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Syria and imperialism

This article is over 11 years, 5 months old
The mass uprisings in Syria and across the Arab world offer our best hope against imperialism and war, argues Judith Orr
Issue 2308

Revolutions are momentous political battles centred on the actions of millions of ordinary people. They are full of surprises and contradictions—and do not follow any prescribed course or formula.

The revolutionary wave sweeping North Africa and the Middle East is no different. It is still unfolding—and its full potential has yet to be seen.

It began with mass revolutions that brought down two powerful dictators in the space of weeks. Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were both dedicated allies of Western imperialist powers.

Western politicians backed them until the last possible moment and only switched sides when it was clear they had been ousted.

The West was forced to regroup fast. David Cameron and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton posed for photo opportunities in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and mouthed warm words about welcoming democracy.

They realised they had to side with the new revolutionary movements to have any chance of maintaining any influence in the region. And they were terrified at the prospect of the radical change mass popular uprisings might deliver.

Of course Western rulers are not interested in representing the millions of ordinary people yearning for freedom. Nor did they ever speak out in support of democracy movements in key Western allies such as Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.

Their aim was to hijack or subvert the Arab revolutionary movements to ensure that pliant Western friendly regimes replaced the old dictatorships.


The West’s first major initiative was its military intervention in Libya. It used calls for help from the desperate citizens of Benghazi as a pretext for this.

The West was successful in coopting the revolution, but the results have been ambivalent. Libya is fragmented and polarised—and the aspirations of its people have not been realised.

Now the West has turned its attention to the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. This time the US appears less keen on a full-scale military intervention.

And anyway Russia and China have so far blocked attempts to pursue this option through the United Nations (UN). They want to protect their own interests by providing diplomatic and military support to Assad.

Instead the West, alongside Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state allies, is concentrating on covert operations and the UN to impose a “negotiated settlement”.

The US would like to see Assad go in an orderly retreat similar to the one engineered for Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This would leave Syria’s repressive state intact while installing a Western friendly alternative at the top.

The revolutions in Libya and now Syria have led to some debate on the left (see Revolution in the ‘progressive’ bloc).

Some argue that the Assad regime poses a challenge to Western imperial interests in the region. They say that the revolt against it is a Western-sponsored plot against one of its enemies.


This is despite the fact that Syria’s regime has a long history of doing deals with Western imperialism. The regime operates in its own interests—not those of the Arab masses.

Moreover, the Syrian revolution is rooted in the same revolutionary process at work in Tunisia and Egypt. It reflects the same desires of ordinary people to rise up against poverty and injustice.

And it stems from the impact of neoliberal capitalism—the growing gap between rich and poor and abandoned promises of political reform.

The Syrian struggle began with mass demonstrations on the streets and local committees on the ground.

Even the regime’s strongholds in Syria’s two major cities of Damascus and Aleppo are seeing opposition activity. Significantly, this has involved mass strikes by workers in support of the rebellion.

As with any revolution, there are competing forces. Some are ready to cut a deal with the Assad regime. Some, including the exile-dominated Syrian National Council, are happy to work with and facilitate the interests of Western powers or their allies in the Gulf.

But many others want to see fundamental change and will fight to achieve that end.

Syria’s Local Coordinating Committees are rooted in the day-to-day struggles and have maintained their independence. They are the major driving force for the revolution.

The West is talking up fear of Syria descending into a sectarian bloodbath and using this as a pretext for intervention. Yet historically imperialists have systematically promoted “divide and rule” tactics to entrench their power.

Sectarianism is certainly a danger in Syria. Attempts to whip this up are coming from the regime. But the evidence so far points to an opposition movement that has fought for unity. The slogan “we are one Syria” rings out on its demonstrations.


Which elements will win out in Syria? That depends on the balance of class forces in the struggle. Will the masses take to the streets in greater numbers?

We have seen glimpses of urban workers exercising their collective power through strikes—but will these grow or wither away?

These are critical questions for how the revolution develops. Its success depends on its ability to spread and draw in wider layers of the masses.

But if Assad’s repression wins out, people can lose faith in their own power. In these circumstances they can start looking to outside forces as salvation.

Whatever happens, the US is not in any position to simply dictate events. It may be the world’s largest capitalist bloc but it is not all-powerful.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt caught it off guard. It didn’t win in Iraq and is being driven out of Afghanistan. The West could co-opt the Syrian revolution, yet this is not inevitable. The revolutions are far from over.

Socialists have to stand firm against our rulers’ attempts to derail the revolutionary wave to pursue their own interests. We are against any intervention however it is spun. We have to expose the imperialists’ lies about their motivation.

But at the same time we must support the mass popular revolt from below that aims to bring down Assad’s brutal regime. As Leon Trotsky said of the Russian Revolution, “An uprising of the masses of the people needs no justification.”

Across the Arab world the masses themselves have come onto the stage of history. This represents an unprecedented opportunity to fundamentally challenge the role of capitalism in the region.

And ultimately it is only by challenging capitalism that we can hope to end the system of imperialist war it gives rise to.

The best hope for those who want see all the imperial powers brought down lies in the masses fighting their dictators on the streets of the Arab world.

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