World in View: Syria and revolution

February 10, 2012

World in View

by Gerry Emmett

Nothing has posed the old truth that “the opposite of revolution is war” more starkly than the ongoing struggle for freedom by the people of Syria. In bringing the mass mobilizations that have become known as the Arab Spring, or al-Thawra (the Revolution), up against the imperialist maneuverings of all major state powers, an unprecedented situation has been created.

The U.S. naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, Iranian threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, and Israeli threats to attack Iran’s nuclear program (which they are already doing clandestinely through assassinations and cyber warfare) are now being driven by the rulers’ need to respond to the ongoing Syrian Revolution. All imperial powers would have preferred the Revolution burn itself out, so that the status quo–a relatively stable regional Cold War–could be preserved. Having accepted that this may not be possible, the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia are trying to make sure it is Iran that ends up the biggest loser by the overthrow of Syria’s Assad. At the same time, they are trying to fit this effort into the overall strategic response they’ve crafted to the Arab Spring.


It is a delicate balancing act and could easily spin off into a regional war–or worse. The regional Cold War has occasionally become a brutally hot war with Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Gaza. The U.S. has already fought two devastating wars in the Gulf.

After a year of revolutionary upheaval, the failure by much of the Left to think through this situation is abysmal, as some have fallen into a hopeless, retrogressive defense of the Syrian Ba’athist regime simply because the U.S. or European powers have paid lip service to its removal. As the farce of the Arab League observers demonstrated, very little help of any material kind has come to the heroic Syrian people who have continued to demonstrate despite over 6,000 killed. No state power on earth has welcomed the revolutionary passions unleashed in the Middle East.

A revolution in Syria would be a huge blow to all these reactionary powers. For them, the Arab Spring is a life and death challenge.


Assad’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf was silenced last year when he said the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime would threaten Israel. But he was correct in the sense that Assad has always been more ready to massacre Palestinians than help them. The cynical Assad regime has also served as an excuse for Israel’s own imperialism, sometimes in co-ordination with the Assads. The panic among Israel’s rulers as the Arab Spring has reached the West Bank shows the reality: Palestinian resistance is Palestinian existence, imported from nowhere else and ultimately dependent upon no outside state actors.

To recognize this, as the democratizing Arab Spring uprisings demand, would force a rethinking of the entire history of Israel. This is dawning upon more and more Israelis. The way their state has developed–becoming ever more reactionary, and at times even genocidal–was not their only possible historic development.

The challenge to the Islamic Republic of Iran if the current Syrian regime falls is no less profound. All pretenses of genuine revolution having been cast away, the Iranian rulers have staked all on the ability to project their legitimacy through military means. This has been whittled down to their Lebanese clients, Hezbollah, and the go-between Assad regime. If Assad falls, it strips away even this facade. The restive people of Iran–workers, women, national minorities, those who made the Revolution of 1979–will have more ability to defy the rulers.

Finally, the reactionary Wahhabi royals of Saudi Arabia are aware that any spread of democratic ideas in the region is a challenge to their truly archaic, religious fundamentalist state.


The strategy that is being pursued by the world’s rulers in relation to the Arab Spring is the promotion of a “moderate Islamist” politics modeled after Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, as seen in Tunisia’s Ennahda Party. Funds have been provided by the Saudis, which may help explain why the Salafists, who are more reactionary than the Muslim Brotherhood, did so well in the Egyptian elections. It can only succeed by limiting the movement to an electoral one, with electoral demands–not the desire for a whole new way of living seen in Tahrir Square.

This is the field that a newly energized regional Left will be fighting on. The battle of ideas is being defined in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond, a year after Mohamed Bouazizi’s and Hussein Nagi Felhi’s actions declared the necessity of a new world.

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