Syrian President Assad’s brutal crackdown on the city of Homs has killed up to 400 people in the space of a week, as the country’s heroic revolt continues after ten months. But so-called “humanitarian interventions” into the region have been a disaster and Syria won’t be any different.
After Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution designed to pressure Assad to step aside, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called on “the friends of democratic Syria” to strengthen the diplomatic pressure. Sections of the Syrian opposition are calling for the Western powers to create safe zones where Syrian army defectors can regroup. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are considering arming the opposition.
You only have to look at neighbouring Iraq to see why foreign military intervention would be a disaster that the left needs to oppose. Following the 2003 invasion Iraq was meant to become a “beacon of democracy” but tellingly, more than a million Iraqis fled to Syria where they felt safer living under the Assad dictatorship.
Libya is held up as a more recent “success” story for intervention—but it came at an enormous cost to the revolution. The young revolutionary leaders that started the revolt were sidelined as former Gaddafi officials in the National Transitional Council negotiated with Western powers for minimalist change that included signing up to the West’s “war on terror” and abiding by all existing commercial contracts.
Libya today is looking increasingly like Afghanistan as rival militias seize public assets and stake their claims. The Zintan militia, for example, controls the Tripoli International Airport and is holding onto Saif Gaddafi as a bargaining chip.
Western intervention in Syria could be even more disastrous than Iraq. Syria is divided religiously and ethnically and is at the centre of numerous strategic rivalries.
While the left needs to oppose intervention, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking Assad’s regime is somehow “progressive” as sections of the old Stalinist left do.
It’s true Syria has played a role opposing Western domination of the region, supporting Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon in their struggle against Israeli occupation. But Syria’s anti-imperialism is inconsistent. When it suits the regime’s interests it will cut deals with imperialist powers.
In 1975, for example, Syrian troops entered Lebanon to save a right-wing Christian Maronite regime backed by Israel that was threatened by the combined forces of the Lebanese left and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. In 1991 during the Gulf War, Syrian troops were part of the US-led coalition against Iraq. Syria doesn’t want to overturn the imperialist system but wants a place at the table. Internally, the Assad regime is a brutal one party state where all independent political organisation is crushed.
Bringing down Assad
The left needs to be unequivocally on the side of the Syrian people who have shown such tremendous courage in opposing Assad.
This raises the question, how can such a brutal regime be broken without outside help?
Western commentators see the struggle as a military one, but it is first and foremost a political struggle. Assad attempts to isolate the opposition by labelling them as “terrorists”, “Islamists” and tools of “foreign powers”.
Undermining Assad’s political arguments is the key to spreading the revolt across the country. Initially key cities like Damascus and Aleppo were not part of the revolt, but the movement has extended its reach into the suburbs of Damascus and unrest has begun to spread in Aleppo. Dissent in the armed forces has grown with the emergence of the Free Syrian Army based on defectors from the military.
Continuing the mass mobilisations, extending them into strikes that hit industry and put economic pressure on the regime’s support base and fraternising with the lower ranks of the military, is the way to break the regime’s power. Local Coordinating Committees have been thrown up by the revolution and are already carrying out many of these tasks.
Foreign intervention—as in Libya—would end this revolutionary process, militarise the struggle and give Assad an enormous propaganda coup.
For many years opposition in Syria was held back by the feeling the regime was one of the region’s last bastions of anti-imperialism. The revolutionary movements in Egypt and Tunisia have now opened up new anti-imperialist fronts and the Syrian people now feel free to fight for their rights.
We need to be clear who the real “friends of democratic Syria” are—not the Western powers that backed the likes of Mubarak, but the people of the region who are in revolt against all dictators. Long live the Arab spring.