Counter-revolution in Middle East shows crisis of humanity

August 28, 2015

From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmett

The July 14 signing of a nuclear weapons agreement by the U.S. and the Iranian regime seemed like an event strangely out of time. This despite the efforts of Israel’s far Right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rally reactionary opposition in Israel and in the U.S. Congress.

In the agreement, Iran accepted verifiable limits on its atomic energy program in exchange for the welcome lifting of sanctions that have mostly harmed the people, not the rulers. Even the end of sanctions, though, means something different now than it would have before the collapse of world oil prices.

In truth, the U.S. and Iran have long found common ground in their mutual opposition to revolutionary change—from Iran’s 2009 Green Movement (which the U.S. did nothing to support) to the Arab Spring Revolutions. Syria is the test case—while the U.S. has done almost nothing to support the revolution there, Iran has used every available asset to help crush it.

Despite words to the contrary, Netanyahu and other reactionary rulers, near or far, benefit from it. What is needed now is precisely what we don’t find at the moment—a revolutionary movement in Iran and Israel that would speak out against their own imperialisms.


Following the nuclear agreement, a humane logic would dictate that the same powers—the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK—would encourage other peace initiatives. But imperialism is no humane logician.

The limits of Iranian imperialist flexibility were on display in mid-August. When their mercenary protégés, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, met fierce resistance in the Syrian town of Zabadani, Iranian officials took the unprecedented step of meeting directly with the Islamist Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham under the auspices of Turkey.

There the Iranians presented a “peace” proposal for Zabadani that required the ethnic cleansing of all Sunni Muslims—the town’s main population. This would be part of a policy to divide Syria and allow Iran to salvage its investment in Assad and its pipeline of weapons to Hezbollah. It was properly rejected. Talks then ended, and the Assad regime, now largely controlled by Iran, began a particularly vicious bombing campaign (augmented by new Russian planes) against civilian targets. The massacre of over 100 civilians in the marketplace in Douma, Aug. 16, was just one of many recent regime atrocities.

The specter raised here, of the threatened sectarian division of Syria backed by a regional power and its militia proxies, while great powers stand by or collude, can’t help but bring up memories of the Bosnian war of the 1990s. It is a terrible place for the world to find itself exactly 20 years after the Srebrenica massacre.


To see the revolutionary opposite to this reactionary moment, it’s necessary to pull back and look at developments in a number of countries. For one, there are the stirrings of a new mass opposition in Iraq.

It was like a breath of fresh air in mid-August to see thousands of Iraqis pour into the streets around the country expressing an entirely different logic from that of reaction and sectarianism. Their slogans included “Daesh [IS, the Islamic State] and the Parliament, two sides of the same coin,” referring to the influence of religious sectarianism on the Iraqi state; “Secularism! Secularism! Not Shia! Not Sunni!” and “Humanity doesn’t live by religion, but by bread and dignity!”

Demonstrators in Iraq demand an end to sectarianism. Picture credit:  syriafreedomforever.

Demonstrators in Iraq demand an end to sectarianism.
Picture credit:

Among the most telling, though, was the mass chant of “Baghdad is revolutionary!” While these demonstrations addressed the people’s immediate concerns with deteriorating services, power outages, and governmental and business corruption, they went beyond these particulars to address what kind of Iraq people want to create. They recognized the current society’s dead end by saying to the rulers, “Daesh is born out of your corruption.” (As we go to press, similar anti-corruption protests have broken out in Beirut, Lebanon.)

These demonstrations are in line with a history of mass opposition to religious sectarianism dating back to the period of the U.S. occupation, when thousands marched across the length and breadth of Iraq opposing the terrorism of al-Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Those demonstrations included unions, women’s organizations, and Leftist groups. Even then, Zarqawi’s attacks on the Shia—mass murders of civilians—went too far for some in al-Qaeda’s leadership. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has only pushed that further, to an open break.

The 2011 protests in the wake of the Arab Spring addressed many of the same issues and criticized the Shia regime of Nouri al-Maliki put in place by the U.S.

The U.S. insistence on reorganizing Saddam Hussein’s tortured country along religious and ethnic lines had consequences beyond bad governance. IS can be viewed as a joint creation of the two reactionary rivals that faced off after Sept. 11, 2001—al-Qaeda and U.S. imperialism. It was their interaction in the sectarianized cauldron of the Iraq War that, combined with elements of Saddam’s Baath Party, gave birth to such a hybrid monstrosity.


From the first, Assad claimed that all opposition to him was from fundamentalist terrorists, and eventually these appeared. The world powers’ “No!” to the Syrian people’s freedom struggle gave new life to the reactionaries, like al-Qaeda, sidelined by the Arab Spring. Reaction feeds on reaction. IS, born in Iraq, has become the club the world’s rulers use to bash the Syrian Revolution.

But IS’s innovation has been its actual attempt to create a state power. To this end it has practiced and justified the most brutal forms of what Marx termed “the so-called ‘primitive’ accumulation,” including open robbery, slavery, and genocide. Of course, these practices are given cover by tendentious readings of religious texts. It is perhaps most enlightening to look at the IS theology of rape.

The kidnap of thousands of Yazidi girls and young women from Mount Sinjar, Iraq, has given rise to a classic slave trade in IS-controlled territory. Victims are advertised, paraded for inspection and sale. Fleets of special buses, with blacked-out windows, transfer them between holding pens. They are also used as a recruitment tool for young men for IS to use to build their army and state. This is an exacerbation of the genocidal rape campaigns conducted by Serb militias in Bosnia.

The Yazidi boys and men were separated from the women and killed en masse, another horrific echo of Srebrenica. IS boasts of its crimes in their magazine, Dabiq, including the rape of young girls. Dabiq attacks Muslims in general for not committing the same crimes: “Here we are today, and after centuries, reviving a prophetic Sunnah, which both the Arab and non-Arab enemies of Allah had buried.”


One of the most inspiring scenes in recent history was the sight of thousands of armed Kurdish women of the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) who helped defeat the fascist IS in Kobane, Rojava, on the border between Syria and Turkey. Since then they have helped to push IS back farther, toward Raqqa.

Kobane marked an important moment in many ways—first, as one of the rare times when Kurds have become central to world history, and this should have a similar result as that achieved by the Kurdish uprising in Iraq in 1991 in regards to increased autonomy. Second, as the moment when the Kurdish forces came together with elements of the Free Syrian Army—an opening for a potential deepening of the revolution on both parts.

As well, the heroic defense of Kobane stripped whatever veneer still stuck to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who did what he could to undermine the Kurds. He holds the leftist Kurdistan Workers’ Party to be a “terrorist” group, as does the U.S. But this is a convenient cover to his old school anti-Kurd ethnic politics, and it has blown back on him in the last election.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party lost much of its electoral support, including among conservative Kurds. The leftist and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, which worked to field women and minority candidates, including Turkey’s first openly Gay parliamentary candidate, became a new force in national politics.

This built upon the inclusiveness and non-sectarianism of the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations. It will be little noted, but should be shouted from the rooftops, that this is where the Syrian and Turkish struggles cross paths. Efforts will be made to obscure this new development, and it will be the role of conscious revolutionaries to make it plain.

While Erdogan has often posed as a supporter of the Syrian Revolution, he took months before separating his government from Assad’s. Even now, what he is doing is using his support for some Sunni rebels as cover for his anti-Kurdish ethnic politics. (This is ironic since most Kurds are Sunni.) The Turkish plan for a “safe zone” in Northern Syria—a fundamentally good idea—stumbles badly over this hypocrisy. Were it not for recent Kurdish victories, would he even be proposing such a plan? After four years of Assad’s genocide?

The U.S. played a significant role in the air defense of Kobane and subsequent fighting in Rojava, but it also ignores the Assad planes and helicopters it shares the sky with that massacre thousands of civilians, and which—in the words of another revolutionary from Kafranbel—is “something neither logic nor wisdom can accept. It is something that will only increase our hatred for the head of this coalition and all of its allies, and it will solidify the image of America as the ‘Great Satan.'” Recent U.S. attacks have killed both civilians and rebels fighting IS.

The U.S. also remains silent when ally Erdogan begins bombing the Kurds once again.


One of the many demonstrations across Iraq on Aug. 7. This one was in Baghdad.

One of the many demonstrations across Iraq on Aug. 7. This one was in Baghdad.

Turkey’s Erdogan, Iran’s Khamenei, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Assad, conceal their own narrow power politics behind an alleged determination to protect various sects. Thus Assad’s “protection” of minorities can extend to the torture or murder of any one of their number, when they oppose him, as well as to the genocide of the majority.

It was clear as early as Assad’s first civilian massacres that he was taking a cue from what President Slobodan Milosevic had done in Serbia. In massacring the majority Sunni, Assad wanted to implicate the other minorities (especially his own Alawite group) in such crimes so as to guarantee that these groups would never again be able to live together. It was a scheme that could only retain Syria’s national unity at the price of genocide. He pursued it. This has now resulted in over 250,000 dead and 10 million refugees.

Now, practically each day that passes sees Assad’s forces losing ground, in Idlib, in Daraa, despite being bolstered by Iranian troops, by Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, Afghans, and Russian and European fascists. And despite revolutionaries having to fight IS’s fascism at the same time.

Assad’s will was to destroy the social fabric. But the Revolution began by countering his will: “One, one, one! The Syrian people are one!” This spirit was described by poet Mohja Kahf: “If anyone in the free Syria that is coming ever tries to target the Alawite community, I will bar them with my body and soul. That goes for Christians, Kurds, and any other ethnic or religious minority in Syria” (The Guardian, May 28, 2011).

Now, in opposing both Assad and IS, this revolutionary idea is the issue to be fought for.


The urgent determination that has carried the Syrian Revolution this far, even in the face of the world’s opposition, was expressed well by one revolutionary from Aleppo: “If the world’s rulers reach a settlement in Syria at the expense of the people, it will be harmful for everyone who was involved in or supported the Revolution. They will stitch up your mouths for cheering against the system. They will turn the squares into Roman circus arenas where rebels are killed. They will send delegations to the U.S. to learn to prevent other revolutions in the future. This opportunity we have now may not be repeated for a hundred years!”

Syrians have searched desperately for some returning echo from humanity. Much of the world’s Left has marginalized itself, or worse, concerning Syria. As IS became a second counter-revolutionary force, the U.S. and al-Qaeda were reduced to marginal players as treacherous “allies” of various revolutionary factions. So al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, joins in fighting Assad but, whenever possible, imposes its own reactionary rule (as in Yarmouk Camp).

U.S. imperialism’s wretched failure in Iraq and Syria wipes out many levels of illusion.

Imperialism, whether local or regional, can’t supply the energizing principle that will be required to bring Syria together as a multiethnic, non-sectarian society on a higher level than before. It must bring together the tortured Sunni majority with the Alawites, the Druze who are currently self-arming in opposition to both IS and Assad, the historic national questions of both Kurds and Palestinians, and the ancient Christian community—among others. It must take up again the questions of economic and environmental justice that drove the initial revolutionary uprising, and reappropriate the public space for women, who have been central to the transformation of consciousness.


As the Cold War ended in the 1990s, it was the struggle in defense of Bosnia’s multiethnic society against genocide that both revealed the total bankruptcy of much of the Left, and presented a principle that could be held up as a universal and fought for.

It is not a question of simply judging events by their multiethnic character, important as that is, but of the relation of subjects of revolt to a philosophy needed to overcome the terrible retrogression we see today. Though that retrogression took the form of outright genocide in Bosnia, and in Syria today, what is demanded isn’t merely a defense of the Bosnians or Syrians as victims, but finding with whom we can ally as subjects who can help uproot today’s degenerate society.

The experience of the Arab Spring and the Syrian Revolution has helped to deepen that insight and reveal anew its relation to Marx’s body of ideas. Marx asked in 1843, in his essay “On the Jewish Question,” What would it mean to be free? What does it mean to be human? His philosophic critique of a racist bourgeois society, together with his recognition of the unfinished character of the bourgeois revolution, forged a new concept of revolution in permanence.

In Marx’s Marxism and in Marxist-Humanism, the self-determination of this idea led to the development of new philosophic categories adequate to encompass spontaneity, different cultures and forms of development, and non-state forms of collectivity.

While there are no easy prescriptions or formulae for today, knowing that Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence—the basis of his entire life’s work—began by taking up similar questions should help us to unchain our own thinking.

We fight with that confidence. When a new generation of revolutionaries, forged in this crucible of revolution and counter-revolution, comes to recognize itself in the philosophy of revolution in permanence, the door to a new society will be opened.

0 thoughts on “Counter-revolution in Middle East shows crisis of humanity

  1. I like how this article shows us the human forces of liberation in three regions/countries attacked both by imperialism and by counter-revolution, as well as the practical and theoretical unity between them: the Iraqi people, the Kurds in Turkey and the Syrian masses.

    Practically, the article tells us about the coming together of “the Kurdish forces with elements of the Free Syrian Army—an opening for a potential deepening of the revolution on both parts”.

    But what really puts these two liberation movements together (along with the Iraqi) is not just this unity in practice, but in theory: the three of them are struggling for a world with new human foundations. Therefore, the three of them are against religious sectarianism, and for human unity and freedom.

    This unity in theory (their universal aspirations) help us understand why the article ends up marking that “It is not a question of simply judging events by their multiethnic character, important as that is, but of the relation of subjects of revolt to a philosophy needed to overcome the terrible retrogression we see today”

    “When a new generation of revolutionaries […] comes to recognize itself in the philosophy of revolution in permanence, the door to a new society will be opened”.

    We need to go further on this relation of movements from below with a philosophy of revolution in permanece capable of encompassing them.

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