Imperialism, despotism, and democracy in Syria

The stark choice between a fascist or an imperialist course in Syria should be discarded for a third and better course.

Syrian protests
Syria's exile opposition has hijakced the uprising against the Assad dynasty by calling for intervention [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – In the context of the US invasion of the Gulf in 1991, British academic Fred Halliday announced his new right-wing affiliations in the British newspaper the New Statesman by declaring: “If I have to choose between imperialism and fascism, I choose imperialism.” It never occurred to Halliday that he could have opposed both and supported home-grown democratic struggles instead.

This was indeed a watershed moment for Arab, American, and European anti-imperialist leftists who would become turncoats, moving from a principled opposition to imperialism to a principled and financially more rewarding support of it. Like much of the scholarly and journalistic output of turncoats, Halliday’s sober and academically valuable studies, written before his transformation into a pro-imperial apologist, were followed by forgettable and mediocre studies after it, so much so that he did not publish a single study after 1991 that had academic merit or even a shelf life beyond a few weeks (though his Arab turncoat comrades saw fit to translate these later studies to Arabic!).

The stark opposition that Halliday drew between American imperialism and Saddam’s despotic rule preceded the events of 9/11 and the re-introduction of the term “fascism” in a slightly altered form to fit US imperialism’s new enemies, namely the neologism “Islamofascism”, which another British turncoat, Christopher Hitchens, had done so much to disseminate. 

At the time, many Arabs, Europeans, and Americans (myself included), who have been unwavering critics of Saddam Hussein’s despotic and terroristic rule and US imperialism’s genocidal wars against Third World enemies, opposed the first US invasion of the Gulf in 1991 and the ensuing 12-year siege, which cost more than a million Iraqi lives, as well as the subsequent US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its 8-year occupation of the country, which killed another million Iraqis. 

Opposition to US invasions of Iraq and Kuwait stemmed neither from any illusions about the nature of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime nor from his alliance with the Saudi theocratic state and its smaller Gulf partners. It came even less from his military strategic alliance with France and the United States from the late 1970s onwards, in the service of which he invaded Iran in 1980 and sacrificed the lives of one million Iranians and 400,000 Iraqis. On the contrary, it was based on a sober assessment of these realities and the costly impact of imperial invasions.

It was in this context that the Iraqi exile opposition in London and Washington, especially the irrepressible Kanan Makiya, who were calling for a US ground invasion and for more bombings of Baghdad by US forces, began to attack all those who oppose the US invasion, including the late Edward Said, as apologists for Saddam. Indeed, in 1991, Makiya’s Iranian ex-wife, Afsaneh Najmabadi, joined the fight and launched an impassioned defence of a US invasion of Iraq and the intellectuals and journalists who championed it, especially Thomas Friedman, Fouad Ajami, and Makiya himself. She obscenely attacked Said’s criticism of them, describing it as the “rhetorical equivalent of political murder”.

  It would seem then, as Marx put it, that history repeats itself twice – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. But does it repeat itself a third time?

The Iraqi exile opposition insisted along with its US imperial sponsors and the chorus of pro-war American intellectuals that people should make one of two choices: for or against Saddam. While the US and its Iraqi partners had their way, the subsequent destruction of Iraq, the dismantling of its state structures, and the destruction of its societal cohesion is the clearest illustration of what such a choice entailed for the Iraqi people and their country.

In 2011, we were treated to a repeat performance of the very same scenario. The Libyan exile opposition and those inside the liberated parts of the country, consisting mostly of erstwhile servants of the Qaddafi regime, began to call for a NATO invasion of Libya to help the Libyan people in their uprising against Qaddafi. Again, many anti-imperialist and pro-democracy Arabs and non-Arabs cautioned that while Qaddafi had been a merciless despot for four decades and had become an ally of the United States and Europe for the last decade of his rule, a western imperial invasion of the country would not be in the interest of most Libyans Rather, it would entail the destruction of the country, with thousands of casualties, for the sole purpose of controlling Libya’s oil wealth and not in the interest of establishing democratic rule. Again the Libyan opposition allied with imperial powers, like its Iraqi predecessor, immediately challenged any opponent of the imperial invasion to make one of two choices: for or against Qaddafi.

It would seem then, as Marx put it, that history repeats itself twice – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. But does it repeat itself a third time?

In the age of Arab exile oppositions sponsored by Gulf oil and US imperialism, it clearly does. Enter Syria’s exile opposition who hijacked the popular uprising against the Assad dynasty in the country. True, neither Qaddafi nor Assad (Sr or Jr) could compare to the despotic terror of Saddam Hussein, though they have tried their hardest to approximate it.

Like Saddam, the Assad dynastic regime has been an ally of the Saudi theocracy and its junior Gulf partners, and an agent of US imperialism in the region, especially in its major intervention in Lebanon in 1976 at the invitation of the Christian fascist forces who called the Syrians in to help them crush the leftist revolutionary movement in the country, including the PLO. The role played by the Syrian regime (in conjunction with Israeli advisors) in the horrific Tel al-Za’tar massacre in 1976, when thousands of Palestinians were slaughtered at the hands of fascist Maronite forces abetted by the Syrian army, is now the stuff of history.

Moreover, the Assad regime again proved most helpful to its US and Saudi sponsors when it joined the imperial coalition to invade the Gulf in 1990-91 under the US flag. On the Zionist front, the Syrian regime proved as pliant as the Jordanian one, ensuring the security of Israel’s “borders”, which Israel conquered and established inside Syria’s and Jordan’s own territories. Internally, the regime has used and continues to use draconian measures to suppress, repress, and oppress the Syrian people mercilessly (though still not to the extent of Saddamist repression, which no Arab regime has ever reached). By calling for imperial military intervention, the Syrian exile opposition invokes, without originality, the very same puerile yet insidious choices presented to anti-imperialist and pro-democracy Arabs and non-Arabs by the erstwhile bankrupt Iraqi and Libyan exile oppositions, namely, that there is only one choice to be made: for or against Assad.

These are false choices not only ideologically but also, and more importantly, historically. The monumental loss of Iraqi lives and the destruction of their country as well as the ongoing destruction and killings in Libya belie the Syrian exile opposition’s call for imperial invasion of Syria as the way to peace, democracy and to stop the ongoing carnage in the country. One wonders why the Bahraini and Yemeni oppositions have never called for an imperial invasion of their countries to liberate them from their equally despotic rulers. Nor have West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, languishing under the despotic boots of the Israeli occupation army for almost half a century, ever demanded an imperial invasion to liberate them from Israel. In fact, when the Palestinians deigned to request UN peace forces to protect them from the deadly power of the Israeli occupation army, the US balked in utter horror and disgust. 

Those cowed into silence by this old and tired rhetoric of the Iraqi, Libyan, and now Syrian exile oppositions should reconsider the imperial pedigree of the stark choices they present. Anyone acquainted with the history of American imperialism in the Arab world and with the record of local despotism knows that these choices are designed to block a third and central choice.

Unlike Fred Halliday and his pro-imperialist Arab and non-Arab acolytes, we need never choose between imperialism and fascism; we must unequivocally opt for the third choice, which has proven its efficacy historically and is much less costly no matter the sacrifices it requires: fighting against domestic despotism and US imperialism simultaneously (and the two have been in most cases one and the same force), and supporting home-grown struggles for democratic transformation and social justice that are not financed and controlled by the oil tyrannies of the Gulf and their US imperial master.

Joseph Massad teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York.

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