Against all tyrants and empires

September 1, 2016

Ashley Smith's article "Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution" prompted a number of submissions to our Readers' Views section. Here, Wael Elasady, Todd Chretien and Richard Wood continue the discussion with responses to critiques of the original SW article.

Are they not Syrians?

IN RESPONSE to Ashley Smith's timely article "Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution, several readers criticized the article ("Readers weigh in on Syria") on the basis that only the Syrian people have the right to overturn a dictator, not outside forces.

For example, Matt writes "Sorry, only the Syrian people get to decide whether Assad stays or goes, not us, nor the International Socialist Organization (ISO), in my opinion." Another respondent writes, "I firmly believe that if dictatorships are destroyed and replaced with governance more amenable to sustainable living, it must come from the people of that country, not from outside."

These responses not only ignore one of the primary conclusions of Smith's article--he clearly states, "The task of the international left today is to oppose intervention by any of the imperialist and regional powers"--but they repeat the Syrian state's falsified version of events that views the revolt since 2011 as simply a conspiracy by outside powers.

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Smith's critics erase the struggle of the same people whose right to self-determination they claim to stand for.

Who were the 15 school-age children in the city of Deraa who were arrested in March 2011 for scrawling "The people want the fall of the regime" on a wall--and who were then brutally tortured, their fingernails pulled out by Assad's security forces. Are they not Syrians?

The thousands of family members, friends and neighbors who gathered to plead for the release of the children, only to be met with deadly live ammunition by security forces. Are they not Syrians?

The outraged millions who filled the squares and streets of Damascus, of Homs, of Hama, of Aleppo and countless towns and villages in the year that followed, echoing the demand of Deraas' children and chanting "One, one, one, the Syrian people are one." The same ones who were mowed down in cold blood by regime snipers and helicopter gunships for their peaceful protests, demanding a different form of governance that is amenable to sustainable living. Are they not Syrians?

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

The soldiers of the Syrian Army who refused to fire on their brothers and sisters and led a breakaway rebellion to face down the savagery of Assad's regime against his own population, only to be besieged by Russian air strikes as well as Iranian and Hezbollah battalions. Are they not Syrians?

The more than 17,000 people who have been killed in Assad's prisons since 2011 and the many thousands more who remain subjected to torture, starvation, rape and beatings for their support of the revolution while they rot in Assad's dungeons. Are they not Syrians?

The families whose sons and daughters have been hauled off in the middle of the night, never to be heard from or seen again, denied even the dignity of their loved ones' bodies returned to them, all for saying the wrong thing, being in the wrong place or for no reason at all. Are they not Syrians?

The residents of Raqqa who tried desperately to resist not only the Syrian state's bombs but also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's weapons. Are they not Syrians?

The hundreds of thousands in liberated areas in Idlib, Homs, and Aleppo whose cities were placed under siege and whose homes were reduced to rubble by barrel bombs as punishment for daring to defy the regime and support the rebellion. Are they not Syrians?

The millions of refugees who were driven from their homes to face the horrors of crossing the Mediterranean, under a conscious regime policy of dispossession and exile to weaken and exhaust the rebellion. Are they not Syrians?

"Assad must go!" has been the roaring cry of a people who poured into struggle for control over their own destiny. For this, they have been made to pay dearly, and their cry today echoes piercingly in a landscape littered with the sniveling and cynical press releases of Western imperialists.

None are so deaf as those who will not hear. None are so blind as those who will not see.
Wael Elasady, Portland, Oregon

Russia: A wolf in wolf's clothing

CHRISTOPHER FREEMAN'S response to Ashley Smith's article "Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution" is emblematic of the dangerously provincial "enemy of my enemy is my friend" politics all too common on the U.S. left.

Unfortunately, in place of a rigorous argument, Freeman resorts to name-calling--he says Ashley's meticulous review of the left-wing responses to the Syrian tragedy is, wait for it, "childish."

Why? According to Freeman, Russia can't be an imperialist power because it hasn't "spent the last 15 years invading and laying waste to country after country."

Perhaps Freeman has forgotten when the imperial Russian state, masquerading then as the USSR, invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and occupied it for the following 10 years, leaving well over a million dead.

Ronald Reagan quickly transformed what became widely known as "Russia's Vietnam" into the cauldron in which he and his Saudi allies cooked up al- Qaeda--but before there was bin Laden, there were the Russian tank columns and gunship helicopters laying waste to Afgan villages.

On another front, between 1994 and 2000, the Russian Federation invaded Chechnya twice, in the process ravaging the city of Grozny and leaving tens of thousands of civilian casualties in its wake. In the end, President Vladimir Putin restored Russian power, retuning Chechnya to colonial subject status.

But the Russians, Freeman might protest, left Afghanistan 27 years ago and ended open military operations in Chechyna 16 years ago, so these don't count as imperialism, since his idiosyncratic statute of limitations has expired.

Have the Russian kept their hands clean since then? Hardly.

In 2008, Russia sent tanks and troops into the Republic of Georgia to prop up satellite regions in South Ossetia--it repeated the intervention in the summer of 2014.

In 2014, Russia engineered the annexation of the Crimean region of the Ukraine and sent in troops and heavy artillery to consolidate control over an area that already contained a major Russian naval base that gives its fleet access to the Mediterranean Sea.

In 2015, Russia launched an air war in Syria ostensibly targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but most sorties initially targeted non-ISIS opponents of Bashar al-Assad's regime, taking an especially heavy toll on civilians in anti-regime regions. The result has been, as Smith describes early in his article, "Assad's massacre of some 400,000 Syrians, and his regime's use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons and barbaric sieges of cities like Aleppo. Today, 11 million people--half the country's population--have been displaced, with the Assad regime responsible for the lion's share of the death and destruction."

Regrettably, Freeman ignores all this.

Meanwhile, Putin has orchestrated an iron-fisted crackdown on political dissent within Russia.

Sometimes, the enemy (Russian imperialism) of my enemy (U.S. imperialism) takes actions – and vice versa – that are justified ("covered up" might be the more appropriate term) in the name of peace or democracy or national sovereignty or what have you. For instance, Putin granted asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who faces kind of treatment dished out to Chelsea Manning if he were to return to the U.S.

Snowden has the right to seek safety wherever he can find it, but should we praise Putin as a democrat for granting asylum? As an opponent of surveillance and the security state? Just ask Pussy Riot--members of the punk-rock group were sentenced to two years in prison in 2012 for the crime of "hooliganism."

Leaping to their defense in turn, the Obama White House complained the sentences were "disproportionate." Does this make Obama an advocate of rebel music and direct action? Well, just ask Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, etc.

The leaders of competing capitalist states hypocritically attempt to embarrass one another all the time. To reverse military strategist Carl von Clausewitz's famous aphorism, "politics is war by other means."

Russian capitalism, and its satellites, remain a weaker camp than American capitalism and its satellites, but the job of socialists is not to pick sides between competing imperialisms.

I'll leave the last word to Vladimir Lenin, whose work has most definitely never appeared in the National Review. Writing in the early days of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin explained how Tsarist censorship affected his 1916 book Imperialism: the Highest State of Capitalism:

In order to show the reader, in a guise acceptable to the censors, how shamelessly untruthful the capitalists and the social-chauvinists who have deserted to their side (and whom [German socialist leader Karl] Kautsky opposes so inconsistently) are on the question of annexations; in order to show how shamelessly they screen the annexations of their capitalists, I was forced to quote as an example--Japan! The careful reader will easily substitute Russia for Japan, and Finland, Poland, Courland, the Ukraine, Khiva, Bokhara, Estonia or other regions peopled by non-Great Russians, for Korea.

I trust that this pamphlet will help the reader to understand the fundamental economic question, that of the economic essence of imperialism, for unless this is studied, it will be impossible to understand and appraise modern war and modern politics.

Ironically enough, were Lenin writing in Putin's Russia today--or, in fact, appearing as a guest on the international TV network Russia Today--he would have to resort to a similar "guise" or risk jail time and censorship.

Those of us living in the U.S. have a responsibility to build resistance, first and foremost, to U.S. imperialism. We also have a responsibility to speak the whole truth about the actions and intentions of those powers, Russia among them, who aspire to compete with the U.S. in pursuit of their own profit, using their own military and diplomatic might, in opposition to the interests of international working-class solidarity.
Todd Chretien, Portland, Maine

The weakness of the Syrian left

I WANT to congratulate Ashley Smith for his article on the war in Syria. I have been arguing against the routine leftist analysis of Syria for a couple of years, and I gave up trying to infiuence Counterpunch readers and editors over a year ago.

I am far more sympathetic to Islamist movements than you folks or Counterpunch, and thus we have differences still. But I congratulate you for coming to this conclusion, if Ashley Smith in any way represents the position you as an organization are taking.

One of the major weaknesses of leftist opposition to the Assad regime is the lack of any meaningful leftist opposition inside Syria. The Islamist factions, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Nusra) dominate the battlefield and are leading the war against the regime, while leftist Kurds are working far too closely with the U.S.--even Israel is deeply involved in the Iraqi Kurdish state and its affiliated militias.

Leftists can ignore or attack your position because of these alignments and the lack of options in the region, due to the decline of the left across the Muslim/Arab, Iranian, Turkish and South Asian worlds.

I would hope that your organization and the writers working with you might explore the possible relationships between those of us once affiliated with the left who now are far more interested in Islamist and regional movements that do not view class as the only vector from which to analyze international politics. The critiques of the USSR and Maoist China in Ashley's piece are a welcome nod in this direction.

Similarly, his understanding of the brutality of the Assad regime is clear thinking at its best. I began to question leftist assumptions about the Middle East after years of travel and interaction with activists in Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, and India.
Richard Wood, Washington state

Further Reading

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