by Alex Callinicos
The past few days may have seen the balance of forces tilt decisively against Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Paradoxically, a significant section of the Western left seems to have tilted as decisively in their favour.
Take, for example, a widely circulated interview with Tariq Ali, where he claims that the struggle in Syria is part of “a new process of recolonisation”. Although I have great respect and affection for Tariq, I think this is nonsense.
Undoubtedly, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 did lead to the country’s temporary recolonisation, under a “Coalition Provisional Authority” headed by a Washington-appointed neoconservative.
But the resistance to the occupation meant this project badly rebounded on its authors. The new regime created by US military power ultimately forced it to withdraw its forces from Iraq.
The idea that Syria is being “recolonised” implies that it is a long-standing Western priority to remove the Assad regime. But there is no evidence of this. Under Bashar’s father Hafez, the Syrian state established itself as a brutal but reliable capitalist manager.
Undoubtedly the outbreak of the Syrian revolution has encouraged the regime’s regional opponents to seize on the opportunity to replace it with something more congenial.
This is particularly true of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose Sunni Muslim rulers dislike the Assads’ roots in what they regard as the heretical Alawi sect and Syria’s alliance with Shia Iran.
There is plenty of evidence that the Gulf states have been supplying arms to some of the forces fighting the regime. And the West has stepped in to call for Assad’s removal.
But the chances that the US and Britain will follow this up by sending troops to Syria, or even providing air cover to the rebels as they did in Libya, are remote.
This is partly because they are scared of repeating the Iraq debacle. But it is also because of the support Russia is giving the Assad regime, its last ally in the Middle East.
Elsewhere in the interview Tariq says that the Syrian people want neither the Western-backed Syrian National Council nor the Assad regime. I think this is probably true, at least of the majority.
But where is this majority? There is considerable evidence that very large numbers of people are demonstrating against the regime, and sometimes fighting it, but don’t call for Western intervention.
In recent weeks the revolution has spread to the two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus. Rebel fighters have tried unsuccessfully to seize the centres of both cities.
Are Tariq and those who agree with him sure that these are all puppets of the US and the Gulf reactionaries? If so, they are being betrayed by their masters, since the regime's forces have been able to beat them back because they lack tanks and heavy weapons.
Nevertheless, the evidence is that the regime is now taking heavy casualties—and not just thanks to spectaculars such as last week’s bomb that took out several of Assad’s top cronies.
The fighting bears all the hallmarks of an improvised and desperate armed rising. We can argue over whether it was wise politically for the rebels to militarise their struggle so quickly. We may regret the absence of the independent working class action that has been so important in the Egyptian revolution.
But the way that its Syrian counterpart has so rapidly developed into a civil war doesn’t alter the fact that its roots lie in popular revolt.
One thing the Arab revolutions have revealed is that much of the left in the region is politically dead. The best evidence is provided by those elements in the Egyptian Communist Party who backed the military candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, in the recent presidential elections.
Those in the Western left who allow a reflexive and unthinking “anti-imperialism” to set them against the Syrian revolution are simply confessing their own bankruptcy.
[This article first appeared in Socialist Worker UK]