by John Reimann, East Bay DSA
Editor’s note: this piece serves as a response to R.L. Stephens’ piece in DSA Weekly regarding his thoughts on U.S. intervention in Syria following a chemical gas attack attributed to Syrian authoritarian regime leader, Bashar al-Assad.
The Arab Spring arose as a revolt against dictators like Bashar al-Assad throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It had nothing to do with a United States-inspired attempt at regime change.
In Syria, Assad responded through his Shabiha, whose slogan was: “Either Assad or we burn the country.” The organization and its members meant it. Since that time, there has been some 500,000 people killed and over half the population of Syria has been forced out of their homes. The regime is responsible for over 90% of the civilians killed. These numbers make sense based on the simple fact that it is the forces of Assad and Putin that maintain air superiority over Syria.
When the Arab Spring first arose, U.S. imperialism at first supported Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, but then U.S. officials saw him as an obstacle to stability and called for him to step down. In Syria, things were a little more complex, but remained essentially the same. That was why Obama called for Assad to step down, but what he never ever did was in any way act to produce “regime change.”
In Iraq, regime change was produced by a military invasion. There has never been any serious evidence produced that either Obama or Trump has even considered such a sweeping invasion. In other words, similar to in Egypt, what the US regime wanted was “Assadism” without Assad. This has been supported by a number of sources, including the comments of then-Secretary of State, John Kerry, and remarks by then-CIA director, John Brennan.
By 2014, U.S. imperialism saw the rise of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as a greater threat to US imperialism than the Syrian Regime, especially since Trump came into office. For example, Trump also stated that the United States should focus on defeating ISIS, and find common ground with the Syrians (Assad) and their Russian backers.
Some claim that U.S. aid to the Free Syrian Army shows the intent for regime change. This article by Schulman and Sloughter, however, shows that aid was minimal. And as of one year ago, according to journalist Anand Gopal, U.S. imperialism had carried out 8,000 airstrikes in Syria with only one—the strike at that time against the al-Shayrat airfield—being against the Assad forces.
On March 16, 2017, just weeks before the bombing of al-Shayrat, the U.S. Air Force attacked the Omar Ibn al-Khattab mosque. In that bombing, over forty civilians were killed. It was an attack on the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and Tahrir al-Sham which were fighting Assad. In other words, this strike was in support of the Assad regime! In contrast, in the U.S. bombing of al-Shayrat airfield, nobody was killed and it was back up and operational within twenty-four hours. Even this paltry strike represented a clear side preference, since, unlike the strikes in civilian-inhabited areas of Raqqa, US officials actually contacted Russian officials to warn them ahead of time to “minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.” Similarly, in the recent US attack on Assad’s chemical weapons facilities, nobody was killed. Neither of these seriously weakened Assad.
Contrast that with US imperialism’s bombardment of Raqqa, which was an attack on ISIS. Some 200 people were killed in the first several days of that attack. Over 11,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, and the Washington Post reported that “it is easier to count the buildings that are still standing than the ones that have been reduced to shattered concrete and twisted reinforced steel… Raqqa has become nearly unrecognizable to those who try to return and navigate its streets. Public squares are hidden underneath debris, and the tallest residential towers are mere rubble.” The pictures within that slideshow of Raqqa are indistinguishable from photos of Gaza after the Israeli regime attacked it in 2014.
Why do these war crimes in Raqqa tend to be ignored by the left? The most charitable explanation is that what happened in Raqqa does not fit the common narrative. This is because the US regime’s attack on Raqqa was not an attack on the Assad regime. Instead, it was in fact in indirect support of that regime. The attack was carried out against the ISIS home base. It was carried out for the U.S. regime’s allies—the Kurds—to take over. But the Kurdish forces have been operating with a de facto truce with Assad for many years now!
It is important not to equate U.S. and Russian imperialism in Syria. It is Russian forces, together with those of Assad himself, who have directly caused the majority of the damage through their bombing campaigns. They have been bombing hospitals, schools, residential neighborhoods, and public markets throughout the country. It is the Assad regime that is carrying out mass imprisonment and widespread torture and execution of political dissidents. There is also a program of ethnic cleansing being carried out throughout Syria by Assad and the Iranian military.
The 2,000 US troops in Syria are not there to conduct “regime change.” They are there to defend the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in North East Syria and to oppose ISIS. Trump has made that clear.
Regardless of who U.S. imperialism supported, though, the main point is this: What happened in Syria in 2011 was a revolution from below. How, after all, could it be different? How was it that Syrian masses would not have participated in the Arab Spring and revolted against a brutal and corrupt autocrat? Refusal to recognize the fact that it was a popular revolution from below amounts to refusing to see the working class as the subject, not the object, of history. It denies the Syrian masses all agency.
What does the future hold for Syrians? One possibility is that one region may come under the influence of Iranian sub-imperialism. Another would be of US imperialism under the PYD, and the rest under the control of the Assad regime and their sponsor, Russian imperialism. As for the 5 million plus Syrian refugees living outside Syria, it seems they will remain permanent refugees, at least for the present.
Socialists in the United States should be guided by the principle of international working class solidarity. First and foremost, we should be countering the disinformation campaign such as carried out by the Putin mouthpiece, RT, and repeated by many on the left here. Anything less will correctly be seen by the Syrians themselves as implicit support for one of the most brutal dictatorships of the present era. We should also be pointing out the massive U.S. war crimes in Raqqa, as well as the real role of U.S. capitalism in Syria, which is its opposition to the Syrian revolution. On the practical level, we should be demanding that Syrian refugees be admitted to the United States.
Both the Republican and Democratic Parties support the Assad regime as the lesser evil when compared to either ISIS or a popular revolution. Therefore, the campaign to support the Syrian revolution is connected with the campaign to build a mass working class political party here in the United States.
What side should socialists be on today—the side of the Syrian revolution or of the regime? The question answers itself.
John Reimann, East Bay DSA
Tristan Sloughter, San Diego DSA
Ephraim Hussain, North New Jersey DSA
Cheryl Zuur, East Bay DSA