I have the honour of being the latest subject of a column by Louis Proyect, on his blog “The Unrepentant Marxist”, concerning my recent post criticising the decision of Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones to bolt the upcoming Stop the War conference. I appreciate the mainly restrained tone in Proyect’s criticism, and wish to reciprocate in kind.
Proyect, like other supporters of greater western military intervention in Syria who have written to me in the past few days, wants to accuse me of taking a side in the Syrian civil war. That is true: I am not taking their side. I am taking the side of the Syrian people, in so far as that can be discerned at this moment of profound crisis in all of their lives, whether they identify with the government or with the rebels.
I am also not taking the side of western governments, for whom Syria is – as all states in the Middle East are and have been for many decades – simply a chess piece in a great game called the Battle for Oil. For this reason, I wish to maintain maximum critical distance from official sources, as I did in Iraq and Libya and as I do now in Egypt. This position has proved to be the right one in those cases and I have reason to believe it is the right one again in this case. I also note that Proyect and many of his supporters took the opposite position, especially in Libya, and have been proven wrong, even if they refuse to admit it.
Proyect expends a lot of energy implying, without much evidence, which I suppose makes the task much harder, that I have been secretly pursuing a pro-Assad agenda. This seems to be a way to avoid dealing with my actual area of concern: the failure of many on the left to keep a critical distance from sources of information that have repeatedly led us astray in the Middle East.
When Proyect and his allies gleefully seize on power-friendly sources of information to bolster their case, I find myself looking for other tidbits of counter-evidence, if only because with such limited information emerging from Syria the dominant narrative – the one being promoted by our corporate media – has pretty much free rein. Unlike Proyect, I am extremely reluctant to simply swallow what the BBC, New York Times or even Human Rights Watch (which, it should be noted, has a poor record dealing with Israel and Palestine) offer as “fact”. I am also far less ready to accept than Proyect that Barack Obama’s White House is some great break from George Bush’s.
This brings me to my main point in responding to Proyect. Like a lot of interventionists, he wants to undermine the position of non-interventionists like me by accusing us of hypocrisy – or at least implying it. Proyect does it gently this way:
With his long time commitment to the Palestinian cause, he seems to have trouble understanding that those under attack in Homs or Aleppo have much in common with those living in Gaza. While he is obviously trained enough to understand and communicate the plight of one group of Arabs, another group gets short shrift because it is perceived as inimical to the interests of peace.
The problem is I don’t see Syria like Gaza on many levels, which is why I find the comparison deeply unhelpful. And in so far as I do see the situations alike, I actually hold a consistent position that differs markedly from Proyect’s.
First, Gaza is not like Syria because Palestinians in Gaza live under a belligerent occupation, not in a unified, if failing state run by a dictator. There are very few decades-long occupations, but there are lots of dictators I’d rather see the back of.
Occupations are regulated by international law, which in Gaza’s case is almost entirely ignored, whereas states have the luxury of being largely ringfenced from such accountability within their own domestic spheres. International law is mostly there to regulate the relations between states, not what goes on inside them. I may wish this were not so but I have to live with the reality that this is the current world order, and is there precisely to stop powerful states on spurious or selfish grounds destroying smaller states.
The comparison with Gaza is also unhelpful because I can be in favour of external efforts to remove the occupation in Gaza without that requiring the corollary that I am in favour of external efforts to overthrow the state apparatus in Syria. Doing the first may lead – potentially – to a liberation; doing the second leads – inevitably – to chaos, as we saw in Iraq and Libya.
Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank need help in freeing themselves from the rule of a belligerent foreign state in which they have no stake or voice. The people of Syria – if Syria is to survive and not end up as a series of feuding ethnic cantons – need to find a common cause, a sense of nationhood they can agree on. That, by the way, was a long and painful path Egypt was just beginning on when the Egyptian military – backed by decades of US money and armaments – decided to halt it.
So, in my view, the only thing that will change in Syria by intervening or by arming either side is that each will be able to inflict more bloodshed on the other. Ordinary civilians will die on both sides of the civil war in greater numbers because we will feed an industry of fighting and death by providing the factions with guns and rockets.
The only hope for Syria – as what remains of a rapidly collapsing state – is through bringing those sides that will talk to negotiations to create a new order in Syria. It will not be Sweden.
There is also the paradox that for the Syrian government to negotiate safely it needs to ensure its strength within the global system of nation-states, but with such strength it has less interest in making concessions to the rebels. This is a paradox that relates to the current world order. I don’t like the current world order, but it is the only one that exists at the moment. Similarly, I may not like gravity but unless I can hitch a ride on a spaceship I probably have to accept that I have to live with its effects for the time being.
I guess Proyect may want to argue that the Palestinians are in a civil war themselves and that I would be in favour of intervention to help them. Again, the situations are different. The civil war between Palestinians is being fed and manipulated by Israel to keep the Palestinians weak and divided so that the occupation can entrench. It is part of a familiar colonial settler project.
The Syrians are in a civil war because there is bitter competition between sectarian groups for dominance of the state apparatus. In short, there is not enough sense of Syrian-ness. If there were, we would have one of two situations: Assad would have mass support still, or the rebels would have been able to tip the balance in their favour and take over through a popular revolution. That revolution might have been bloody but it would have been liberating. Instead we are in a protracted civil war, which each side sees as a zero-sum game.
Exacerbating this problem is the exploitation by other states of the Syrian state’s current relative weakness. Those states, chiefly Saudi Arabia, are feeding the conflict and trying to distort its nature. They are further damaging the fragile sense of Syrian-ness. On the other side, Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon are playing their part in interfering in favour of the Syrian government, propping it up with military support.
These last factors point to a more realistic way of interpreting events in Syria. Syria is caught in a power game, with the US and Saudi Arabia trying to keep Iran and its ally Syria weak on one side, and Iran desperately trying to keep its allies as strong as possible in its battle against efforts by Israel and the west to undermine its sovereign integrity. Ignoring this as the main framework for understanding what is going on in Syria inevitably leads to erroneous analysis and faulty solutions.
What is needed now in Syria to lessen the bloodshed is reduced negative western intervention in Syria and much greater western positive engagement with Iran. Syria’s best hope of a solution, doubtless far from ideal, is through the west coming to an accommodation with Iran.
A last point about the Palestine and Syria comparison. In so far as there may be some similarity in these situations, I am not in favour of western military intervention on behalf of the Palestinians either. Here I am not considering what is allowable in international law (which, as I noted earlier, treats these two situations differently); I am talking about what I personally believe makes most sense.
I am not arguing for, and have not argued for, the US and Europe to start arming Palestinian militants in the hope that the Palestinians can end the occupation by slaughtering either settlers or soldiers. The level of military support the Palestinians would need to challenge or defeat Israel militarily would result in only one outcome: a sustained bloodbath that would lead to large numbers of dead both among Palestinians and Israelis. Something less than massive military support for the Palestinians would lead to a bloodbath chiefly on the Palestinian side. Neither is an outcome I favour.
If I am required to declare a practical position on this, as its seems Proyect expects, I would prefer that military support from the US and economic support from the EU to Israel be drastically reduced or ended, or at least tied to genuine concessions to the Palestinians. Making Israel more militarily vulnerable to its neighbours, for example, would be an effective way to get it to the negotiating table and force it to make meaningful compromises.
So, in short, I wish nothing for the Syrians that I don’t also wish for the Palestinians.
A final, related point about the revolutionary fervour of Proyect and co. The Unrepentant Marxist doubtless believes in a global workers’ revolution but he is deeply misguided if he believes it will or can start in Syria. The armchair revolutionaries so eager to cite the coverage of the BBC, NYT and Human Rights Watch on Syria are far less ready to accept these organisations’ pieties and platitudes when it comes nearer to home.
This is the real hypocrisy. Those who want revolution are looking to build it on the bodies of Syrians who have little hope of liberating themselves in a world where their tiny state is no more than a pawn being shuffled around a board controlled by other, much stronger states. If the revolutionaries really want to effect change, they would be wiser – and more ethical – concentrating on the revolution needed first in their back yards.