Now Is Not the Time to Take Sides in a War Half a World Away
Maximum Unity Against U.S. Intervention in Syria Is the Most Important Priority
by Thomas Bias, co-Managing Editor, Labor Standard
As the dream of the Arab Spring is being transformed into the nightmare of civil war in Syria, an ugly debate has been raging among activists and intellectuals in the United States and other countries, centered on whether or not to support a particular belligerent party in that civil war, and, if yes, which one. Opinions range from outright support to the rebellion, as expressed in Pham Binh’s article in The North Star, “How ‘A Plague on Both Your Houses’ Aids Counter-Revolution in Syria” to outright support to the regime in power, as expressed by Ajamu Baraka in the Black Agenda Report article “Syria and the Sham of ‘Humanitarian Intervention.’” Readers are encouraged to look at some of the other comments to which hyperlinks are included on the Labor Standard home page: they express views that fall between the two positions represented by Pham Binh and Ajamu Baraka.
In the absence of any consensus, angry recriminations have been flying about the Internet in flame wars which have done little to enlighten and even less to persuade. War crimes committed by the Assad regime are cited as justification for its overthrow. War crimes committed by the rebels are cited as justification for support to the regime. It is impossible independently to determine the veracity of any of the reports, and there is overwhelming likelihood that both sides are guilty of horrific crimes. That is the nature of war.
Political and even personal relationships among individuals and organizations have been inevitably damaged, even as people attempt to “agree to disagree.” Meanwhile, the Obama administration remains poised to launch a missile strike from naval vessels anchored in the Mediterranean Sea, even as he has been forced by a war-weary population to seek a diplomatic solution. Obama has made no secret of his objective of regime change in Syria. He continues to insist that there can be no peace as long as the current regime headed by Bashar al-Assad remains in power, and he has not retreated from that stance.
At a time when united-front action to stay the U.S. government’s hand is vitally necessary, some activists insist that any united front must include support to the side that they favor, arguing that unconditional opposition to U.S. intervention is “not enough.” The calls for action against U.S. intervention copied in Labor Standard, by the United National Antiwar Coalition, the Labor Fightback Network, and the ANSWER Coalition, to their credit, do not make that argument. That is indeed a hopeful sign for the future.
People have a right to express opinions always, and socialists working to organize a revolutionary party have the additional responsibility to provide analysis of the class struggle as it unfolds in their own countries and throughout the world. One of the responsibilities of revolutionary leadership is to present that analysis in ways which contribute to the process of organizing, rather than in ways which contribute to disunity and confusion. In that spirit, then, I will share what I have observed and the conclusions I have drawn from those observations, as they relate to the Syrian situation.
I traveled in Syria, albeit briefly, in 1974. I had by that time a number of years’ experience of activity in support of the Arab revolution, in particular the Palestinian struggle, which was only beginning to capture the world’s attention following the 1968 battle of al-Karameh. In 1970 I became friends with the late Hatem Husseini, who a few years later became the Palestine Liberation Organization’s representative at the United Nations. He was at that time a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts. I also had members of my extended family living long-term in Beirut, Lebanon, working in the administration of the American University in that city. In 1974 I had the opportunity to travel from Turkey through Syria on my way to Lebanon, and the contrast among the three countries could not have been more pronounced.
At the time that I traveled, Bashar al-Assad was a nine-year-old boy. His father, Hafiz al-Assad, had taken power in a coup d’etat four years earlier, not long after the death of the charismatic Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser had been the most prominent leader of post–World War II secular Arab nationalism, a movement which included Syria’s leaders as well. Hafiz al-Assad died in 2000, and his son Bashar, who had been educated as a medical doctor, became president and continues in office to this day.
The majority of Syrians adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, which includes about ninety percent of Muslims worldwide. The minority Shi’i branch is called Alawi in Syria. Its adherents are mostly concentrated in the coastal communities around Latakia. Though Islam has traditionally been tolerant of Christianity and Judaism, ironically it is far less tolerant of religious minorities within the House of Islam, and neither the Sunni nor Shi’i communities are blameless.
Under the post–World War I French Mandate there was talk of making the Latakia region an independent Alawi state, but ultimately it was included in the Syrian republic which emerged following the Second World War. In the new republic, Alawi Muslims were denied the economic and social opportunities enjoyed by Sunnis. For an ambitious young man of the Alawi sect, the one place where he could advance was the army, and that is the course that many Alawi young men took, including Hafiz al-Assad. And since World War II it has been the army that has dominated Syrian political life, as it has done in so many other Arab countries. After Assad came to power, the Alawi community became dominant not only in the army but in political and economic life as well. It was in many ways the mirror-image of neighboring Iraq, whose population is majority Shi’i, but in which the Sunnis dominated the army and therefore the government prior to 2003. The Sunni Saddam Hussein had much in common with Alawi Hafiz al-Assad.
There is one decisive difference between Syria and Iraq: Syria does not have the extensive oil reserves that Iraq and some other Middle Eastern countries have. In 1974 Syria was considered an oil-poor country. After the price of oil skyrocketed following the Iranian revolution of 1979, a program of oil exploration was launched in Syria, and there were some discoveries, but neither the quality of the crude nor the ease of extraction was anything comparable to Iraq or Iran, let alone Sa’udi Arabia or the Gulf emirates. In 1974, at the time I visited Syria, the United States and the Western European countries had decidedly no interest in investment or trade with Syria and were content to allow the Soviet Union to have the strongest influence there.
Prior to my travels, colonialism was something that I understood only intellectually, from reading and classroom discussion. Even reading the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth did not give me the personal and human understanding of the effect that colonial domination has on people. I had to see it for myself.
At the time of Columbus’s voyages, Turkey was the greatest power on earth. Through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries it declined into what Prince Otto von Bismarck, the father of modern Germany, called “the sick man of Europe.” It allied itself with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the First World War, and went down to defeat with them. Though the French and British were salivating at the prospect of carving up the former Turkish empire, a dynamic military leader, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who later took the name Atatürk, rallied his people to prevent the Turkish heartland from being taken over by Western European imperialists. When the fighting was over, a new Turkish republic, based mainly in Anatolia (Asia Minor) but including some European territory within which are the cities of Constantinople, now called İstanbul, and Adrianople, now called Edirne. Turkey never became a colonial possession. The kind of exploitation that United Fruit Company did in Latin America or that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company—now called British Petroleum—did in Iran, did not happen in Turkey. The American business presence was limited to the capital city of Ankara, and it mainly was related to military hardware, from ammunition to fighter jets, for the U.S.’s NATO ally.
One did not see shopping malls under construction in Turkey at that time. One did not even see an automatic washing machine: even the most affluent families had to content themselves with wringer washers to do their laundry. Some neighborhoods on the Asian side of the Bosporus (the strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, which is connected by the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean) did not even have any kind of roads, paved or otherwise, from the boat docks up the hill to the houses. However, people could walk out of their front doors and pick figs and quinces from the trees. People had a natural sense of pride, which was not diminished by a foreign presence and the economic disparity that the foreign presence would inevitably bring.
In Syria that sense of pride was at a qualitatively higher level. Travel to Syria by Americans was discouraged, then as now, and few took the risk. I traveled by train from Ankara, and when the train came to the Syrian border it stopped for a customs inspection. The passengers were ordered off the train into the customs office—without their luggage. Since I had been living in New York City for about three years at that time, I was apprehensive about leaving my stuff behind. The border officer, one of the few Syrians I encountered who could speak English, just looked me straight in the eye and said, “You are in Syria now,” meaning, “we Syrians do not need to steal, and your luggage will be perfectly safe.” It was.
The Syrians had nothing in the way of consumer goods that we Americans took for granted even at that time, not even so much as a light bulb with more power than twenty watts. There was much less economic disparity even than in Turkey. But the Syrians held their heads high and were not intimidated by any Americans. This was Syria in the fourth year of Hafiz al-Assad’s rule. People got along. If Sunnis and Alawis didn’t like each other, they didn’t fight. Assad—who personally admired Joseph Stalin—kept order much as Josip Broz Tito kept order in the federation known as Yugoslavia after World War II.
When the French Mandate of Syria ended and the new Republic of Syria was formed in the 1940s, the southwest corner was not included. That was carved out as the new Republic of Lebanon, and the contrast could not have been greater. Lebanon, a commercial center since the dawn of history, was overrun with Americans. They had moved in when the French moved out. A completely free, laissez-faire capitalist economy enabled Europeans, Japanese, and Americans—and some enterprising Lebanese—to make massive profits. Americans lived in gated communities, sent their children to English-language schools, and cruised along Beirut’s Hamra Street in their chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benzes, never seeing the homeless children sleeping on the sidewalks. They had private beach clubs on the Mediterranean far removed from the desperate camps where thousands of Palestinian refugees languished with no jobs, no homes, and no hope. And the Arabs of Lebanon did not look the Americans in the eye. They were subservient. They acted the part of a colonized, defeated people, in total contrast to the Syrians. I could never have understood this from a book, newspaper article, or even a documentary film. I had to see it with my own eyes.
When a year later the country erupted in civil war, in which the different religious and ethnic communities waged total war against each other, I was not surprised. The Lebanese civil war lasted fifteen years, and was brought to an end partly by exhaustion and to a great extent by the intervention of Hafiz al-Assad, whose forces moved in to keep order. Everyone in Lebanon suffered, but the Palestinian refugees suffered the most. The Shi’i Muslims, the poorest and fastest-growing community, were the most welcoming to the Syrian troops, and their militia, known as the “Party of God”—in Arabic, “Hizbullah”—remains a potent military force in Lebanon. Under the watchful eye of Syrian troops, Lebanon has for the last twenty-three years known a tense peace and has been able to rebuild.
Not long after returning to the United States, I settled in northern New Jersey, about forty minutes’ drive from the city of Paterson. Paterson is the center of the second-largest Arab-American and Islamic immigrant community in the United States, after Dearborn, Michigan. In the aftermath of the World Trade Centers’ destruction in 2001, activists in my community sat down in dialogue with Muslims from the Paterson area in an effort to promote peace among peoples at the face-to-face level. That dialogue led to the formation of a strong coalition to oppose George W. Bush’s Iraq war in 2003, a group which eventually became a chapter of New Jersey Peace Action.
In 2011, as a displaced worker, I was eligible for free education at state expense, and I used the opportunity to take a course in the Arabic language at a local community college. The professor turned out to be one of the Arabs with whom peace activists had engaged in dialogue in the years since “nine-eleven” and had worked with New Jersey Peace Action on a number of events. He held a doctorate in physics but was working as the imam of the Islamic Center of Boonton, NJ, a small city not far from Paterson. He was a Syrian, originally from Latakia, but a Sunni Muslim, as the title imam means something quite different to a Shi’i. To a Sunni an imam is simply the cleric who leads a congregation, analogous to a Catholic parish priest. To a Shi’i an imam is one of twelve successors to the Prophet Muhammad himself, or the thirteenth imam who is yet to appear.
During the semester, the Arab Spring began, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. Now, the Arabic word mubarak means “blessed.” It is also used for a wish on a special occasion, much as in English one would use the word “happy,” as in “happy New Year.” At the beginning of one class the professor commented about Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, “He is not very mubarak, is he?” He then proceeded to make a very revealing comment about the political culture of his country and of Islamic countries in general. Keep in mind that this is a man with a scientific education and someone who works very well with American peace activists. He said, “Today, everyone is calling for ‘democracy, democracy!’ But for us, this is not a concept that is consistent with Islam. We believe that all law comes from God, and we try to choose one leader who can interpret God’s law for us.”
In the Islamic world, religion is not a matter of individual belief. In the United States, we often refer to our religion as our “faith.” “I belong to the Presbyterian faith,” or “I belong to the Roman Catholic faith” are expressions which one might hear any day. In Arabic, the word for religion is ad-din, which means literally, “obligation.” Religion, in the Middle East, is not what one believes. It is what one does. It is also a reflection of who a person is, who that person’s family is, what that person’s community is. Arabs and Muslims clearly have no monopoly on loyalty to extended family and larger community, but it is how Arab children are brought up from their earliest age. I saw it illustrated very well in 2007 at an anti-Zionist demonstration of about 30,000 people in Washington, DC. Arab immigrants attended the march as entire families, even with small children. It was inspiring on many levels. I was walking along with some American men who seemed to be left-wing activists of some tendency or other, and also with some young Arab girls wearing American-style clothing, probably no more than ten or eleven years old. The girls broke into a chant in Arabic, in the same kind of rhythm that one might associate with any slogan one might hear at a demonstration. I listened for a minute and then understood what they were saying, and I said to the men walking next to me, “Do you understand what they are chanting?” They did not. I said, “They are chanting, ‘There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’” It was the Islamic shehada, the one-sentence creed that every devout Muslim recites during the prayers that he or she says five times each day. It follows immediately after the Arabic phrase, “Allah-u akbar,” which means “God is most great.” But these girls’ chant had nothing to do with theology, nor with prayer, nor with anything heavenly or spiritual. It had to do with identity, family, and community, right here on this earth.
The federal republic that is the United States of America was founded as a secular state in 1787. Today, in spite of the noise sometimes made by right-wing clerics, whether Evangelical Christian ministers, conservative Roman Catholic bishops, or even strict Orthodox Jewish rabbis, the secular state is in no danger, and most Americans take it more or less for granted.
Islam has no such long-standing secular tradition. The new religion which erupted out of the Hijaz (the eastern coast of the Red Sea, now in Sa’udi Arabia) in the seventh century to sweep from Spain to India and beyond was not about spiritual belief but about a complete reordering of society. It made no distinction between religious law and secular law.
The first attempts at a secular republic in the Islamic world came about in Turkey following the First World War (under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) and in Egypt following the Second, under Gamal Abdel Nasser. In Iraq and Syria, secular Arab nationalism was reinforced by military officers from minority religious communities—Sunni in Iraq and Alawi in Syria—who had a vested interest in defending it without mercy. As the nationalist military governments over the years has failed to deliver on their promises, most especially their failure in 1967 and in the years thereafter to liberate Palestine from Zionist occupation, religious-based opposition to them has grown.
Sunni Muslims might have difficulty accepting a leader to “interpret God’s law for us” who is an adherent of the Alawi sect, especially if that leader is not delivering a better standard of living to the people. Alawi Muslims might not readily turn on one of their own, even though he might rule in a dictatorial way, out of concern that their rights might not be respected under Sunni rule. This is the complicated reality on the ground. It was most starkly illustrated in Egypt when in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak the Egyptian people were allowed to express their political preferences in free elections. In their majority they voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Muhammad Morsi. Egyptians unhappy with the Muslim Brotherhood’s reactionary policies took to the streets this year, but in order to rid their country of Morsi and his associates, they had to rely on the power of the same army officers who had stood behind Hosni Mubarak for decades. In 2013 the Arab Spring came full circle in Egypt: Morsi was arrested, and Mubarak was freed. This is the untidy, ragged, complicated reality, which does not lend itself to inspiring rhetoric nor to songs and slogans. And it is a reality that without question will not be improved by U.S. intervention, either by direct military action or by providing weapons and financing to any belligerent party in the Syrian civil conflict.
Clearly my personal observations, even over four decades, prove nothing beyond a reasonable doubt. But I wonder how many of those who have been so emphatic about their political conclusions have observed these complicated realities as they occur in real life. For me, when the conflict first broke out, I agreed with those who supported the overthrow of Assad by the opposition forces. But when I learned that the other minority communities, such as the Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, and Assyrian Christians and the Kurds, are in their majority supporting the Assad regime, I had to take that revelation as a triple-red-light. The only thing I now consider certain about Syria is that no one over here should be certain about Syria. None of us is on the scene, and the information we are receiving from the fog of that civil war is complicated and contradictory. Additionally, in class terms, both sides at the leadership level are committed to continued bourgeois rule. One may applaud the courageous socialists who are speaking out within Syria and other Arab countries—whose statement is available here on the Labor Standard website—but does anyone realistically expect the Syrian working class to come to power as a result of this conflict? Revolutionary Marxism is not a mass movement in any Arab country, and we will not presume to lecture anyone from afar on how that reality can be changed.
In the last analysis, revolutionists can all learn one thing from Islam: what is important is less what we believe than what we do. Vigorous democratic debate is a good thing and absolutely necessary to come up with effective strategy and tactics. No one should forget, however, that the purpose of discussion is to decide, and the purpose of decision is to act. And in order to act effectively, we have to organize all who are willing to act together. No group today in our country is large enough or strong enough to take effective action alone, with the possible exception of the AFL-CIO, and no one expects the labor officialdom at this time to do anything resembling action. We will all work towards the goal of convincing the labor movement to use its power for peace, but that is a longer-range objective, which will not be achieved in time to prevent a missile strike on Syria. Consequently, united-front action is the only way to achieve anything positive today. We need to be conscious about expressing our opinions and formulating our demands in ways that bring maximum strength against the warmakers. We can unite to demand that the United States stay out of Syria, completely and unconditionally. We can achieve a consensus to demand that not one soldier, not one aircraft, not one ship, not one missile, not one bullet is sent to Syria from the United States. We must be careful not to do anything to diminish the strength and resolve of the forces brought to bear against U.S. intervention.