Firas Massouh, Yoni Molad and Stephen Pascoe
A response to Jeremy Salt
Jeremy Salt’s essay on Syria published in this edition of Arena is a misguided contribution to the debate on recent events in that country. Salt’s central contention is that the Syrian revolution is not a genuine popular uprising, but instead something more sinister. His essay constructs a rather elaborate theory the essence of which can be expressed as follows: that the people of Syria who have chosen the path of armed resistance are no more than the ‘tools’ of foreign powers who are hell bent on destroying the country, its secular character and its status as part of an ‘axis of resistance’ to Western imperial interests in the Middle East (and by extension, the interests of Syria’s bête noire: the state of Israel). In this response, we reject Salt’s thesis and uncover the faulty evidential base upon which it is constructed. We argue that Salt’s interpretation of events is misguided because it is anachronistic and abstract, mired in Cold War realpolitik propaganda. Salt’s argument represents a classic conspiracy theory, in the sense that it contains shards of truth, extrapolated into a metanarrative that ascribes agency to some shadowy, globally powerful force.
Inherent in Salt’s argument is an outright dismissal of any revolutionary potential in Syria. This is more than a mere theoretical misinterpretation; rather, it avoids interrogating or making explicit the very ideas and beliefs on which the structure of the Assad regime is built. In place of criticism, Salt offers a spurious distinction ‘between a system most Syrians don’t like and a president many do like’. Elsewhere, he has argued that although Assad ‘sits on top of the system, it is misleading to call him a dictator. The system itself is the true dictator’. In what follows, we examine the historical, political and ideological foundations of Salt’s flawed reading of the Syrian situation.
The Historical Dimension of Salt’s Argument
Salt bases his interpretation of recent events on his reading of twentieth-century Syrian political history, arguing that the present attempt at ‘tearing Syria apart’ is the logical culmination of a decades-long campaign to destroy Syria by Western powers acting in concert with Zionism. But this account is misleading. Firstly, the assertion that France and Britain ‘tore it apart’ in the 1920s suggests that Syria was an autonomous and independent entity prior to this (whereas its territory had in fact been part of the Ottoman Empire for the previous 400 years; and part of a succession of Islamic empires before the Ottomans). France and Britain undoubtedly obstructed pan-Arabist aspirations of regional unity through the arbitrary drawing-up of national boundaries, but ironically enough the idea of ‘Syria’ itself was largely the product of this imperialist territorial manipulation. There had been a notion of Bilad Ash-Sham, roughly corresponding to the area of ‘Greater Syria’ later imagined by certain twentieth-century Syrian nationalists, but it never existed as an autonomous political unit.
Next, Salt writes that ‘Syrians fought the French from the beginning of the mandate until the last French troops were withdrawn under British pressure in 1946’. While this narrative of unending resistance to colonial occupation appeals to nationalist myth-making, it is far from a complete and accurate rendering of the mandate period. Philip Khoury, in his authoritative work Syria and the French Mandate, shows how, following the defeat of the Great Revolt of the 1920s, the Nationalist Bloc shifted from a strategy of armed resistance to one of ‘honourable cooperation’ with the French colonial administration (before shifting once again to a more forthright diplomacy). This is a far cry from the story of heroic nationalist resistance that Salt has absorbed in his reading of history.
With respect to the early decades of post-Second World War independence, Salt focuses on US, British and Israeli meddling in Syria’s internal affairs. This is the least dubious section of the essay: it is undeniable that Syria suffered numerous covert attempts at coup-making and espionage at the height of the Cold War, from the 1949 CIA-engineered coup to the infamous incident of Elie Cohen, the Israeli spy who penetrated the upper echelons of the Syrian military establishment and relayed state secrets that helped give Israel the upper hand in the 1967 Six Day War. However, what is noticeably lacking from Salt’s account is any interrogation of the Syrian state’s motivations, especially following Hafez Al-Assad’s ascension to power through the so-called ‘corrective movement’ of 1970: Why did Syria turn to the Soviet Union as a protective imperial partner? What were the reasons for the breakdown in the one real attempt at pan-Arabism in practice, the United Arab Republic (the union of Syria and Egypt 1958–1961)? What kind of political economy emerged in Syria under Ba’athist rule? If, as Salt’s argument implies, an understanding of Cold War politics and their legacies is critical to appreciating the origins of the Syrian crisis, why are these crucial questions overlooked?
The issue that receives particularly blinkered treatment by Salt is Syrian military presence in Lebanon. Syria, he writes, was ‘authorised’ to enter Lebanon in 1976. Why, though, was Syria so eager to enter Lebanon and why did it stay there so long (far beyond the official end of hostilities in 1990)? Simply to fight Israel? Given that Hizbullah was much more effective at this task and that Syria has effectively avoided any real confrontation with Israel since 1973—whether in Lebanon or across the Golan Heights—what were the other motivations for Syrian presence in Lebanon? A full analysis of this important question is beyond the scope of this article, but Salt’s sidestepping of the issue speaks volumes of his selective treatment of the past. Most crucially, the assertion that the campaign to end the Syrian presence in Lebanon was driven by Israel and the United States overlooks the widely documented desire among Lebanese to be rid of the Syrian military occupation of their country.
The Nature of Power in Assad’s Syria
Apologists for the Assad regime rarely take the step of appreciating the material conditions of Syrians. They fail to see how the anti-regime sentiments Syrians express are shaped by political and economic conditions as much as by local, ethnic and religious ones, let alone the interests of external powers. In his geo-political assertions, Salt makes the assumption that Bashar isn’t only an anti-Israel, anti-West, pro-Iran and pro-Hizbullah—read pro-resistance—leader, but also the last true caretaker of Arab sovereignty, whose foreign policy is guided by leftist ideals. Moreover, Salt claims, Bashar is a popular leader and a ‘man of the people’ loved by most, if not all, and is receptive to political reform. However, we are led to believe, he is engaged in an internal battle with the old guard of the Baath Party, the military, and the intelligence apparatuses, all of which are resistant to change.
Salt makes no mention of Bashar’s suppression of civil society movements and free press. Nor does he mention how the Assad form of governance rested on patron‒client networks, other kinds of personalistic ties like wasta (exchanges of services) connections, Party contacts, or black market deals in order to achieve results. Nothing is said about the mystification of power and the domination of the regime’s iconography over public space. Salt conveniently avoids discussing how the Baath Party was in fact transformed, inflated and de-ideologised so as to fit into the authoritarian format of Assad the Father’s regime, and how Assad the Son inherited the system upon his father’s death. Further, under Bashar, even ‘statist’ phenomena that existed during his father’s reign, such as planning and social welfare measures, were phased out in favour of neoliberal policies, such as privatisation of the public sector and the concentration of the workforce in rentier service sectors. These policies led to the widening of the economic gap and the suffering of Syria’s agriculture industries, as well as public disenchantment at mafia-esque business arrangements.
Due to these social conditions, and contrary to what Salt would have us believe, it is no surprise that Bashar was not universally popular. One of the key slogans chanted by protestors during the early stages of the revolution was ‘ma minhibbak, ma minhibbak,’ (‘We don’t love, we don’t love you’) in reference to the ‘We love you’ campaign launched in support of Assad. Another rallying cry was ‘Yalla irhal ya Bashar’ (‘Depart, oh Bashar’). The epithets attached to the president’s name (‘traitor’, ‘murderer of children’), the destruction of statues of Hafez al-Assad, and the removal of public posters carrying the images of members of the Assad family, illustrate the protestors’ disdain for the ruler. As the revolution has gathered force and geographical reach over the past two years, such acts have bound increasing numbers of Syrians together in the goal of removing the regime, not simply changing it.
Salt is much more comfortable interpreting events in Syria as the machinations of imperialistic powers interested only in regime change. He ignores how the revolution is continuing to expand despite the odds against it. Although the situation is taking on the shape of a civil war, revolutionary dynamics are still very much in play. At the same time, by persevering with the military approach and evading a political one, the regime is standing by its motto, ‘Al-Assad aw nahriq al-balad’ (Assad, or we burn the country). Nothing can deter it, be it the scale of its own criminality, the appeals of its friends or international threats.
On Arming the Rebels
The centrepiece of Salt’s argument is that the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are collectively involved in an enterprise of providing weapons and other material support to the ‘armed groups’ inside Syria who are seeking to replace the secular Syrian Arab Republic with an ‘Islamic emirate’. Leaving aside the unlikelihood of the aforementioned countries managing to coordinate this elaborate strategy together, the material fruits of this putative enterprise are simply not evident on the ground. In reality, the rebels remain nothing more than a collection of defected soldiers and untrained, poorly armed neighbourhood ‘toughs’ operating under the FSA. While the FSA has had some success in defending neighbourhoods and deflecting attacks by pro-Assad forces on certain towns, it is in desperate need of financial, logistical and political support before it can pose a serious threat to the regime. Early in the revolution, it was certain localities that offered protection to defectors and not the other way around. Attacked with live fire and faced with arbitrary arrests and torture for more than two years now, Syrian opposition forces had no choice but to militarise.
It is no revelation that foreign powers are participating in brokering the flow of funds and materiel into Syria. This has financed further rebel victories, enabled them to purchase weapons from regime forces, seize ammunition from sacked caserns and take control of key checkpoints on Syria’s borders, a step that has in turn allowed for the influx of foreign fighters. Meanwhile, it is becoming more evident that the West has not had an appetite for intervening directly in Syria the way it did in Libya or in Mali. While the rebels receive some anti-aircraft guns and cannons from foreign powers, is that sufficient to claim that the Syrian revolution only consists of ‘tools’ working for the West, abetting the re-mapping of the country? Would not a massive international conspiracy worth its salt provide its ‘tools’ with some serious anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns?
As to Salt’s accompanying claim, there is no denying that certain foreign Islamist elements have taken advantage of the chaotic situation in Syria to try to advance a radical Islamist ‘solution’. However, there is ample evidence from across the country that locals have rejected the presence of such fighters and have continued the call for revolution based on a vision of civil society. Moaz al-Khatib, the erstwhile President of the Syrian National Coalition, recently issued a statement expressing his concerns about the influx of fighters from neighbouring countries and appealing to their governments to control their movement.
Having said all this, it would be foolish and remiss to suggest that there are no plots against Syria, or—more precisely—‘scenarios’ currently being imagined and planned for in the back rooms of Tel Aviv and Washington. However, the Arab revolutions that Salt dismisses so wantonly are not simply a new theatre in which to perform the old grand power plays. They are rather a moment for the people of the region to rid themselves of the dead, heavy hand of past paradigms, including the one that Salt is mired in. By using the slogan ‘The people demand the overthrow of the regime’, the Syrian revolution has continued the demands of Tunisians and Egyptians. This is not simply a guiding principle for the revolutionaries, but also an opportunity for intellectuals to interrogate the clichéd and limiting polarities that underpin Cold War rhetoric.
The Cold War Continued?
Given that the strands upon which Salt’s argument is constructed are largely speculative, how can we explain his readiness to seize upon them? It is because his worldview is one inherited from the Cold War. During the Cold War, because of subservience among certain factions on the Left to Soviet interests, some thought it made sense to support Arab nationalism because it was, for a time, aligned with the USSR in its struggle against US and Israeli imperialism. The fatal entwining of leftist politics with the interests of the Soviet Union, the promise of early Bolshevism notwithstanding, was an error that caused irreparable damage to the cause of revolutionary Socialism. It is even more absurd to hold on to a world view nourished by Soviet realpolitik today, when the excuse of thereby supporting progressive aims is even less based on reality.
Salt is right on one thing: US imperialism is unfortunately alive and well, and it is clear there are many parties with stakes in the Syrian civil war, but the argument that anyone who tries to revolt against what were once Soviet allies is necessarily in the pocket of the United States or the Israelis is myopic at best and dangerous at worst. It is not surprising that Salt commits another blunder of Cold War thinking—the inability to recognise spontaneous and novel political processes if they occur externally to officially sanctioned regimes. This is the ‘end of history’ dressed up as anti-imperialism. What Salt and counterparts on the Right agree on is this: History is over; there can be nothing new under the sun! Just like the defenders of the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the more recent capitulation of intellectuals who supported the US-led invasion of Iraq, Salt does not see what is in front of him. Beholden to a readymade narrative, he is comfortable alluding to covert international plots for which he provides no reliable evidence. Instead he strings together an interpretation based on what he believes are trustworthy conceptual parameters but which are in reality nothing more than scraps from the ideological dustbin of history.