Turkey, Syria and Iran at crossroads of world revolt

July 2, 2013


by Gerry Emmett

“There is nothing real about them but their common conspiracy against life, their egotism of class interest, their wish to feed upon the carcass of French society, their common slaveholders’ interests, their hatred of the present, and their war upon Paris.”
–Karl Marx, The Civil War in France

The mass protests in Turkey, the presidential election in Iran and, above all, the continuing struggle for the Syrian revolution express the depth of today’s social crisis. These crises are interpenetrated and inseparable. The stakes are high.

The reactionary forces that were set back on their heels by the Arab Spring revolts two years ago have found a new lease on life. Above all, this has been the result of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal attacks upon the Syrian masses. Around this criminal assault has re-gathered the threat of regional war that had been pushed back by mass revolts.

What these regional powers–Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia–and their allies the U.S., Russia and China, hate and fear is revolution: people fighting for freedom and new human relations.

These powers have already shown themselves willing to sacrifice, by official estimates, over 90,000 Syrian lives (likely over 100,000); they have been willing to create millions of refugees; and they have been all too willing to accept the utmost degradation of world politics and culture.

At the same time, from Turkey to Brazil, mass protest and revolt continue to erupt. Would-be analysts of the Arab Spring who treated the experience of new human relations at Tahrir Square, for example, as if it were mere drunkenness that would pass without leaving a trace, were wrong. The masses in motion face the world with sober senses, while the rulers have nothing to offer but an orgy of slaughter.


In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for 11 years. Viewed by foreign investors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a savior of Turkish capitalism, Erdogan has been increasingly authoritarian. It is one of the worst countries in the world to be a journalist–dozens, including investigative reporters and minority Kurds, are being held in prison under vague charges. The anti-press campaign has resulted in a wide-ranging self-censorship of all media.

Erdogan’s growing arrogance has created new social tensions as well. On May 28, these burst into mass protests over the defense of Taksim Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in urban Istanbul.

Protesters occupying Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 8, 2013.  Photo by Ian Usher. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ush/9013700791/

Protesters occupying Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 8, 2013. Photo by Ian Usher. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ush/9013700791/

Demands included an end to the sale of public spaces, the right to free expression without fear of arrest or torture, and the right to a free and open media. The key demand was freedom. It was widely felt that the “moderate Islamism” of the AKP was being imposed upon a traditionally secular population. Women’s rights are threatened, and women’s voices have been prominent. As one woman said, “I am okay with extending democracy to women who want to wear the headscarf. That is acceptable. But it seems Erdogan wants to force all women to wear it. That is unacceptable.”

Another protester said, “The whole country is being sold to corporations for the construction of malls, luxury condominiums, freeways, dams and nuclear plants. The State under its conservative agenda passed laws and regulations concerning abortion, Caesarean birth, sale and use of alcohol, and even the color of lipstick worn by airline stewardesses. People are marching for their right to live freely with justice and respect. They demand to be involved in decision-making about the city they live in.”


Another participant described the Occupation of Taksim Square and Gezi Park: “To the left of the stairs that lead to the park, Kurds dance the Halay in an ever widening circle. The Kurdish flag flies and the radio blasts guerrilla songs. A crowd moves past–‘Turkey for the Turks!’ Kemalists most likely with their red star and crescent banners. They chant, ‘We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal!’ Down the path they will come across a group of Gay men marching in the other direction and chanting, ‘We are nobody’s soldiers!’ Between the two you find a tent for the Turkish Socialist Party–old school hardliners–and another tent of middle-aged Armenian church ladies distributing cookies.

“A few weeks ago, things would have been different. The Kurds and Kemalists would have been fighting in the streets; the Gay men harassed or jeered, the Armenians trying to keep a low profile, and everyone would have been watching what they said–as afraid of each other as they are of the government. But in Gezi Park this weekend they are all here. The media calls it a carnival or a festival. But it’s much more organized than that–a funhouse reflection of a state.

“Together our protesters have created a miniature city within a city that reflects the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.–however ephemeral, however tenuous, however fast the army of police and marauders approach, people are ‘free at last.’ These disparate groups have built a Museum of the Revolution, pasting up pictures of the police attacks and resistance. They transformed the overturned and looted police cars into day-glo platforms of free speech. Everyone grabs a spray can and writes what they think. In a first for Turkey, they write it without fear or hesitation.” [*]

The echoes of Tahrir Square were as clear as they were unexpected. As the Arab Spring revolutions have come face to face with counter-revolution, many have written off the masses’ creativity and tenacity. But as we have seen since the first nights of embattled people fighting the Egyptian state for Tahrir Square, the masses have continuously risen to the challenges put to them.

BUT 2013 IS NOT 2011

Because 2013 is not 2010-11, however, the Turkish protests have to be seen in that new context. For one thing, the criticism of Erdogan’s AKP isn’t just a Turkish issue. In the wake of Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the rulers hit upon the idea of a “moderate Islamism” patterned after the AKP, oriented to the interests of capitalism, as a way to contain the revolution. Thus the rebellion in Turkey is also a direct strike against this latest form of state-capitalist reaction. It goes hand in hand with the struggle against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, and the mass resistance to Ennahda in Tunisia that has escalated in the wake of Leftist Chokri Belaid’s assassination. Most directly, it can speak to the struggle being waged in the heart of Syria’s revolution against the attempt by various fundamentalist forces to redefine that broad-based, non-sectarian uprising in their own image.

This is where the clarification of ideas becomes vital. The attitude expressed by some Turkish protesters that Syria’s Assad is a defender of secularism is a deadly illusion. In fact, he has been the number one promoter of sectarianism in Syria. Further, he and Erdogan were close allies. It’s easy to find pictures of them embracing as warmly as Qaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali used to. Only after months of Assad’s brutality against peaceful protests, and 30,000 dead in Syria, did Erdogan denounce him.

In fact, it was only the continued resistance of the Syrian people that caused Erdogan to move.


By the same token, the Syrian revolution has had its effect on the presidential election in Iran. The stunning victory of Hassan Rouhani was a result of the Iranian people’s desire for peace, their understanding of the dangers of the threatened regional war. Iranians remember the horrors of the last great war between regional powers, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, with over a million dead.

When Rouhani, in his election rhetoric, said things like, “We don’t want those who brought Iran to its knees to rule us again!” or “We must repair our relations with the world, first and foremost with our neighboring countries,” many heard an opening toward the freedom generations have struggled for since the betrayal of the 1979 revolution. There may be new approaches to the West over Iran’s nuclear program. However, Iran’s rulers–and despite his election rhetoric, Rouhani is one of them–have no intention of giving up their support for Assad. He is the genocidal heart of their own imperial project. The shabiha who murder Syrian civilians are often trained by Iranian military men.

Dissident union leader Mansour Osanloo pointed to the truer sentiments of Iran’s working people: “Just last week in Isfahan, during the funeral of the prominent dissident cleric Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri, thousands chanted ‘Death to the dictator’ and ‘Political prisoners must be set free.'” (“Reading Marx in Tehran,” New York Times, 7-13-13.)

What is stunning to realize, in regard to Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia is that this is humanity’s collective effort to overcome the Religious Right ideology that grew up in Khomeini’s Iran, Begin’s Israel and Reagan’s America from the 1970s, as a world stage of counter-revolution.

This ideology converged with a second stream of counter-revolution: the genocidal attack in Bosnia by Slobodan Milosevic and the Serb militias against the very idea of multiethnicity and coexistence. It is no accident that so much of Milosevic’s cheering section and allied states–primarily Russia–flocked to Assad. It is one of history’s more brutal ironies that now finds the Iranian state on the same side, as an ally in genocide. So much for principle in the “Islamic Republic.”


“What the workmen had to break down was not a more or less incomplete form of the governmental power of old society; it was that power itself in its ultimate and exhausting shape, the Empire. The direct opposite to the Empire was the Commune.”
–Karl Marx

An arc of violence cuts from Lebanon–where Hezbollah has joined in the attacks on the Syrian people, giving the lie to their role as “resistance”–through Syria and into Iraq. There, an intensified terrorist campaign has sought to stir up sectarian hatred and takes the appearance of a regional conflict between Sunni and Shia. This is far from the truth.

In fact, what we are seeing is a fight between state powers being conducted in the name of the Shia and Sunni. As it expresses itself in Syria, it is an attempt to utterly destroy the original non-sectarian goal of freedom for all–a goal that was reiterated at thousands of mass demonstrations during the early months of the revolution, and is still expressed by the majority of revolutionary activists on the ground.

Revolutionary demonstration in Kafranbel, Syria, Feb. 1, 2013. Photo courtesy of Freedom House. http://tiny.cc/SyriaFreedom

Revolutionary demonstration in Kafranbel, Syria, Feb. 1, 2013. Photo courtesy of Freedom House. http://tiny.cc/SyriaFreedom

First the Al Qaeda-linked fundamentalists of Jabhat al-Nusra have been allowed to rampage over the Syrian landscape, not least against the more secular elements of the Free Syrian Army. In Aleppo, for example, the fundamentalists have forced many of the secular, working-class elements aside. The grassroots rebel groups can’t match the weapons al-Nusra obtains from international backers in the Gulf states.

Now, the Shia sectarians of Hezbollah, backed to the hilt by the Iranian state, have entered Syria on Assad’s side, helping to roll back some of the revolution’s territorial gains. Take al-Qusair, for example. Hezbollah fighters came to the fore in that battle as a sort of sectarian exclamation point following the massacres of hundreds of civilians by Assad forces at Baniyas and al-Bayda last month.

The intervention by Iran and its Hezbollah clients has led some to fantasize about an Assad “victory.” In fact it merely increases the likelihood of a Bosnia-style partition being forced upon Syria. As a student from Aleppo said, “There’s no going back on the revolution now. Everyone remembers the years of repression that followed Hafez al-Assad’s destruction of Hama in 1982. For years after that you were liable to be stopped at checkpoints, and if your name was on somebody’s list you would just disappear.”


The people of Lebanon have their own long, terrible history of sectarian war and slaughter–Hafez al-Assad’s Syria was a prime player in that. In recent years the dynamic of Lebanese politics has revolved around the desire to be free both from Assad’s influence, which was partly achieved by the Cedar Revolution of 2005, and from the continuing presence of Hezbollah as an armed militia independent of the Lebanese state.

In this context, the Lebanese people have refused to be drawn back into civil war. Hezbollah lost credibility in its 2006 war with Israel, involving Lebanon in a war its people wanted no part of. Despite Israel’s “failure” in that war, Hezbollah hasn’t claimed credit for any more attacks on Israel–the border has been quiet.

The situation has echoes in Iraq, where Shia mosques have been targeted for bombings by shadowy groups harking back to the worst of the “resistance” during the U.S. occupation. As before, these groups aren’t representative of the Iraqi people, but they are representative of the way the U.S. invaders understood Iraqi society and promoted narrow sectarianism. The Iraqi labor movement, women’s movement, youth and intellectuals that the U.S. oppressed or ignored were precursors to the Arab Spring.


At such a world-historic moment, the failure of theoreticians can presage an equally monumental disaster.

When News & Letters said two years ago that the revolutionary movement in Syria, in particular, was the anti-war movement, it was with this history in mind. Syria has been the test of one’s attitude to revolution. Unfortunately, too many have failed that test–even the most basic questions, like the nature of imperialism as an expression of capitalism, have been thrown aside by elements of the Left.

Many of the reactionary players in the region operate under a hypocritical veneer of religion. It’s clear that the masses are aiming to throw that off. But that religious veil conceals the violence and authoritarianism that are inseparable from capitalism. Getting to the roots of counter-revolution and overcoming them require the total view of a philosophy of revolution.

That still means that only masses struggling for freedom can realize a new society. Further, their creativity and determination reveal that many paths to revolution remain open: from the new human relations created in Tahrir Square to the Syrian masses who are now fighting both Assad and the fundamentalist face of counter-revolution.

What has been missing is a philosophy of freedom that can meet that creativity and help it continue to develop. That is the task history has assigned to our age and for which Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence is indispensable.

June 20, 2013


From Istanbul and Beyond

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