January 5, 2016
By Stephen Gowans
It’s difficult enough for the Left to make any headway against the formidable forces arrayed against it without some of its members abandoning concrete analysis and coherent argument in favor of fantasy and appeal to emotions.
In May 2013, a group calling itself the Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution promoted a petition which called for “Solidarity with the Syrian Struggle for Dignity and Freedom.” The petition listed Gilbert Achcar, Richard Seymour, Tariq Ali, Vijay Prashad, Norman Finklestein and Ilan Pape among its supporters.
Appearing to equate Islamists seeking a harsh theocratic rule in Damascus to “revolutionaries” linked to the struggles of Palestinians and opponents of neo-liberalism in the West, the petition called on the Syrian president to leave immediately and submit to a peaceful transition. One problem. The petition’s drafters failed to mention that this could only mean surrender to the rule of murderous sectarian fanatics in Damascus, with regrettable consequences for anyone who didn’t share the fanatics’ religious views. Or that the bulk of Syrians didn’t favor this outcome.
Nowhere did the petition mention:
o Takfirism or Wahabbism;
o Political Islam, backed by imperialist powers and their regional allies, as the driving force of the rebellion;
o Washington’s efforts to “build” a US partner who would govern in Damascus;
o The material support Washington provided to anti-Assad forces even in advance of the Arab Spring;
o Constitutional changes the Syrian government made in 2012 in response to the March 2011 uprising to open political space in the country;
o The reality that the largest Sunni fighting force in Syria was, then as now, the Syrian Arab Army;
o The fact that Assad had commanded sufficient popular support to continue in power despite, at that point, two years of war and the concerted opposition of the world’s most formidable powers and their regional allies— hardly a feat to be expected of a government that was oppressing its people.
In place of concrete realities to engage our minds, the petitioners offered honeyed, nebulous, words to play on our emotions. We were to sign up to a romantic vision of heroic revolutionaries struggling for freedom and dignity against an evil dictator in a fairy book world where imperialism; sectarian intolerance; Saudi, Turk, Qatari and US agendas; the Syrian government’s concessions; al Qaeda; and a decades-long struggle within Syria between political Islam and secularism, didn’t exist.
Instead, they asked us to “defend the gains of the Syrian revolutionaries,” but didn’t say who the revolutionaries were or what gains they had won.
They called for “a peaceful transition of power,” but didn’t say to what.
They asked us to “support the people and organizations on the ground that still uphold the ideals for a free and democratic Syria,” but didn’t say who they were or where we could find them, or what a democratic and free Syria would look like (free from what and to do what?)
They said that the rebellion in Syria was linked to “the Zapatista revolt in Mexico, the landless movement in Brazil, the European and North American revolts against neoliberal exploitation,” and “the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom, dignity and equality,” yet they didn’t say how. Was it also linked to the revolt of the southern states against the Union?
And yet while they demanded that “Bashar al-Assad leave immediately,” the Syrian government was the only organization on the ground of any significance, then as now, that (a) (with the constitutional changes of 2012), offered Syria a democratic future of multi-party parliamentary and contested presidential elections and (b) offered freedom from domination by the political agendas of outsiders, both those of the Western powers who seek a US “partner” to govern in Syria and the sectarianism of the West’s retrograde anti-democratic regional allies.
It’s as if in the middle of Operation Barbarossa—Nazi Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union—that a call had been made for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to leave immediately and arrange “a peaceful transition” so that Russia could “begin a speedy recovery toward a democratic future.” Of course, a call for a peaceful transition would have meant nothing but surrender to the Nazis and their multinational coalition of Italy, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Finland and Spain, with the consequent enslavement of the Slavs. (The United States isn’t the only country that could put together a multinational coalition.)
Likewise, it’s clear that, then as now, Assad leaving immediately would bring al Qaeda-linked organizations to power in Damascus, with carry-on massacres of populations the “revolutionaries” deemed heretics and apostates. Demanding Assad leave immediately and peacefully was a call for surrender to sectarians backed by retrograde despotisms allied to Washington—an odd way to show solidarity with the Syrian people and hardly likely to promote their freedom and dignity.
Of course, much has happened since the petition was drafted in May 2013, and some of petition’s supporters may have changed their views since, but others, including Gilbert Achcar, continue to use demagogic methods, appealing to emotion rather than reason, to authority rather than evidence, taking cover in ambiguities and romantic fantasies, while shunning concrete social, political, military and economic realities.
To anyone who insists on evidence and critical analysis, Achcar and company are a good part of the reason it’s still possible to refer to a “loony left.” For the cautious, they’re suspected of advancing a sinister political agenda under cover of promoting leftist and humanitarian concerns. Neither possibility is pleasant to contemplate.