The Myth of the Secular, Pro-Democracy Syrian Rebel

You know, we started helping the rebels, whatever they are, and they’re certainly not fighting for democracy, given their sponsorship, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as far back as early spring of last year, 2012, without saying it publicly.–Zbigniew Brzezinski*

By Stephen Gowans

Asked to justify his support for what his interlocutor called “Islamo-fascists,” a leftist sympathetic to the Syrian rebellion replied, “I’m not supporting radical Islamists. I support the Free Syrian Army’s fight for democracy.” With al-Qaeda aligned jihadists beheading some of their enemies and eating the organs of others, that’s the best case supporters of the Syrian rebellion can make these days. Unlike the radical Islamists, who dominate the rebellion and want to build a theocracy atop the hoped-for ruins of Syria’s secular Arab nationalist regime, the uprising’s Western leftist supporters are against dictatorship and for democracy. That’s why, they say, they’re backing the FSA.

But much as they believe they’re on the side on the angels, they’re not. The idea that the FSA is the secular, democratic front of a popular uprising ignores a number of problems, from a misunderstanding of what the FSA is, to blindness to the democratic reforms already carried out in Syria, to an unwarranted fondness for a political arrangement that would open the doors to US domination of Syria.

The “moderate” rebels

Let’s begin with the misunderstanding about the Free Syrian Army. There’s nothing secular about the FSA, and nothing democratic about it, either. The US-backed rebel army exists, according to its leaders, for one reason—to remove Bashar al-Assad as president. [1] Its sole program, then, is negative, without positive (either democratic or secular) aspirations.

You don’t have to be committed to a secular society to belong to the FSA. Indeed, according to Reuters, the organization’s military command is “Islamist dominated”. [2] The Associated Press says that “Many of the participating groups have strong Islamist agendas, and some have fought in ways that could scare away Western backers. They include the Tawheed Brigade, whose ideology is similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Falcons of Damascus, an ultraconservative Islamist group.” [3] The Wall Street Journal reports that Brig. Gen. Mithkal Albtaish, an FSA leader, says that the organization is “dominated by Islamist groups that are in close coordination with al Nusra,” [4] the al-Qaeda aligned terrorist group. The idea, then, that the FSA is secular is mistaken.

Neither does the FSA have a political program committed to democracy. “Eliminate Assad” does not necessarily mean “create democracy.” It could mean “create theocracy” or “create a US-puppet regime.” Hence, what the FSA wants to replace Assad with, is not defined, but given that the organization is backed, armed, supported and guided by the United States, its European satellites, and Arab royalist dictators (an iconoclast has dubbed the loose alliance of rebel groups the Foreign Supplied Army) we can guess that the answer is: whatever the FSA’s backers, prime among them Washington, say. And let’s be clear. The FSA’s goal isn’t to eliminate Assad per se, but the policies Assad and his allies are committed to: economic nationalism; anti-colonialism; alliance with Iran; and so on, about which more in a moment. It is inconceivable that the United States and its FSA marionette would tolerate a successor to Assad who maintained Assad’s foreign and economic policies.

US foreign policy

The aim of US foreign policy is to defend and promote the interests of that section of the country’s citizens which has the greatest sway over its formation. This is by no means a unique feature of the foreign policy of the United States, but is a universal characteristic of the foreign policies of all countries. French, Russian, Chinese and British foreign policies are no different. For example, the basic priority of foreign policy in Britain—where the country’s business interests have a commanding influence over state policy— “is to aid British companies in getting their hands on other countries’ resources,” according to British foreign policy analyst Mark Curtis. Pointing to the role of one instrument of British foreign policy, the country’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, Curtis observes,

As Lord Mackay, then Lord Chancellor, revealed in the mid-1990s, the role of MI6 is to protect Britain’s ‘economic well-being’ by keeping ‘a particular eye on Britain’s access to key commodities, like oil or metals [and] the profits of Britain’s myriad of international business interests.’ [5]

The aim of US (or British) foreign policy is not to promote a particular kind of political regime in other countries. It, does not, contrary, to its own rhetoric, favour liberal democracies over other political systems, nor promote liberal democracy abroad, except insofar as liberal democratic political arrangements are congenial to the business interests of its most influential citizens. If fascist dictatorship, military autocracy or absolutist monarchy best serves the profit-making interests of preeminent US investors, banks and corporations at a particular time and place, the United States is happy to promote and defend these alternative regimes. For example, royal dictatorships abound among Washington’s Arab allies. Washington is comfortable having Arab dictators as friends because these regimes are congenial to US business, financial and military interests—recycling petro-dollars through US investment banks; cooperating with the US military, and in some case hosting US military bases; purchasing US military equipment; and implementing pro-US foreign investment and trade policies. When Arab dictators have become less accommodating, and more interested in promoting local interests, Washington has turned against them, reviling them as dictators to galvanize support at home for interventions to topple them, and replace them with more congenial (to wealthy US investor) rulers. “Rebel” journalist Wilfred Burchett put it this way: “The truth of the matter is that any country which can guarantee safety for British and American investments, no matter what the color of its regime, is acceptable to Whitehall and the White House, whether it be a personal dictatorship in Santo Domingo, clerical Fascist in Spain, semi Fascist in South Africa, or a gangster regime in a South American republic.” [6]

There are, then, two points—the first about goals and the second about means.

• The goal of US foreign policy is to promote the profit-making interests of its super-wealthy citizens who have goods to export and capital to invest.
• Liberal democracy is sometimes seen as the best way to achieve this goal, but sometimes not. When liberal democracy is understood as the best arrangement, Washington will promote it. When a different political arrangement is understood to best support fundamental US foreign policy aims, Washington will promote that different political arrangement.

Is the United States promoting liberal democracy in Syria?

If it is, it is only doing so incidentally, and we don’t even know if it’s doing that. All we know is that Washington, like the FSA (or more precisely the FSA like Washington) wants to topple the Ba’ath regime and it’s easy to infer why. Damascus pursues too many objectionable policies from Washington’s point of view. First, there’s economic nationalism (subsidies to domestic firms, restrictions on foreign investment, tariffs to protect domestic industry, displacement of free enterprise by state-ownership—all of which limit US profit-making opportunities). Then there’s Syria’s refusal to recognize the Zionist conquest of Palestine (i.e., to recognize Israel.) Syria’s support for Hezbollah and alliance with Iran are also irritants, as is the country’s military cooperation with Russia. So, all we know is that Washington wants Assad gone—because his policies fail to mesh with the US foreign policy goal of making US investors, corporations and financiers richer.

At the moment, we can seriously doubt that the United States is working through the rebels to promote liberal democracy, because (a) the dominant part of the rebellion, the radical Islamists, abhor liberal democracy and are committed to a theocracy, and (b) the FSA is only committed to ousting Assad, and has no commitment to promoting democracy. But suppose the United States is indeed working to promote liberal democracy in Syria. Would a US-imposed liberal democracy be better than what currently exists in the country? Syria is in transition from a political arrangement which defined the Arab nationalist and socialist Ba’ath Party as the country’s lead political organization to a multi-party electoral democratic arrangement in which no party is primus inter pares. A constitutional amendment introduced under pressure of the Syrian revolt, and ratified by referendum, stripped the Ba’athists of their lead role in Syrian society, and scheduled a presidential election for 2014. Anyone who meets basic requirements can stand for election. At the same time, restrictions on civil liberties, implemented because Syria is in a technical state of war with Israel, were lifted. Thus, whoever backs the Syrian rebels on grounds that they’re bringing to birth a new liberal democratic order in Syria (of which we have no evidence that they are or even intend to do so) needs to show how the child that will be delivered through the pain of more war will be any different from the child that has already been delivered through Assad’s reforms.

There’s something else they need to explain. What’s so wonderful about a US-approved liberal democratic order? Liberal democracy appeals to the US’s power elite because it creates an “open society”—one which affords the wealthy elite plenty of room to use their command over their considerable resources to dominate the political process. They use their wealth and connections to place themselves and their representatives in key state decision-making positions; to lobby politicians and regulatory agencies; to bribe politicians with campaign funding and the promise of lucrative post-political jobs; and to hire public relations firms and establish foundations to set media and scholarly agendas. Through these means they concentrate state power in their hands (complementing their considerable economic power); win most political battles; and monopolize the society’s benefits.

An open Syrian society would allow the United States to act in Syria as the US corporate elite acts in the United States. It could buy influence by funding political candidates and parties that are pro-West, pro-US, pro-free-trade, pro-Israel, and pro-foreign-investment. It could allow the State Department to funnel money to local media to promote US positions (openly, through the National Endowment for Democracy, or covertly, if necessary). And Washington could bankroll NGOs, either directly or through private foundations, to garner popular support for policies favorable to US interests. The outcome would be that state power would be concentrated in the hands of US lackeys; US interests would win out in political battles with local interests; and the US corporate elite would monopolize the benefits of the Syrian economy. That’s not democracy. It’s neo-colonialism.


There are two kinds of rebels in Syria. Those who openly promote theocracy. And those whose only public commitment is to eliminate Assad. The military command of the latter includes secular elements but is Islamist-dominated. Their goals, beyond eliminating Assad, are undefined—perhaps concealed. They may want to create a theocracy, or a US-puppet regime, or both, or something else altogether. They are also armed, trained, backed and politically supported by the United States, its European satellites, and Arab royal dictatorships.

The United States supports foreign organizations that can help advance the interests of that section of the US population which holds sway over US foreign policy formation—wealthy bankers, major investors and huge corporations looking for export and investment opportunities abroad. It does not support democratic organizations—those that seek to promote the interests of the people in the countries in which US investors and corporations seek to do business. The belief, then, that there exists a popular uprising in Syria for democracy that, despite its being backed by the United States, can still be an instrument for promoting the interests of Syrians, is found on mistaken ideas about who the rebels are and a misunderstanding of the nature of US foreign policy. To square this circle, one would have to believe that the interests of the US corporate elite are congruent with, and not inimical to, the interests of the vast majority of Syria’s people.

But even if, indeed, we could say that Washington is backing some of the rebels on the ground with the aim of creating a liberal democracy in Syria, we would still have to ask two questions. First, would this political system, which is to be secured at the cost of many more tens of thousands of lives in a continued war, be any better than the one already conceded by the Assad government? Second, would an open society—one affording plenty of room for US forces to dominate Syria’s public and economic life—be preferable to a less open one, whose restrictions guard against foreign domination and allow the state to pursue local interests?

1. Zeina Karam, “In rare public appearance, Syrian president denies role in Houla massacre”, The Associated Press, June 3, 2012.
2. “Syrian rebels elect head of new military command,” Reuters, December 8, 2012.
3. Bassem Mroue and Benn Hubbard, “Syria rebels create new unified military command,” Associated Press, December 8, 2012.
4. Inti Landauro and Stacy Meichtry, “Rebels in Syria move to show moderation”, The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2013
5. Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage, 2003, pp.210-211.
6. Wilfred Burchett, excerpt from People’s Democracies, in George Burchett and Nick Shimmin (eds.), Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 45.
* “As Assad Makes Gains, Will New U.S. Strategy for Syria Change the Dynamics?” PBS Newshour, June 14, 2013,

Syria, The View From The Other Side

By Stephen Gowans

His security forces used live ammunition to mow down peaceful pro-democracy protesters, forcing them to take up arms to try to topple his brutal dictatorship. He has killed tens of thousands of his own people, using tanks, heavy artillery and even chemical weapons. He’s a blood-thirsty tyrant whose rule has lost its legitimacy and must step down to make way for a peaceful democratic transition.

That’s the view of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, cultivated by Western politicians and their media stenographers. If there’s another side to the story, you’re unlikely to hear it. Western mass media are not keen on presenting the world from the point of view of governments that find themselves the target of Western regime change operations. On the contrary, their concern is to present the point of view of the big business interests that own them and the Western imperialism that defends and promotes big business interests. They accept as beyond dispute all pronouncements by Western leaders on matters of foreign affairs, and accept without qualification that the official enemies of US imperialism are as nasty as the US president and secretary of state say they are.

What follows is the largely hidden story from the other side, based on two interviews with Assad, the first conducted by Clarin newspaper and Telam news agency on May 19, 2013, and the second carried out on June 17, 2013 by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Both were translated into English by the Syrian Arab News Agency.

Peaceful protests?

Ba’athist Syria is no stranger to civil unrest, having experienced wave after wave of uprisings by Sunni religious fanatics embittered by their country being ruled by a secular state whose highest offices are occupied by Alawite ‘heretics’. [1] The latest round of uprisings, the opening salvos in another chapter of what Glen E. Robinson calls “Syria’s Long Civil War,” began in March, 2011. The first press reports were of a few small protests, dwarfed by the far more numerous and substantial protests that erupt every day in the United States, Britain and France. A March 16, 2011 New York Times report noted that “In Syria, demonstrations are few and brief.” These early demonstrations—a few quixotic young men declaring that “the revolution has started!”, relatives of prisoners protesting outside the Interior Ministry—seem disconnected from the radical Islamist rebellion that would soon develop.

Within days, larger demonstrations were underway in Dara, where citizens were said to have been “outraged by the arrest of more than a dozen schoolchildren.” Contrary to a myth that has since taken hold, these demonstrations were hardly peaceful. Protesters set fire to the local Ba’ath Party headquarters, as well as to the town’s main courthouse and a branch of SyriaTel. Some protesters shot at the police, who returned fire. [2] One can imagine the reaction of the New York City Police to protesters in Manhattan setting fire to the federal court building, firebombing the Verizon building and opening fire on police. A foreign broadcaster with an agenda to depict the United States in the worst possible light might describe the protest as peaceful, and the police response as brutal, but it’s doubtful anyone in the United States would see it that way.

From “the first weeks of the protests we had policemen killed, so how could such protests have been peaceful?” asks Assad. “How could those who claim that the protests were peaceful explain the death of these policemen in the first week?” Assad doesn’t deny that most protesters demonstrated peacefully, but notes that “there were armed militants infiltrating protesters and shooting at the police.”

Was the reaction of Syrian security forces to the unrest heavy-handed? Syria has a long history of Islamist uprisings against its secular state. With anti-government revolts erupting in surrounding countries, there was an acute danger that Syria’s Muslim Brothers—long at war with the Syrian state—would be inspired to return to jihad. What’s more, Syria is technically at war with Israel. As other countries in similar circumstances, Syria had an emergency law in place, restricting certain civil liberties in the interest of defending national security. Among the restrictions was a ban on unauthorized public assembly. The demonstrations were a flagrant challenge to the law, at a time of growing instability and danger to the survival of the Syrian secular project. Moreover, to expect Syrian authorities to react with restraint to gunfire from protesters is to hold Syria to a higher standard than any other country.

Meanwhile, as protesters in Syria were shooting at police and setting fire to buildings, Bahrain’s royal dictatorship was crushing a popular uprising with the assistance of Saudi tanks and US equipment. New York Times’ columnist Nicholas D. Kristof lamented that “America’s ally, Bahrain” was using “American tanks, guns and tear gas as well as foreign mercenaries to crush a pro-democracy movement” as Washington remained “mostly silent.” [3] Kristof said he had “seen corpses of protesters who were shot at close range, seen a teenage girl writhing in pain after being clubbed, seen ambulance workers beaten for trying to rescue protesters.” He didn’t explain why the United States would have a dictator as an ally, much less one who crushed a pro-democracy movement. All he could offer was the weak excuse that the United States was “in a vice—caught between its allies and its values,” as if Washington didn’t chose its allies, and that they were a force of nature, like an earthquake or a hurricane, that you had to live with and endure. The United States was indeed in a vice—though not of the sort Kristof described. It was caught between Washington’s empty rhetoric on democracy and the profit-making interests of the country’s weighty citizens, the true engine of US foreign policy. The dilemma was readily resolved. Profits prevailed, as they always do.

Bahrain’s accommodating attitude to US imperialism—it is home to the US Fifth Fleet—and its emphasis on indulging owners and investors at the expense of wage- and salary-earners, are unimpeachably friendly to US corporate and financial interests. Practically the entire stable of US allies in the Middle East is comprised of royal dictators whose attitude to democracy is unremittingly hostile, but whose attitude to helping US oil companies and titans of finance rake in fabulous profits is tremendously accommodating. And so the United States is on good terms with them, despite their violent allergic reaction to democracy. Aware of whose interests really matter in US foreign policy, Kristof wrote of Bahrain, “We’re not going to pull out our naval base.” Democracy is one thing, but closing a military base half way around the world is quite another.

That Bahrain’s version of the Arab Spring failed to grow into a civil war has much to do with US tanks, guns and tear gas, foreign mercenaries, and the silence of the US government. The Bahraini authorities used the repressive apparatus of the state more vigorously than Syrian authorities did, and yet virtually escaped the negative attention of responsibility-to-protect advocates, the US State Department, “serious” political commentators, and anarchists and many (though not all) Trots who, in line with their savaging of Gadhafi, preferred to vent their spleen on another official enemy of Western imperialism, rather than waste their bile execrating a US ally. What’s more, the ‘international community’ did much to fan the flames of the Syrian rebellion, linking up once again with their old friends Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brothers to destabilize yet another left nationalist secular regime, whose devotion to sovereignty and self-management was an affront to Wall Street. [4] Without naming him specifically, Assad says Khalifa is among the leaders who stand in relation to the United States, France and Britain as “puppets and dummies [who] do their bidding and serve their interests without question.”


If Khalifa is the model of the Arab dictator Washington embraces, Assad fits the matrix of the Arab leader whose insistence on independence rubs the US State Department the wrong way. “The primary aim of the West,” Assad says, “is to ensure that they have ‘loyal’ governments at their disposal…which facilitate the exploitation and consumption of a country’s national resources.” Khalifa comes to mind.

In contrast, Assad insists that a “country like Syria is not by any means a satellite state to the West.” It hasn’t turned over its territory to US military bases, nor made over its economy to accommodate Western investors, banks and corporations. “Syria,” he says, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.”

It’s not his attitude to multi-party democracy or the actions of Syria’s security forces that have aroused Western enmity, asserts Assad, but his insistence on steering an independent course for Syria. “It is only normal that they would not want us to play a role (in managing our own affairs), preferring instead a puppet government serving their interests and creating projects that would benefit their peoples and economies.” Normal or not, the Syrian president says, “We have consistently rejected this. We will always be independent and free,” adding that the United States and its satellites are using the conflict in Syria “to get rid of Syria—this insubordinate state, and replace the president with a ‘yes’ man.”

Foreign agenda

Assad challenges the characterization of the conflict as a civil war. The rebel side, he points out, is overwhelmingly dominated by foreign jihadists and foreign-backed opposition elements (heavily dominated by the Muslim Brothers) backed by hostile imperialist powers. Some of Assad’s opponents, he observes, “are far from autonomous independent decision makers,” receiving money, weapons, logistical support and intelligence from foreign powers. “Their decisions,” he says, “are not self-governing.”

The conflict is more aptly characterized as a predatory war on Syrian sovereignty carried out by Western powers and their reactionary Arab satellite states using radical Islamists to topple Assad’s government “to impose a puppet government loyal to them which (will) ardently implement their policies.” These policies would almost certainly involve Damascus endorsing the Zionist conquest of Palestine as legitimate (i.e., recognizing Israel), as well as opening the country to the US military and turning over Syrian markets, labor and resources to exploitation by Western investors, banks and corporations on terms favourable to Western capital and unfavourable to Syrians.

Russia and Iran

Criticism of the intervention of a number of reactionary Arab states in the conflict, and the participation of Western imperialist powers, is often countered by pointing to Russia’s and Iran’s role in furnishing Syria with weapons. Assad argues that intervention of the side of the jihadists (‘terrorists’ in his vocabulary) is unlawful and illegitimate. By furnishing rebels with arms, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States “meddle in Syria’s internal affairs” Assad says, “which is a flagrant violation of international law and our national sovereignty.” On the other hand, Russia and Iran, which have supplied Syria with arms, have engaged in lawful trade with Syria, and have not infringed its independence.


According to Assad, Hezbollah has been active in towns on the border with Lebanon, but its involvement in the Syrian conflict has, otherwise, been limited. “There are no brigades (of Hezbollah fighters in Syria.) They have sent fighters who have aided the Syrian army in cleaning areas on the Lebanese borders that were infiltrated with terrorists.”

Assad points out that if Hezbollah’s assistance was needed, he would have asked for deployment of the resistance organization’s fighters to Damascus and Aleppo which are “more important than al-Quseir,” the border town that was cleared of rebel fighters with Hezbollah’s help.

Stories about Hezbollah fighters pouring over the border to prop up the Syrian government are a “frenzy…to reflect an image of Hezbollah as the main fighting force” in order “to provoke Western and international public opinion,” Assad says. The aim, he continues, is to create “this notion that Hezbollah and Iran are also fighting in Syria as a counterweight” to the “presence of foreign jihadists” in Syria.


The Assad government has implemented a number of reforms in response to the uprising.

First, it cancelled the long-standing abridgment of civil liberties that had been authorized by the emergency law. This law, invoked because Syria is in a technical state of war with Israel, gave Damascus powers it needed to safeguard the security of the state in wartime. Many Syrians, however, chaffed at the law, and regarded it as unduly restrictive. Bowing to popular pressure, the security measures were suspended.

Second, the government proposed a new constitution to accommodate protesters’ demands to strip the Ba’ath Party of its lead role in Syrian society. The constitution was put to a referendum and ratified. Additionally, the presidency would be open to anyone meeting basic residency, age and citizenship requirements. Presidential elections would be held by secret vote every seven years under a system of universal suffrage, with the next election scheduled for 2014. “I don’t know if (US secretary of state) Kerry or others like him have a mandate from the Syrian people to speak on their behalf as to who stays and who leaves,” Assad observes, noting that Syrians themselves can decide whether he stays or leaves when they go to the polls next year.

Despite Assad’s lifting the emergency law and amending the constitution to accommodate demands for a multi-party electoral democracy, the conflict continues. Instead of accepting these changes, the rebels summarily rejected them. Washington, London and Paris also dismissed Assad’s concessions, denigrating them as “meaningless,” without explanation. [5] Given the immediate and total rejection of the reforms, Assad can hardly be blamed for concluding that “democracy was not the driving force of the revolt.”

Elaborating, he notes:

It was seemingly apparent at the beginning that demands were for reforms. It was utilized to appear as if the crisis was a matter of political reform. Indeed, we pursued a policy of wide scale reforms from changing the constitution to many of the legislations and laws, including lifting the state of emergency law, and embarking on a national dialogue with all political opposition groups. It was striking that with every step we took in the reform process, the level of terrorism escalated.

The reality that the armed rebellion is dominated by Islamists [6] also militates against the conclusion that thirst for democracy lies at its core. Many radical Islamists reject democracy because they see it as a system for creating man-made laws and, as a corollary, for rejecting God’s law. Reportedly hundreds of jihadists [7]—members of a sort of Islamist International—have travelled from abroad to fight for a Levantine society in which God’s law, and not that of men and women, rules. Assad asks, “What interest does an internationally listed terrorist from Chechnya or Afghanistan have with the internal political reform process in Syria?” Or in democracy?

Good terrorists and bad terrorists

Syria’s jihadists have resorted to terrorist tactics, and appear to have little fear that they will ever be held to account for these or other war crimes. They are not mistaken. Their summary executions of prisoners, indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, terrorist car bombings, rapes, torture, hostage taking and pillage—documented by the UN human rights commission [8]—will very likely be swept into a dark, murky corner, to be forgotten and never acted upon, while imperialist powers use their sway over international courts to shine a bright line upon war crimes committed by Syrian forces. While their ranks include the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra front, the jihadists have been depicted as heroes by Western governments and their media stenographers, a “good Al-Qaeda,” says Assad. Cat’s paws of the West, radical Islamists are good terrorists when they fight to bring down independent governments, like the leftist pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, and the anti-imperialist governments in Libya and Syria, but are bad terrorists when they attack the US homeland and threaten to take power in Mali.

Chemical weapons

Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security advisor, announced that Syrian forces have “used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year” killing “100 to 150 people.” [9]

Assad says the White House’s claim doesn’t add up. The point of using nerve gas, a weapon of mass destruction, is to kill “thousands of people at one given time.” The 150 people Washington says Syrian forces took 365 days to kill with chemical weapons could have been easily killed in one day using conventional weapons.

Why, then, wonders Assad, would the Syrian army use a weapon of mass destruction sub-optimally to kill a limited number of rebels when in a year it could kill hundreds of times more with rifles, tanks and artillery? “It is counterintuitive,” says the Syrian president, “to use chemical weapons to create a death toll that you could potentially reach by using conventional weapons.”

There is some evidence pointing to the use of chemical weapons by the rebels. Carla Del Ponte, a member of the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria—a body created by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate alleged violations of human rights law in Syria—says that the commission has “concrete suspicions” of the use of sarin gas by the rebels” but no evidence government forces have used them. [10]

Assad says he asked the United Nations to launch a formal investigation into suspected use of chemical weapons by rebel forces in Aleppo, but that the UN demanded unconditional access to the country. If Assad acceded to the demand, the inspection regime could be used as a cover to gather military intelligence for use against Syrian forces. “We are a sovereign state; we have an army and all matters considered classified will never be accessible neither to the UN, nor Britain, nor France,” says Assad. If he rejected the demand, it could be said—as it indeed it was by the White House [11]—that the ‘international community’ had been prevented by Damascus from undertaking a comprehensive investigation, thereby releasing the UN from any obligation to investigate the use of chemical weapons by the jihadists. At the same time, by rejecting the UN’s demand, the Syrian government would create the impression it had something to hide. This could be countered by Damascus explaining its reasons for turning down the UN conditions, but the Western media give little time to the Syrian perspective, preferring saturation coverage of the pronouncements of Western officials. In terms of Western public opinion, whatever US officials say about Syria is decisive. Whatever Syrian officials say is drowned out, if presented at all.

It should be noted that no permanent member of the UN Security Council, including the United States and Britain—indeed, no country of any standing—would willingly grant an outside organization or country unrestricted access to its military and government facilities. The reasons for denying UN inspectors untrammelled access to Syria are all the stronger in Syria’s case, given that major players on the Security Council are overtly backing the rebels, and could be expected to try to use UN inspectors—as indeed the US did in Iraq—to gather military intelligence to be used against the host country.

It would also do well to remember that the United States evinced no interest in investigating the use of chemical weapons by the rebels, immediately dismissing the allegations as unfounded. Following up on the allegations wasn’t an option.

Finally, Assad points out that the chemical weapons charges call to mind the ‘sexed up’ WMD evidence used by the United States and Britain as a pretext to invade and conquer Iraq: “It is common knowledge” he says, “that Western administrations lie continuously and manufacture stories as a pretext for war.”


The purpose of the foregoing is to offer a glimpse into the conflict in Syria from the other side, a side which the Western media are institutionally incapable of presenting, except in passing, and only if overwhelmed by the competing imperialist narrative.

Assad’s analysis and values are very much in the anti-imperialist vein. He speaks of Western powers seeking “dummies” and “yes men” who will pursue policies that are favourable to the West. The United States does indeed maintain a collection of “yes men” in the Middle East. Khalifa, the royal dictator of Bahrain, who used US tanks, guns, tear gas and Saudi mercenaries to crush a popular rebellion, is a model Arab “yes man” and a dictator, as many of Washington’s “yes men” are, and have always been.

Assad, in contrast, has none of Khalifa’s readiness to kowtow to an imperialist master. Instead, his government’s insistence on working for the interests of Syrians, rather than making Syrians work for the interests of the West, has provoked the hostility of the United States, France and Britain, and their determination to overthrow his government. That Assad’s commitment to local interests goes beyond rhetoric is clear in the character of Syria’s economic policy. It features the state-owned enterprises, tariffs, subsidies to domestic firms, and restrictions on foreign investment that Wall Street and its State Department handmaiden vehemently oppose for restricting the profit-making opportunities of wealthy US investors, bankers and corporations [12]. On foreign policy, Syria has steered a course sensitive to local interests, refusing to abandon the Arab national project, whose success would threaten US domination of the Middle East, while allying with Iran and Hezbollah in a resistance (to US imperialism) front.

For his refusal to become their “puppet,” the United States and its imperialist allies intend to topple Assad through accustomed means: an opportunistic alliance with radical Islamists who hate Assad as much as Washington does, though for reasons of religion rather than economics and imperialism.

1. Syria’s post-colonial history is punctuated by Islamist uprisings. The Muslim Brotherhood organized riots against the government in 1964, 1965, 1967 and 1969. It called for a Jihad against then president Hafiz al-Assad, the current president’s father, denigrating him as “the enemy of Allah.” By 1977, the Mujahedeen were engaged in a guerrilla struggle against the Syrian army and its Soviet advisers, culminating in the 1982 occupation of the city of Hama. The Syrian army quelled the occupation, killing 20,000 to 30,000. Islamists have since remained a perennial source of instability in Syria and the government has been on continual guard against “a resurgence of Sunni Islamic fundamentalists,” according to the US Library of Congress Country Study of Syria.
2. “Officers fire on crowd as Syria protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011.
3. Nicholas D. Kristof, “Bahrain pulls a Qaddafi”, The New York Times, March 16, 2011.
4. For the West’s opportunistic alliances with political Islam see Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, Serpent’s Tail, 2011.
5. David M. Herszenhorn, “For Syria, Reliant on Russia for weapons and food, old bonds run deep”, The New York Times, February 18, 2012.
6. Adam Entous, “White House readies new aid for Syrian rebels”, The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2013; Anne Barnard, “Syria campaigns to persuade U.S. to change sides”, The New York Times, April 24, 2013; 3. Gerald F. Seib, “The risks holding back Obama on Syria”, The Wall Street journal, May 6, 2013.
7. According to Russian president Vladimir Putin “at least 600 Russians and Europeans are fighting alongside the opposition.” “Putin: President al-Assad confronts foreign gunmen, not Syrian people,” Syrian Arab News Agency, June 22, 2013.
8. Damien Mcelroy, “Syrian rebels face war crime accusation”, The Ottawa Citizen, August 11, 2012; Sam Dagher and Nour Malas, “Lebanon militia kidnaps Syrians”, The Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2012; Hwaida Saad and Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Civilian attacks rise in Syria, U.N. says”, The New York Times, September 17, 2012; Stacy Meichtry, “Sarin detected in samples from Syria, France says”, The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2013; Sam Dagher, “Violence spirals as Assad gains”, The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2013.
9. Statement by Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, on chemical weapons. The Guardian (UK), June 13, 2013.
10. “UN: ‘Strong suspicions’ that Syrian rebels have used sarin nerve gas,” Euronews, May 6, 2013; “UN’s Del Ponte says evidence Syria rebels ‘used sarin’”, BBC News, May 6, 2013.
11. Rhodes.
12. For Syria’s economic policies and the US ruling class reaction to them see the Syria sections of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom and the CIA Factbook .

Thugs of the Near and Middle East

By Stephen Gowans

He has cracked down harshly on protestors who object to his autocratic style. He calls his opponents terrorists and says there’s a foreign plot to topple his government. He says the opposition is infiltrated with foreigners from all parts of the world.


No. This is Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to The New York Times. [1]

The Times fails to mention that Erdogan has killed his own people, both Kurds, whose struggle for autonomy the Turkish state has waged war to annihilate, and demonstrators, who have protested without arms against the Turkish prime minister’s autocratic ways.

Which makes one wonder why the United States, and its satellites, the UK and France, justify their support for the head-barbecuing, organ-eating religious fanatics who are trying to topple the anti-sectarian, secular Arab nationalist state in Damascus by pointing to the same behavior on Assad’s part that they’re perfectly willing to tolerate on Erdogan’s.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that “The Central Intelligence Agency has been training rebels in Jordan under a covert program.” [2]

So why isn’t the CIA training rebels to bring down the popular uprising-crushing, kill-his-own-people Erdogan, or to topple the brutal, royal dictators in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE? These monarchical tyrants have no more patience for demonstrators than Erdogan has—indeed, considerably less. Bahrain’s crowned dictator crushed a popular uprising in blood with the help of tanks dispatched by the misogynistic, democracy-abominating, Saudi family dictatorship next door.

But Assad is different. He has used chemical weapons. At least, that’s what my local newspaper tells me. Accepting the White House at its word, Ottawa Citizen reporters Jason Fekete and Jordan Press, write that “chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime.” [3] Not are alleged to have been used. Not the White House claims they have been used. But, they have been used. Period.

Parenthetically, on the same day the Citizen reporters were playing Charlie McCarthy to the White House’s Edgar Bergen, the Wall Street Journal ran a headline that read: “West to Press Iran on Nukes.” [4] Iran doesn’t have nukes, but the Western media every once in a while like to tell us they do, presumably to keep the fear-level high enough to justify the United States and European Union carrying out their sub-critical anti-Iran war of economy-crippling sanctions, cyberattacks, and assassinations. After all, who wants a mad Ayatollah running around with nukes? On the other hand, Israel’s estimated 400 nukes, its nuke-launching submarines, nuke-delivering long-range bombers, and nuke-tipped long-range missiles, are rarely mentioned, if ever. “West to Press Israel on Nukes” is a headline you’ll never see—except in a really good alternative history where the world turns out as it should. Who wants crazed Zionists running around with nukes?

One might have thought that after the Bush administration’s phony Iraq weapons of mass destruction frame-up, that the two Ottawa Citizen reporters would have exercised a good deal more caution when reporting on Washington’s self-declared reasons for intervening in the affairs of other countries. At minimum, they might have noted that the White House chemical weapons claim is just that—a claim. And that Washington’s record on these matters is not what you’d call confidence-inspiring.

What’s more, if the Iraq WMD deception wasn’t enough to galvanize Fekete and Press to greet the White House’s announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism, the text accompanying US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes’ announcement that the US intelligence community had assessed that Syrian forces had used chemical agents should surely have set alarm bells ringing. Rhodes said that the evidence does not “tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible.” [5] In other words, we’ve assessed that Assad did it, but our evidence doesn’t tell us he did it.

Even if Washington, itself, had not qualified its own claim, the reporters’ unqualified assertion that chemical weapons have been used by Syrian forces would have been unwarranted, and hardly up to the standards of journalism that journalists are supposed to practice, but rarely do. It’s doubly unwarranted given that Washington acknowledges that its own evidence is, well, not really evidence at all, but “shreds and shards of information that could be possibly linked to chemical weapons,” [6] but used by whom, we’re not really sure.

Given all this, could one really be blamed for arriving at the conclusion that Fekete and Press are not journalists at all, but Western chauvinist stenographers, whose total absence of scepticism about the motives of Western states, serves well the cause of duping the public into going along with Western interventions to topple official enemies?

Back to Erdogan. As part of the alliance of US lackeys seeking to topple the non-lackey Syrian government by giving arms and training to Islamist fanatics with a taste for human liver, Erdogan can be assured that Washington won’t be coming after him, no matter how autocratic or deadly his behaviour. As for what the press will report about him, well, that largely depends on what the White House will have to say about its ally.

1. Tim Arango, Sebnem Arsu and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Turkey expands violent reaction to street unrest,” The New York Times, June 16, 2013.
2. Michael R. Gordon and Thom Shanker, “U.S. to keep warplanes in Jordan, pressing Syria”, The New York Times, June 15, 2013.
3. Jason Fekete and Jordan Press, “PM won’t arm Syrian rebels”, The Ottawa Citizen, June 17, 2013.
4. Jay Solomon and Farnaz Fassihi, “West to press Iran on nukes”, The Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2013.
5. Statement by Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, on chemical weapons. The Guardian (UK), June 13, 2013.
6. This is how US officials described the evidence two months ago, before the rebels suffered a major military set-back, and when Washington was resisting pressure to step up its intervention. Jay Solomon, “Obama cools opposition’s hopes in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2013.

Al Qaeda’s Arms Supplier

One does not need to support people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras. Are these the people you want to support? Is it them you want to supply with weapons? Then this probably has little relation to humanitarian values that have been preached in Europe for hundreds of years.–Russian president Vladimir Putin [1]

By Stephen Gowans

The way the White House and US media tell the story, the Syrian government crossed a red line by using chemical weapons, triggering a US decision to arm the Syrian rebellion, dominated by the Al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front. The way it almost certainly happened is that rebel setbacks triggered a decision to arm the rebels, and that laughably weak evidence of Syrian forces using chemical weapons was used to justify it.

There are three reasons to believe the second account and to reject the first.

#1. The evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons is no more cogent today than it was two months ago when the White House dismissed the same evidence as inconclusive.

Back then, France said it had evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. It consisted of: reports by rebels of chemical attacks; the alleged victims exhibiting symptoms consistent with sarin gas exposure; tissue samples testing positive for exposure to the nerve agent.

At the time, the White House rejected the evidence, correctly characterizing it as nothing more than “shreds and shards of information that could be possibly linked to chemical weapons,” but inconclusive. [2] The evidence’s weakness turned on ambiguity in “the chain of custody” so that US officials could not “confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Washington’s scepticism was based on concerns of the rebels possibly tainting the tissue samples to draw the United States more fully into the conflict. And the White House noted that “the detection of chemical agents doesn’t necessarily mean they were used in an attack by the Syrian regime.” [3] The rebels may have had access to sarin gas, to which they were exposed accidentally. Tissues samples may have been deliberately contaminated.

On Thursday, in the wake of the rebels suffering a major military setback, Washington did an about-face. The US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes announced that the US intelligence community had assessed “that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” [4] Obama’s infamous red line had been crossed, and the United States was free to step up its (already substantial) involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Rhodes said the assessment was based on three pieces of information.

• “Reporting regarding Syrian officials planning and executing chemical weapons attacks.”
• “Descriptions of physiological symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a chemical weapons agent.”
• “Laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin.” [5]

In other words, someone (likely the rebels) said Syrian forces used chemical weapons, the alleged victims displayed symptoms consistent with exposure to a chemical agent, and tissue samples tested positive for sarin. This was the same evidence the White House rejected as inconclusive two months ago.

#2. Echoing the White House’s previous scepticism, Rhodes acknowledged that the evidence does not “tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible.” [6] In other words, the evidence hasn’t changed, and nor has its weakness. What has changed is the White House’s evidentiary bar. It has slipped, and is lying on the floor.

#3. The Wall Street Journal reported that the decision to directly arm the rebels “according to people familiar with it, was the product of two months of increasingly unsettling assessment about the war that propelled the president to do something he had previously argued would be a mistake.” A crucial factor in the White House volte-face was “growing U.S. concerns about large-scale battlefield deployment of militants from the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah—an appearance that alarmed Israel and caught the Americans by surprise—and President Bashar al-Assad’s more recent battlefield gains.” [7]

So, if we put points 1, 2 and 3 together: Assad is winning. The evidence that Syrian forces have used chemical agents hasn’t changed, and the concerns about it remain. But needing a pretext to step up US involvement in Syria to prevent an Assad victory, the White House lowered the evidentiary bar. Weak evidence, never strong enough to warrant the conclusion Assad had crossed a red line suddenly became good enough. Through this neat trick—if the evidence is the same, change the conclusion you draw from it to suit your policy—the White House has handed itself a pretext to arm rebel forces dominated by Al-Qaeda terrorists.

There are three matters that should also be considered.

First, it never made sense, either militarily or politically, for Syrian forces to use chemical weapons. Their use would present the US with a pretext to escalate its intervention in Syria, an outcome the Syrian government would surely like to avoid. On the other hand, once Obama announced his red line, the rebels were handed a compelling reason to fabricate evidence of chemical weapons use by Syrian forces to draw the US more decisively into the conflict.

Second, the evidence of the use of chemical weapons points, not to Syrian forces, but to the rebels. According to Carla Del Ponte, a member of the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria, “We collected some witness testimony that made to appear that some chemical weapons were used, in particular nerving (sic) gas and what appears to our investigation (was) that that was used by the opponents, by the rebels.” [8] In contrast, Del Ponte said the commission had “no indication at all that the government, the authorities of the Syrian government, had used chemical weapons.” [9]

Third, even if Syrian generals are obtuse enough to make the political and military blunder of using chemical agents in battle, a US intervention in response would hardly be justified. US regime change policy in Syria antedates Syria’s civil war. The outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in Syria, and Damascus’s response to it, didn’t trigger US efforts to force Assad from power. US regime change policy, linked to Damascus’s refusal to become a “peace-partner” with Israel, its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, and its refusal to fully open its economy to US capital, existed long before the Syrian government cracked down on opposition forces. In fact, one element of US foreign policy was to encourage opposition to the Assad government, [10] that is, to foment the kind of civil unrest that eventually morphed into a full blown civil war. Washington isn’t intervening in a Syrian conflict which it, itself, has had a hand in igniting, in order to stop Syrian forces from using chemical weapons (which they very likely haven’t used anyway) but for entirely self-serving reasons related to US commercial, financial and geo-strategic goals.

Finally, it should be noted that the White House accompanied its announcement that it would directly arm the Al-Qaeda-led rebel force in Syria with gob-smacking chutzpah. The action it was taking, it said, would advance US objectives of “countering terrorist activity.” [11] Arming Al-Qaeda, while at the same time countering terrorist activity, is as neat a trick as conjuring a pretext for action by simply changing the label on evidence from low confidence to high confidence.

1. “G8 summit begins: Vladimir Putin accuses David Cameron of betraying humanitarian values by supporting Syrian rebels,” The Independent (UK), June 17, 2013.
2. Jay Solomon, “Obama cools opposition’s hopes in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2013.
3. Adam Entous, “U.S. believes Syria used gas”, The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2013.
4. Statement by Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, on chemical weapons. The Guardian (UK), June 13, 2013.
5. Rhodes.
6. Rhodes. Note also that according to the New York Times, (“U.S. to keep warplanes in Jordan, pressing Syria,” June 15, 2013) “Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that the evidence the Obama administration had relied on in making its charges of chemical weapons use was unreliable because the samples were not properly monitored until they reached a laboratory. ‘There are rules of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which are based on the fact that samples of blood, urine, soil, clothing are considered serious proof only if the samples were taken by experts, and if these experts controlled these samples all the time while they are transported to a proper laboratory,’ he said.”
7. Adam Entous, “Behind Obama’s about-face on Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2013.
8. “UN: ‘Strong suspicions’ that Syrian rebels have used sarin nerve gas,” Euronews, May 6, 2013.
9. “UN’s Del Ponte says evidence Syria rebels ‘used sarin’”, BBC News, May 6, 2013.
10. Craig Whitlock, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by Wikileaks show”, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011.
11. Rhodes.

Police States, Theirs and Ours

By Stephen Gowans

Anyone who’s shocked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations that the US state is spying on its citizens shouldn’t be. Liberal democracies have routinely spied on their own citizens, long before Google, Microsoft, Verizon and the iPhone made the job easier. And they’ve done so while denouncing official enemies like the Soviet Union and East Germany—and today Cuba and North Korea—as police states. Indeed, what’s changed isn’t the fact of state surveillance, but its scope and reach.

Writing about Canada, political scientist Reg Whitaker and historians Gregory Kealey and Andrew Parnaby note that “the police showed quite remarkable energy and zeal in spying on large numbers of citizens. (An official) commission (of inquiry) discovered in 1977 that the RCMP security service maintained a name index with 1,300,000 entries, representing 800,000 files on individuals” [1] at a time the country had a population of only 24 million!

Interestingly, Whitaker et al don’t call the RCMP’s security service a “secret police,” or Canada a “police state,” though a secret police force that maintained dossiers on three percent of its country’s population might be termed such by someone not so concerned about stepping lightly around the myth that liberal democracies are bastions of political freedom. (They are bastions of political freedom, but of a certain type: that which leaves private ownership of the economy firmly in place and the owners firmly in charge.)

Among the Canadians that Canada’s police state spied on was Tommy Douglas, a leader of the mildly left-leaning New Democratic Party, who served as the premier of one of Canada’s provinces. Douglas, grandfather of TV spook Kiefer Sutherland, and who is credited with pioneering Canada’s state-run health insurance program, died almost 30 years ago. All the same, the Canadian government refuses to make public its file on the prairie preacher turned social democrat politician. Disclosure, the Canadian police state insists, may reveal the names of informants, some of whom may still be alive, while deterring others from working with the political police, for fear their names may come to light in the future as informants. [2] Stasi informers who spied on their neighbors, workmates and acquaintances are reviled, but enmity isn’t heaped upon your neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances who are informers for Western police states. At least Stasi informers were defending a more egalitarian and humane society than the one it replaced and that has taken its place. Western secret police informers defend states that preside over growing inequality, intolerably high unemployment, a war on unions and wages, and which pursue predatory wars on foreign countries that refuse to allow the rape of their natural resources, labor and markets by the Western states’ ruling classes.

Canada’s NSA equivalent, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), has, like its better known counterpart south of the border, been scooping up “billions of bits of information transmitted around the world in cyberspace or on airwaves.” [3] Canada, along with the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, is part of a signals intelligence community, called the Five Eyes, which spies on the other partners’ citizens and then shares the data with them to circumvent laws prohibiting domestic spying. These laws allow the major English-speaking capitalist democracies to back up their rhetoric about political freedom, while the cozy sharing arrangement among their electronic surveillance agencies frees them from the inconvenience of actually having to live up to it. And like the NSA, CSEC collects ‘meta-data,’ information on the date, duration, location and recipients of phone calls, e-mails, and text messages transmitted in Canada. Today, rather than having files on only 800,000 of its citizens, the Canadian police state has the raw material to assemble files on the vast majority of them.

Whitaker et al call state surveillance of citizens in liberal democracies political policing, which seems far more legitimate (legitimizing) than the name used to describe (discredit) the same behaviour in communist countries. When Cuban or North Korean officials place their citizens under surveillance, they’re accused of totalitarianism and police state repression, though it seems very unlikely, in light of the Snowden and other revelations, that either state can match the scope of snooping that liberal democracies can use to police their own citizens’ political behaviour.

The term “political policing” in lieu of “police state repression” sanitizes the practice when it happens in liberal capitalist states, and is sanitized again when it is acknowledged that “policing politics….has been done and continues to be done” in every liberal democracy, but that it “is inherently anomalous in liberal democracies.” [4] This, of course, is an oxymoron. Spying on citizens and disrupting the activities of those who challenge the established order can’t be inherently anomalous in liberal democracies if it is done in every one of them. It must, instead, be an invariable trait of liberal democracies.

But then, so too is political policing an invariable trait of every other kind of state. Whether it’s North Korea or Cuba spying on its own citizens, or the United States, Britain and Canada doing the same, in all cases, political policing serves a conservative function of defending the established order against those who would challenge it. “[T]he political police,” argue Whitker et al, “are always on the side of the political/economic status quo…. [5]

The difference is that political policing in liberal democracies is “an activist conservatism on behalf of capital against its perceived enemies.” [6] Political policing in East Germany, the Soviet Union, or today in Cuba and North Korea, is likewise an active conservatism, though not on behalf of capital, but against it, and on behalf of capital’s enemies.

It’s naive, then, for anyone in a liberal democracy who poses a serious threat to the established order to believe the state is going to let them be, free to exercise political freedoms that exist largely as a rhetorical contrivance. Challenging the established order is like going to war, and anyone who goes to war and is shocked to discover that the enemy fights back is seriously deluded about war, the state, and the nature of the enemy. All states are police states, including those most attached to rhetoric about political freedom.

In contrast, people who present no serious challenge to the state are typically indifferent to the state panopticon. They reason correctly that since they have nothing to hide, and that they identify with the state and have no inclination to challenge the class that dominates it, that the political police won’t trouble them.

Alternatively, there are people who, while they are not against the state, are in favour of reforms which would restrain the class that dominates the state from pursuing its interests to the fullest. From the perspective of the political police, these people must sometimes be subjected to surveillance to discover whether their quest for reforms is in reality a veiled challenge to the established order, and if not, to provide early warning if it metamorphoses into one. It is these people who are typically the most agitated by political policing, for inasmuch as they conscientiously keep their opposition within legal bounds and are not actively hostile to the state, they believe their privacy should be inviolable. In their view, their activities are “legitimate” (within bounds that do not seriously challenge the established order) and therefore are not fair game for surveillance. Hence, those who seriously threaten the established order know the state will spy on them, and accept surveillance as a reality of war; the apolitical are indifferent, because they know the state has no reason to disrupt their activities; while the reformers are agitated, because they’ve discovered the state isn’t neutral and may indeed disrupt activities they believed to be legitimate and legal.

British Labour MP Chris Mullen’s thought experiment, the novel A Very British Coup, explores the question of whether the British state would allow a leftist government to pursue far-reaching socialist reforms even if the government played by the formal rules. His conclusion: no. The political police, working with the United States, would orchestrate the government’s overthrow. It has typically been the case that left-wing movements that have come to power in liberal democracies either quickly abandon their agenda or actively pursue it and are replaced, as a consequence, by a military dictatorship or fascist coup. Under threat, capital shares none of the reverence for liberal democracy that moderate socialists so ardently display and believe in, to their detriment. Even Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, whose challenge to the established order within his own country was partial at best, was briefly toppled in a coup, and remained menaced throughout his tenure as president by the efforts of the United States and owners of the country’s private productive assets to disrupt his government—a government that scrupulously operated within the boundaries of liberal democracy.

Likewise, it’s naive to think that the state in communist countries will not spy on, and try to disrupt, the activities of those who seriously threaten the established socialist order, and who seek to bring about a return to a society of exploitation, or subordination to foreign tyranny, or both. To object to this practice would be to elevate abstract ideas about political freedom above freedom from exploitation, oppression, hunger, and insecurity; to make the freedom to politically organize for the creation of conditions of exploitation senior to freedom from exploitation. Objecting to the Cuban state spying on citizens who want to return to the days of Batista and US domination is like objecting to the machine-gunning of an advancing Waffen SS column. It may not be pretty, but is necessary to defend something better than the alternative.

To sum up, police state measures—the stock in trade of all states, whether of exploiters or the previously exploited—are neither intrinsically objectionable nor inherently desirable, any more than nuclear technology is. So long as societies are divided by class, there will be states, and so long as there are states, there will be political police. Political policing, like nuclear technology, can be used for good or ill, to protect or destroy, to advance or hold back. We should be for it when it’s used for good and to advance; against it when it’s not. And we should be clear too that as much as the states they revile, liberal democracies are police states, and will always be, so long as the parasitism of capitalist society produces a determined opposition to the parasites.

1. Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey and Andrew Parnaby. Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America. University of Toronto Press. 2012. p. 9.
2. Colin Freeze, “CSIS fights to keep Tommy Douglas spying file under wraps,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), February 10, 2010.
3. Michelle Shephard, “Web snooping vital, spy agency boss says”, The Toronto Star, October 23, 2005.
4. Whitaker et al, p. 10.
5. Whitaker et al, p. 11.
6. Whitaker et al, p. 12.