The struggle for Syria

The Syrian people are being sacrificed at the altar of US imperialism, says author.

Syria protest
“It was the United States that destroyed Syrian democracy in 1949 when the CIA sponsored the first coup in the country ending democratic rule” [GALLO/GETTY

As the uprising proceeded in Tunisia last December and January and as it picked up in Egypt in January and February, developments seemed clear. Despite attempts to suppress the press, much of the news of what was unfolding reached national and international audiences immediately. The situation changed dramatically when the uprisings began in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. While a quasi news blackout suppressed coverage of the ongoing popular revolt and its violent suppression in Bahrain by Bahraini and Saudi forces (and only intermittent coverage of Oman was allowed), we continued to get important updates from Yemen. It was in Libya where the lies and propaganda started from the first week of the revolt. It was there that international forces, extending from the Gulf to Europe to the US, took charge of propagandising against Gaddafi (that he used his forces to strafe demonstrators, that his forces received Viagra and raped hundreds of women, that he used “African” mercenaries against his own people, that he was preparing to use chemical weapons against his people, that he had already killed 50,000 Libyans, etc. – all proved to be lies that international observers and agencies finally exposed as baseless fabrications) and ultimately of overthrowing Gaddafi’s dictatorship under the guise of the popular uprising led by NATO forces who actually bombed and killed hundreds of Libyan civilians.

We have seen similar developments on the Syrian scene with much propaganda by the regime and its international enemies who also began to speak for the popular revolt, whether in the Gulf-controlled press and satellite television stations, or by the Western media, and the Western “representatives” of the Syrian demonstrators.

In the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen (not to mention Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia where less massive but substantial demonstrations have continued for months), the Arab League, under US instructions, made no move to intervene at all, while in the cases of Syria and Libya, following US instructions, the League moved swiftly. This is not the first time that the League moves against a member state to facilitate foreign invasions. The dress rehearsal for this was the Iraq situation in 1990/1991, when the Arab League (like the United Nations following the fall of the Soviet Union) became another arm of US imperial power. It was then that the League joined forces with US and European powers to invade the Gulf, which was the first step in legitimising the second American invasion in 2003 to unseat Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a brutal dictator that the US and France helped sponsor in the 1980s and who did their bidding when he invaded Iran, an invasion that led to the death of one million Iranians and four hundred thousand Iraqis. But Saddam was not fully obedient to imperial will and retained a measure of independence from US imperialism despite his valuable services to it. At the time, many cautioned the so-called Iraqi opposition in exile, which called for the invasion, that the US invasion would result in an imposition of a regime that is at least as bad as Saddam if not worse. The loss of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and the total destruction of the country, the massive current repression and corruption of the American-installed regime, one would think, should be a cautionary tale to any Arab who seeks US help in overthrowing Arab dictators.

But if the story of Iraq is ignored, could anyone ignore the calamity that is hitting Libya as we speak under the guise of the new NATO-led government, and the first dose of violence and repression this government has unleashed on the Libyan people in the name of NATO democracy (more doses are in store of course)? Did the Libyan people revolt against the brutal dictatorship of Gaddafi to replace it with NATO-sponsored pillage and repression?

A lesson in imperialism

This is the lesson for those in Syria who are struggling to bring about democratic rule. The evidence is clear. If you live in an Arab country whose dictator is a client of the Americans, the US will do everything in its power to suppress your revolt, and if you succeed despite US efforts, the US will sponsor the counter-revolution against you directly and indirectly through its local allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, but now also Qatar. This of course applies to the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and in Saudi Arabia itself. If you happen to live in a country whose dictator, though friendly to the West, maintains an independent line on foreign policy or at least a line that cannot always be guaranteed to serve Western interests – and this applies to Syria and Iran (and lest we forget their services to the West, both countries helped actively the US effort to unseat Saddam, and the Syrian regime helped with US efforts in supporting rightwing forces in Lebanon against the Lebanese left and the PLO in the 1970s) and less so Libya, then the US will help sponsor your revolt against your dictator to bring about a more pliant dictator to serve its interests without equivocation, and it will do so in the name of supporting democracy. The US also explains its counter-revolutionary efforts in countries where the revolts succeeded in overthrowing the American-sponsored dictators as “pro-democratic” measures.

In this context of a US-dominated world, those in Syria who legitimately have struggled and are struggling to bring about an end to dictatorship must face up to a few central questions, now that the Arab League and imperial powers have taken over and assumed the leadership of their struggle: Is the aim of their ongoing uprising the overthrow of the Asad regime in order to bring about a democratic regime, or is it simply to overthrow Asad? As the Iraqi and Libyan precedents make clear, the Arab League and imperial powers have taken over the Syrian uprising in order to remove the Asad regime and replace it with a US-obedient regime like the ones installed in all other Arab countries. The second question for the Syrian demonstrators is clear and unequivocal: given the aim of imperial forces and the Arab League, do Syrian demonstrators understand the new leadership of their struggle by Gulf dictators and the United States as the final defeat of their uprising or as a necessary step for their uprising to succeed?

Those who see the Syrian popular struggle for democracy as having already been hijacked by these imperial and pro-imperial forces inside and outside Syria understand that a continuation of the revolt will only bring about one outcome, and it is not a democratic one – namely, a US-imposed pliant and repressive regime à la Iraq and Libya. If this is what the Syrian demonstrators are struggling for, then they should continue their uprising; if this is not their goal, then they must face up to the very difficult conclusion that they have been effectively defeated, not by the horrifying repression of their own dictatorial regime which they have valiantly resisted, but rather by the international forces that are as committed as the Syrian regime itself to deny Syrians the democracy they so deserve. In light of the new move by the Arab League, the US, and Europe, the struggle to overthrow Asad may very well succeed, but the struggle to bring about a democratic regime in Syria has been thoroughly defeated.

It was the United States that destroyed Syrian democracy in 1949 when the CIA sponsored the first coup d’état in the country ending democratic rule. It is again the United States that has destroyed the possibility of a democratic outcome of the current popular uprising. My deep condolences to the Syrian people. 

Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.