The Syrian regime is fighting for its survival. I have no sympathy for it, and will welcome its consumption in a revolutionary overthrow. The struggle in Syria is fundamentally - not exclusively, and not in a crude, unmediated fashion - a class struggle. It is an open war of movement between, for the most part, the most advanced sections of the popular classes and a narrow state capitalist oligopoly which has always dealt with the surplus of political opposition by jailing it or killing it. In that struggle, inasmuch as it matters what I think, I situate myself on the side of the popular opposition. Not in an undifferentiated manner, and not without confronting the political problems (of eg sectarianism, pro-imperialism etc) that will tend to recur amid sections of the opposition to any of these regimes. But without conditions or prevarication.
Yet imperialism has its own reasons, of which reason knows a little, for seeking a different kind of ending to the regime: one which does not empower the currently mobilised masses. And I really think the chances of an armed 'intervention' in Syria under the rubric of the UN have noticeably increased. And how we orient ourselves to that situation politically is, I suspect, going to be an important problem in the coming months. The following pleonastic stream of head-scratching and arm-waving is my contribution to securing that orientation.
For what it's worth, this is how I read the international situation with respect to Syria at present. The revolutionary wave that was unleashed over one year ago has reverberated through every major social formation in the Middle East. Because it broke the Mubarak regime, which was a regional lynchpin of a chain of pro-US dictatorships, its effects could not be localised. The response of the US was one of confusion and fright, followed by the bolstering of some of the ancient regimes and simultaneously a very cautious 'tilt' toward some mildly reformist forces (in general the most right-wing and pro-capitalist forces). The Saudi intervention in Bahrain was an instance of the former. The invasion of Libya was an improvised policy along the latter lines. And the position within Yemen has been somewhere between these two, with the US attempting to manage a replacement of the leadership without empowering the actual popular forces calling for its downfall, some of whom were conveniently vaporised by US bombing raids.
In general, I think the liberal imperialists have won the ideological argument that the US must be seen to be on the side of reform, because today's insurgent forces are potentially tomorrow's regimes, and the US will have to deal with them on oil, Israel, and so on. However, the political argument as to what concretely to do about it is much more in the balance. The realpolitikers have dominant positions in the Pentagon, while the lib imps seem to have a strong voice in the State Department. It's schematic, but nonetheless a reasonable approximation of the truth to say that the former are very cautious about any Middle East wars, especially wars fought on a liberal (rather than securitarian) basis, while the latter are much more bellicose. Obama's 'state of the union' address, which undoubtedly had its share of theatrical sabre-rattling, made it clear that he would see the overthrow of the Syrian regime as a logical corollary to the overthrow of Qadhafi, which he boasted was made possible by ending the occupation of Iraq. Moreover, his administration has continued to ratchet up pressure on Iran, through sanctions, and we are beginning to hear serious arguments in the bourgeois media in favour of a war. I am not saying that an attack on Iran is likely in the short or medium term. But any escalation regarding Syria could not but be linked to the escalation against Iran.
Obama and Clinton are also highly responsive to pressure from the European Union and particularly France. Sarkozy is naturally leading the EU's response to the Middle East crisis. He may not have a triple A credit rating, but he does have nuclear weapons, a large army with extensive imperialist experience, and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (Merkel, who has none of these, is taking a much more passive role.) And since the Sarkozy administration has been embarrassed and damaged by the extent of its relations with dictatorships in the Middle East, its 'tilt' toward potentially pro-EU reformist forces has been all the more pronounced. Britain, consistent with its imperial past in the Middle East, its adjusted but continuing role as a subordinate partner of the US, and the warmed over 'liberal interventionism' embraced by Cameron and Hague, has tended to align with France over both Libya and Syria.
Another important actor is the Arab League, and within it the prominent figure of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In the latest Socialist Register, Adam Hanieh points out the strategic centrality of the GCC to the region as far as imperialism is concerned, due to its pivotal role in the region's capitalist development, its hold of enormous oil resources (a quarter of future production), and its articulation with the world economy. Three GCC states have experienced their own uprisings - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman - all of which have been repressed with military force and marginalised in the ideological apparatuses. Even so, it is the GCC monarchies which have been most stable in the context of the global recession, and the most active in managing the fall-out. So, while the Arab League has not adopted a single, coherent policy response to the regional uprisings, GCC states have played a key role in manouevering the League to support selective interventions, monitoring missions, sanctions and so on against regionally awkward regimes. The League's support for the intervention in Libya was a decisive factor in enabling it to come about. Saudi Arabia, which has coordinated many policy initiatives to contain the region-wide uprisings, has involved itself deeply in the Syrian context. The involvement of Arab League monitors, received with some scepticism by the Syrian local co-ordination committees, was driven by Saudi Arabia; their recent withdrawal has also been triggered by Saudi Arabia. The subsequent lobbying for a UN resolution calling for the Assad regime to step down and supporting some form of UN intervention, has been led by Britain and France, but strongly supported by the Arab League. Russia is at present the only obstacle to the resolution, due to its long-standing relationship with Assad.
Finally, there is the Syrian opposition. The pro-imperialist bloc, the Syrian National Council (SNC), largely led by exiles based in France and Turkey, has not thus far been representative of the sentiment among the rank and file of Syrian opposition members. There is a left and nationalist contingent to the revolt, moreover, that complicates any attempt to simply annexe the revolt to the wider regional strategies of imperialism. Further, even in Libya, where no left or labour movement existed prior to the overthrow of Qadhafi, and where the revolt was quickly disfigured by a racist component, the opening of the political space subsequent to that overthrow has created a window in which germinal popular forces have been able to assert themselves. A political strike in the oil industry took out a pro-Qadhafi chairman, while unrest in Benghazi has resulted in a serious rift with the governing 'transitional council'. The ongoing struggles in Egypt, which is strategically central to the whole region, can also swiftly make calculations made on an ad hoc basis, moot. Nonetheless, complications and problems in a line of development do not necessarily mean that the line will be impeded. Were the Syrian opposition sufficiently crushed, I think it would be more likely that a pro-intervention 'line' could gain ground, and this would tend to divide the left-nationalist contingent. This has to be the assumption because, as Bassam Hassad has pointed out in his critique of the SNC and various pro-Assad types, the existing support for imperialist intervention is itself already the result of brutalisation, mediated by certain types of politics, (generally both liberal and Islamist).
There is also the problem of sectarianism. As far as I can tell, the majority reject any explicit political appeal along sectarian lines. The banners saying 'no to sectarianism' reflect a popular sentiment. The local co-ordination committees have explicitly opposed sectarianism in the movement. Every substantial report I have encountered indicates the strength of the determination to overcome sectarian politics. Nonetheless, the regime has a sectarian basis and has reinforced sectarian divisions as a technique of statecraft - not fundamentally dissimilar to a protection racket. Even though many of the Christians and Alawites supposedly protected by the regime are among the protesters, it would be astonishing if some sections of the opposition were not themselves driven by sectarian politics. It is noticeable that commentators dismissing the revolt as mere sectarian intrigue tend to focus on the role of the salafists. They exist as a subordinate stratum in the revolt, and they are among a number of forces which are against the regime on sectarian grounds. Far from constituting the main political current in the uprising, they nevertheless represent a problem and a weakness for the opposition. Such divisions are, moreover, always manipulated and amplified whenever imperialism is involved - Iraq, anyone?
Finally, there are divisions over the use of armed force against the regime. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a large army of defectors from the regime's armed forces, perhaps including tens of thousands of soldiers - at least 15,000 on recent estimates. This exists, to put it crudely, because the Israeli occupation exists. These soldiers, trained to defend Syria from Israeli aggression, are now defending Syrians from state aggression. But their remit has expanded. While their initial rationale was to defend communities against the security forces, they have consistently engaged in military attacks on the regime's infrastructure. The risk of doing so, of course, is that it brings down the regime's repressive apparatus. There is gossip and speculation to the effect that the FSA represents an imperialist conspiracy. I see little proof of this. Despite representing a layer of military defectors, it looks to have gained real support among the oppressed and exploited. The problem is that most of the movement's organised core has insisted on keeping it peaceful, on tactical grounds: the terrain of violent struggle is not where the regime is weakest. Yet, in some parts of the country, particularly the poorest, the regime is not leaving that option open. So, tactical divisions underpinned by geographical disparities and the regime's tactics of selectively striking out at opposition strongholds, are also a potential weakness. Now since the FSA is loyal to the Syrian National Council, which supports an imperialist intervention, there's an obvious dynamic that could come into play here. That is that in the event of the popular movement being crushed or at least severely set back, the armed component comes to the fore and substitutes for the masses; and in the event of a UN-sanctioned intervention, the FSA becomes an auxiliary of NATO, and alongside the SNC forms the nucleus of a post-Assad regime that is not representative of Syrians.
There is not an immediate move to bomb or invade Syria. There is, however, mounting external pressure to create the conditions that would allow this to happen fairly quickly and expediently. It would be a mistake to assume that because such a path would be riddled with problems, it would not be pursued.
With all that said, I intend to elaborate further in an abstract manner before coming up for air. From a marxist perspective, the most fundamental antagonism in the capitalist world system is class antagonism. These, of course, cut through the dominated regimes in the imperialist hierarchy just as much as they do in the dominant regimes. As such, in a popular struggle against these regimes, marxists start from the position of supporting those struggles. To be more specific, in various direct and indirect ways, these antagonisms are amplified by imperialism, inasmuch as the ruling classes of the imperialist chain benefit from the exploitation of workers and popular classes in the dominated societies. This is a fundamental cleavage which, arising from the outward extension of capitalist productive relations from the core, separates the dominant from the dominated formations. As a consequence, marxists also start from an axiomatic position of opposing imperialism. It is not simply that imperialism retards the social development of these societies, but that it constitutes an additional axis of exploitation and oppression.
Within the class and state structures of such societies, moreover, the domination of imperialism is reproduced in various ways, such that the modes of domination within those states cannot be extricated from the question of imperialism. As a consequence, popular movements arising against them will tend to have two targets: a domestic and international opponent. Their struggles will also have a tendency to be internationalized, and to have global effects. By the same token, where you have a national bourgeoisie that has developed in resistance to imperialism, that resistance will also be inscribed in its forms of class rule and in the state through which its political domination is secured. Its legitimacy will depend in part on the national bourgeoisie's promise to organise the society in its self-defence. It follows that where there is a break-up of the regime's social control, the issue of imperialism will be to the fore in its ideological and political strategies for retaining its dominant position. This isn't merely manipulation, nor can it be wished away. It poses a particular challenge to popular movements aiming to depose the regime, which is why the role of the anti-imperialist pole in the Syrian uprising is so critical.
But the reality is that these dying regimes can't effectively resist imperialism. The republics organised under the rubric of Arab nationalism have rarely, even in the rudest health, fared much better against Israeli aggression than the old monarchies, and have often been available for opportunistic or long-term alliances with imperialism. This is even true of partially resistant regimes. Hafez al-Assad's support for Falangists against the Palestinians provided the occasion for Syria's initial invasion of Lebanon. Assad senior was also a participant in the Gulf War alliance against Iraq. His son, Bashar al-Assad, has always notched up plaudits from Washington as a neoliberal reformer - the liberalisation of the economy along lines prescribed by the IMF has been one of the causes of the polarisation of Syrian society, and the narrowing of the regime's social base - and leased some of his jails to Washington during the 'war on terror' to facilitate the torture of suspects. The Islamic Republic has a similarly chequered record with regard to imperialism. So, if the regime's raison d'etre is partially that it is an anti-imperialist bulwark, the obvious answer is that it isn't even very good at this.
So how do we orient to this situation, politically? It seems obvious enough that the greatest bulwark against imperialist intervention in societies like Syria is the fullest and most active mobilisation of the masses themselves. Their defeat at the hands of their regime would represent a green light to those pressing for intervention. This is not the main reason why I think marxists should support these rebellions, but it is a very strong reason for doing so. Second, the organised opposition are for the most part, the most politically advanced sections of the popular classes in both Syria and Iran. They are the ones who, however they represent it, are responding to the class antagonism in a way that we would want the most radical workers in Europe, the United States and beyond to do. For this reason, arguments along the lines that both regimes continue to have a popular base and shouldn't be written off are fundamentally wrong. They do have a popular base, but it is not predominantly organised around any claims or values that the left, especially the revolutionary left, has a stake in. So, one must hope for that base to erode, and rapidly. Third, the same basic political grounds on which one opposes an undemocratic capitalist regime and supports its downfall are those on which one must oppose the regime of US imperialism, and work toward its downfall. Anti-imperialism is an indispensable and not merely occasional aspect of emancipatory politics.
These problems cannot, of course, be resolved with such abstract formulae: but such formulae have a role in reminding us of our political coordinates. In concrete struggles, socialists in the imperialist societies would be trying to maintain relations with the opposition to these regimes, linking with exile groups and supporting their protests. But at the same time, they would be the first to oppose military intervention, and would try to assemble the broadest coalition of forces to stop it. Even if the deep political logic of events suggests that there is a confluence of these positions, in the real time in which such practices are developed it means negotiating some potentially fraught alliances. Serious disagreements over the issue of imperialism are bound to emerge in any solidarity campaign; just as there will be sharp disagreements over the regime in any anti-imperialist campaign. Socialists would have to manage these tensions carefully, while being the ones to consistently argue that the two goals are mutually necessary, rather than opposed.