Today’s post responds to an urgent question that has re-emerged in the wake of the uprisings of the last year: how should we understand what it means to support the efforts of a people to resist an autocratic government even as we are suspicious of foreign intervention, given its deleterious and devastating patterns of destruction? In a sobering and insightful column, Prof. Omar Dahi offers some important reflections as the question of intervention in Syria becomes immediate. I encourage you to continue to reflect constructively in the comments section.–FS
Guest Post: Syria and the International Left
Omar Dahi, Hampshire College
When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt, Arab and International Left groups rallied to the cause of the protestors. These groups emphasized the role that the US, EU and their regional allies had in propping up and supporting these authoritarian regimes. However, the US government and its allies, caught off guard, tried assertively to manage the uprisings so as to preserve or further their own interests. By “they,” I refer to the US, the EU and the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This aggressiveness manifested itself in three primary ways: 1) They established and sustained financial and military ties with friendly remnants of the old regimes in those countries and cultivated ties with new ones, in particular Islamist political parties. 2) They consolidated their cooperation with existing pro-US regimes, such as Morocco and Jordan, in an attempt to head off revolutionary movements in those countries. 3) The Gulf countries moved assertively to re-spin the uprisings from their initial form as movements demanding civil rights, social justice, and democracy into a false picture of a sectarian Sunni-Shia battle. This shift had the double benefit of shielding themselves from domestic demands for radical reform and ensuring that a Sunni ally would come to power in those countries, such as Syria, undergoing mass upheaval.
In Syria, the Left has much to be suspicious about, including the following: the proclaimed support for Syrian freedom and human rights by some of the worst human rights abusers in the world; the fact that the largest exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC) consists of pro-Western allies who race to please and appease the West by promising to cut off ties with Iran and Hizbullah and demand western military intervention; and that the uprising has been at best poorly covered by the Western media, or at worst, fabricated to make the Syrian government appear a lot more brutal than it really is and to cover the brutality and crimes of its opponents.
Why should the International Left care about what happens in Syria? Should it do anything other than oppose cynical US efforts to overthrow an official enemy? The answer depends on how one answers a basic question: Is the Syrian uprising part of the revolts and uprisings sweeping across the Arab world, demanding freedom and denouncing oppression and corruption, or is it a separate case to be evaluated on its own? This question has been asked many times since March 15th 2011. But it needs to be emphasized that the answer, whichever it is, carries ethical, analytical, and organizational implications: Ethical, because it conditions whether one supports a people’s aspirations for freedom; Analytical, because it conditions one’s understanding of the motives of the protestors; Organizational, because it conditions who the Left believes to be its allies in this struggle.
At the political level, the Syrian uprisings were a militant civil rights movement against the Security-Party-Military nexus. As recently as a year ago, merely signing a petition that called for some more freedoms made Syrians vulnerable to punishment of several years in prisons under charges such as ‘weakening national morale’ and other Orwellian phrases. In the first scattered demonstrations that took place in Damascus, even before the incidents at Dar’aa, the main slogan chanted by the demonstrators was “the Syrian people cannot be humiliated.” Political debate was stifled and discussions in public were guarded and reserved. Syria’s authoritarian regime was not just a danger for political dissidents; navigating daily life in Syria was a struggle for most ordinary and lower-class Syrians. The state-security apparatus had extended its tentacles to all aspects of Syria’s political economy. Everyone from the taxi driver, street vendor–all the way up to businessmen– had to curry favor, and bribe and appease the mukhabarat (the notorious secret service apparatus) to get the simplest task done, or simply to be left alone.
However these grievances against the Syrian state have been well-documented; some aspects of the regime, including the more claustrophobic side of daily life in Syria-with ubiquitous security presence- have lessened or improved in the last decade. Many aspects of this corruption became worse, not better, under the rule of Bashar Al-Asad. That is because the revolts were an expression of anger against economic deprivations, corruption and inequality, and poverty. Jamal Barout found that according to some measures of poverty, the percentage of Syrians living under the poverty line rose from 11% in 2000 to 33% in 2010; . That is to say, about 7 million Syrians live around the poverty line. The last decade has seen the increasing marginalization of Syrians, especially in the rural areas. This marginalization has exacerbated the increasing desertification of the country, most notably the devastating drought. The International Crisis Group reported that the dispossession of the several hundred thousand farmers in the Northeast as a result of the drought should not be thought of as merely a natural disaster. The increase and intensive use by agro-businessmen (including land previously kept for grazing), as well as the illegal drilling of water wells (by whom?) (facilitated by paying off local administration) have contributed to the crisis of agriculture. Both of these practices are a manifestation of the inability of the Syrian government under Bashar Al-Asad to check the power of influential businessmen or to perform basic regulatory functions.
Fundamentally, this means that the protests denounced the capture of the state by a few oligarchs. This can be best seen by the level of anger against Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the President. Makhlouf and his close associates, who turned Syria into their private fiefdom over the past decade. They did so by building a large economic empire through a mixture of coercion and intimidation, instrumental use of state power (including the judiciary) and outright fraud. As Bassam Haddad argued in a recent article, the “private sector’s march in Syria is undermining both state and market” due to extreme cronyism and patronage networks which are unable or unwilling to change despite the fast changing pace of events in the country.
In other words, the Syrian regime is a corrupt and authoritarian power that a very large sector of Syrian society no longer supports and to and which it refuses to acquiesce to. The regime continues to enjoy the support of many sectors of society, including from minority populations and those who have been traumatized by the destructive legacy of US invasion of Iraq. The invasion has killed hundreds of thousands and contributed to the ethnic and sectarian cleansing that occurred in Syria. However the fact that the Syrian uprising is being manipulated and highjacked by imperialism and its allies does not mean the regime is worth supporting or simply opposing any intervention or help for Syrians. It also does not mean that the brutality of the regime is not real and in fact, the casualty rate may be in fact worse than is being reported.
We can challenge military intervention in Syria—an intervention that is likely to have disastrous consequences there as well as in Iraq, in terms of the actual destruction caused by the invasion. We can also anticipate as a certainty that the invading powers will ‘pick winners’ and install their own allies, further destroying the fabric of Syrian society. The International Left, as well as the broader International civil society, must intervene in a way that sustains (through education, solidarity, and aid) the uprising. It must also, as much as possible, attempt to sustain and protect the agency of the Syrians themselves, while opposing armed intervention. We must choose among the least worst options, since doing nothing will ensure that that the crisis continues to be manipulated by cynical powers.
 Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution. Middle East/North Africa Report N°108, 6 Jul 2011.
 Carsten Wieland. 2011. “Asad’s Lost Chances.” Middle East Report Online.
 Bassam Haddad. 2011. The Political Economy of Syria: Realities and Challenges, Middle East Policy, 17(2): 46-61. See also Bassam Haddad, “Dictatorship, Military Intervention, and False Binaries on Syria.”
Omar S. Dahi is assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of economic development and international trade, with a special focus on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa and on South-South economic cooperation. His publications include articles in the Journal of Development Economics, The Middle East Report, and the Review of Radical Political Economics.