The Syrian revolution is tearing apart the Arab left

This is a rough translation of ‘La crise syrienne déchire la gauche arabe,’ by Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, an article written in French and appearing in August’s Le Monde Diplomatique. Thanks to Sophie at Les Politiques.

In August 2011, the Lebanese leftist nationalist daily, Al-Akhbar, went through its first crisis since its inception. Its deputy editor, Khaled Saghieh, left the paper he helped found, while denouncing the newspaper’s lack of support for the popular uprising in Syria which began in March 2011. Al-Akhbar has never concealed its political proximity with Hezbollah, one of Bashar Al-Assad’s key regional allies, nor that it favored dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition rather than the outright collapse of the regime. At the same time, the newspaper made room for the voices of several members of the Syrian opposition, including Kaïleh Salamah, a Marxist intellectual, Syro-Palestinian, arrested in late April 2012 by the security services. In June, dissent appeared in the online English edition of the newspaper, with an article Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. Explicitly supporting the Assad regime, the Lebanese columnist attacked the proponents of the “third way” — those who denounce the Syrian authoritarian regime while warning against any foreign intervention, including one modeled on Libya. The same month, another contributor to Al-Akhbar English, Max Blumenthal, announced his departure in an article criticizing others at the newspaper who had become “Al-Assad’s apologists.”

The divisions inside Al-Akhbar are symptomatic of debates that both strategically and intellectually, divide the left in the Arab world. Some continue to support the Syrian regime in the name of the struggle against Israel and “resistance to imperialism.” Others are placed firmly alongside the insurgency in the name of “revolutionary” logic and the defence of “democratic rights”. Finally, there are those who support a middle ground, expressing from a distance solidarity with the demonstrators’ demand for freedom, rejecting “foreign interference”, while also advocate a form of “national reconciliation”. Sensibilities vary widely — some staunchly Marxist or communist, with others in the orbit of a certain nationalist left, some radical, and others more moderate. In reaction to the Syrian crisis, the Arab left has become a fractured mosaic.

Anti-imperialism as the analytical framework

Of course, there are few in the Arab left who fully support Assad and few are calling for a continuation of the existing system in Syria. But neither are the majority of leftists unconditional supporters of the popular revolt. Such support tends to be found at the far left of the political spectrum, among Trotskyists, the Socialist Forum in Lebanon, revolutionary socialists in Egypt, Maoists, and the Democratic Way in Morocco. Such groups have relations with some factions of the Syrian opposition, such as the Revolutionary Left of Gayath Naisse. They have participated, since the Spring 2011, with selective mobilizations at Syrian embassies and consulates in their respective countries.

Some intellectuals on the left, such as the Lebanese historian Fawwaz Traboulsi, also support the logic of insurgency. They demand the fall of the regime and oppose dialogue. While promoting the need for peaceful popular protest, they do not deny the right of rebels to take up arms. At the extreme left, supporters of the revolution nevertheless disavow the Syrian National Council’s alliance with states such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They firmly denounce this because it could undermine the independence of the popular movement in Syria.

Denouncing the regime and calling for its downfall, some among the radical left remain wary of support provided by the Gulf monarchies to the Syrian revolution, even while affirming the anti-Assad rhetoric coming from that part of the ‘international community’ led by the U.S.. However, their anti-imperialist reflex does not take precedence over their support for the insurgency. Priority is given to the internal situation in Syria: the logic of a people’s uprising against their rulers comes first, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt.

As for those who constitute the majority of the Arab left, they have maintained a cautious distance from the Syrian revolt. They denounced first the militarization of the uprising, which would only benefit the radical Islamist groups and foreign fighters flowing into Syria. They emphasize the confessionalisation of the conflict, placing progressives, Christian and Alawite minorities in opposition to a Sunni majority radicalized by repression, and see the threat of a protracted civil war. Finally, they worry about the regional and global balance of power — Iran and Syria against the Gulf monarchies, Russia and China against the United States. In the large regional and international war game that places Syria in the front line between several state actors, the Arab left is inclined to sustain its long-standing alliances with Iran and Syria, Russia and China.

Thus, when on April 4, 2012, a newly-formed union of nationalists and leftists in Jordan, a coalition of six political parties, from communists to Arab nationalists, organized a meeting in Amman for the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it was less the memory of the fall of Saddam Hussein than the Syrian crisis which took center stage. “Foreign intervention” in Syria was strongly denounced with some speakers making the parallel between the March 2003 military operation against Iraq and support by major Western powers for the CNS and the armed opposition.

In Tunisia, in a statement dated May 17, 2012, the powerful trade union of General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) — in which part of the executive comes from the far left — while reiterating its support for the democratic demands of the Syrian people, warned against a “conspiracy” fomented by the U.S., “colonial and Arab reactionaries.” Two months earlier, the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party (Poct) called, along with Arab nationalist groups, in a demonstration to denounce the holding in Tunis a conference of Friends of Syria, uniting around the CNS nearly sixty international delegations.

The Lebanese Communist Party, meanwhile, has adopted very careful positioning. While publishing in its press, articles by Syrian opposition members such as Michel Kilo (who is not in the CNS), it has nevertheless refrained from participating in some events that were held for a year in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut. Moreover, it finds itself under fire from some critics in the far left in Lebanon, since part of the leadership of the party remains close to Qadri Jamil, head of the Popular Will Party in Syria and a member of the “legal” opposition. Jamil joined the new government of Riyad Hijab, appointed by Assad in June 2012, as vice premier for economic affairs.

It is usually a reformist logic that finds favor in some quarters of the Arab left: a solution to the conflict in Syria must be political, not military. The final communiqué of the Arab Nationalist Conference, which gathered last June in Hammamet, Tunisia, with some two hundred members drawn from the Arab nationalist left and to a lesser extent, Islamists, reflected this position. The document was intended to be as consensual as possible. While recognizing the right of the Syrian people “to freedom, democracy and peaceful transfer of power”, it condemns “violence from whatever source,” referring both to the regime and the opposition army, calling on both to be part of a process of dialogue, based on the plan to restore peace in March 2012 proposed by the envoy of the United Nations (UN) Kofi Annan.

If, for part of the Arab radical left, the revolutionary perspective must head the agenda in Syria, another fraction, substantially larger, has rejected this view. They do not want a sudden fall of the regime. For them, the heart of the contradiction lies in a cold war that dare not speak its name. Their greater fear is of a post-Assad Syria simultaneously reconciled with the United States and allied with the Gulf states, more than their fear of the survival of the regime.

In addition, Syria remains a kind of Janus in the eyes of Arab leftists. Few would deny its authoritarian and repressive nature, but even today the defensive discourse of the regime subjected to international sanctions, echoes one of the deepest ideological underpinnings of the Arab Left: the paradigm of the Third Worldist and anti-imperalism. For some, this feeling is tempered by their commitment to the popular character of the revolt, in others it is first multiplied by the increasing internationalization of the conflict.

Moreover, the Islamist dynamic of the Arab Spring in which forces from the Muslim Brotherhood have arrived at the gates of power in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, has undoubtedly caused, in part of the left, a backlash: the Arab revolts are now feared as they may lead to Islamist hegemony across the region.

While the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, and the Tunisia Ennahda movement have supported the Syrian opposition, the position of a large part of the Arab left on Syria reflects its own confrontation with the forces of political Islam. Thus parties usually committed to ‘revolution’ and ‘progressism’, and for some, to ‘Marxism’, paradoxically now prefer a negotiated and gradual transition in Syria, because they fear the outcome of this revolution.

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