Salt Responds

Much of what Firas Massouh, Yoni Molad and Steve Pascoe write in response to my article is based on assumptions about how I think and how I frame events which have no relationship to how I do think or frame events. Let me deal with a few specific points in their critique, beginning with Syria. In no way did I suggest that Syria was an ‘autonomous and independent entity’ before the appearance of the French and the British. My critics claim the ‘idea’ of Syria was largely the product of ‘imperialist territorial manipulation’. In fact, it is not the ‘idea’ of Syria that was the product of territorial manipulation but the state of Syria. The ‘idea’ of Syria goes deep into history even if overlaid by the administrative divisions of the Ottoman state and its predecessors. Historical Syria included all the territory of what is now Lebanon, Syria, Israel/Palestine as well as a large chunk of what is now southeastern Turkey. It was on the map in the same way that Kurdistan was on the map even though there was no Kurdish state. The Turkish nationalists prevented the French from taking over what is now southeastern Turkey but even the rest would have constituted a very large Arab state at the heart of the Middle East, threatening French and British interests. So it had to be broken up. The people of this territory were specifically denied the opportunity to decide their own future. The argument that there was no Syria because there was no Syrian state is similar to Zionist thinking and runs parallel with the idea that there was no Palestine because there was no Palestinian state.

With regard to Syrian intervention in Lebanon, my critics put the word ‘authorised’ in quotes, as if there is something questionable about it. For the record, the Arab League did authorise the dispatch of an Arab‘deterrent force’ into Lebanon in 1976. Syria provided the force with the League’s approval. It did not intervene in Lebanon to fight Israel but to prevent the civil war from deteriorating to the point where Israel would intervene to protect its Maronite proxies. The role of Hizbullah is irrelevant because Hizbullah did not exist at the time. Syria did not want military confrontation with Israel in Lebanon or anywhere else, and it is hardly to be faulted for this given Israel’s military power, extending to the possession of nuclear weapons.

I never said that Bashar was ‘loved by most if not all’ of the people. I said that he had a solid base of popular support. In my footnotes, I refer to an article by Camille Otrakji which asks what the people like about Bashar and what they don’t like. Readers should consult this for a nuanced view as opposed to media clichés. Neither did I say Bashar was ‘universally popular’ because obviously he is not and even he has admitted that. As for the threatening slogans uttered by supporters of the ‘regime’, its enemies have any number of their own, most notably ‘Christians to Beirut and Alawisto the grave’, which is where many Alawis already have ended up. Many Christians have fled to Lebanon without the soi-disant Christian leaders of the United States and Britain uttering one word in protest.

My critics deny that the United States, Britain, France, Saudi, Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are involved in a coordinated effort to bring down the government in Damascus, partly by funding an exiled ‘national coalition’ and partly by funding armed groups. This will surprise many readers because the facts are so completely against them. They say that the West ‘has not had an appetite for intervening directly in Syria the way it did in Libya or Mali’. I have to assume they have forgotten that the United States made strenuous efforts to secure a UN Security Council resolution that would have allowed open military intervention on the Libyan model, with consequences that would have been far worse, but were repeatedly blocked by Russia and China. Scarcely hidden covert intervention was the second best choice of the collective calling itself ‘The Friends of the Syrian People’. As I have written, the armed groups are their tools, whether my critics admit it not. If Saudi Arabia and Qatar cut off funding and the supply of arms—at least 3500 tons of which have been provided over the past year—the insurgency will begin to wither at its roots.

The claim of my critics that ‘certain foreign Islamist elements’ are taking advantage of the chaotic situation in Syria to advance their own solution is a coy understatement when these ‘elements’ include the Saudi and Qatari governments and the many thousands of jihadis flowing into Syria from across the Muslim world, with some coming from Europe and even Australia. They are creating chaos rather than taking advantage of it. The agenda of foreign and local jihadis—the establishment of an Islamic emirate—has no relationship to the professed motives lying behind US, British and French intervention. They are dominating the fighting and they have not the slightest interest in the ‘civil society’ of which my critics speak.

My critics talk of ‘revolutionary potential’ and ‘revolutionary dynamics’. These ‘revolutionary dynamics’ are being played out in carnage and massacres across the country as the army tries to drive the armed groups out of the cities and towns they have infiltrated. ‘Activists’ and the media have done their best to cover for the crimes of these groups but as these groups often film their handiwork we have sufficient evidence of their atrocities. Cutting throats and sawing off heads are among their specialties. Massacres of civilians in car and suicide bomb attacks and the destruction/sabotage of infrastructure, along with looting of apartments and factories, constitute further evidence of a war on society and not just the organs of the state. Civilians are being targeted deliberately. This is the reality of what my critics call a ‘novel political process’.

The United States is now trying to take control of the armed groups by making sure that arms end up in what it regards as the right hands. This is likely to cause further divisions between these groups and their Gulf State backers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have their own favorites and are waging their own war for regional influence behind the scenes. The United States could choose to throw its weight behind a negotiated solution but it is choosing not to do that. This is completely in accordance with imperialist best practice: you don’t give in, you just try a bit harder until you get what you want, and that is the crux of the present problem because a Taliban-style state at the heart of the Middle East is not what this alliance wants. At least it is not what the United States, Britain and France want because Saudi Arabia and Qatar have slightly different agendas, different from each other’s as well as different from the agendas of their Western friends.

My critics talk of Bashar’s suppression of ‘civil society movements’, personalising the situation always, as the media does, but do not mention the oppression of men and women in the quarters of cities and towns infiltrated and taken over by Islamist armed groups. It is these groups that are leading the fighting and it is they are who are currently best placed to inherit if the government in Damascus can be brought down. Then we will see what the suppression of civil freedoms is all about.

Behind their revolutionary rhetoric, what are my critics actually promoting in Syria? Not civil society, as I see it, but chaos, destruction, disorder, religious fascism and the strategic interests of outside powers. Finally, the peaceful domestic opposition, a broad coalition of left groups, is strongly opposed to the armed groups and to the intervention by the foreign governments supporting them. They don’t like Assad but they want a negotiated, peaceful solution, which is also my option, but it seems to have no place in the thinking of my critics.

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