements.

The hour is late; but it is not too late for a reenergized
peace movement to oppose US intervention. That intervention
is a prescription for escalating a deadly conflict, not for
salving a wounded population. It is not too late to join a
universal demand for a ceasefire on April 10 as a critical
step on the road to peace.

[Mark Solomon is past national co-chair of the Committees of
Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS)]

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