(By Return to the Source)
A little over a month ago, the US war machine kicked into high gear and came as close as ever to striking Syria in the almost three years of unrest. Although the US, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia and Israel have intervened on behalf of the so-called rebels since the conflict began – with the latter actually striking Syrian military facilities twice in 2013 – President Barack Obama’s appeal to Congress for war authorization represented a new stage in the conflict. Repeating lies and nonsense about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons, the US sought to build a case for war that eerily paralleled the build-up to the war in Iraq, which began a decade ago in March.
Several factors torpedoed this proposal. Russia, Iran and China firmly came out against military intervention by the Western powers in Syria, with Russia and Iran threatening material consequences for a strike. Moreover, a dramatic change in strategy by the Assad government in the last year – fighting the conflict as a civil war rather than relying solely on counter-insurgency measures – broke the nearly two year stalemate and gave momentum back to the Syrian Arab Army. In other words, Assad is winning the conflict. Though this was part of the reason for the West’s increased threats of military force, it was dialectically a factor in their calculus to avoid intervention.
However, another factor sunk the President’s proposal for military force: that of popular protests by people in the US. From California to New York, Chicago to Florida, and everywhere in-between, anti-war activists took to the streets and organized demonstrations pressuring Congress to not authorize a strike on Syria. As the votes tallied higher against military action – not incidentally coming largely from the Republican right-wing of Congress – and as public opinion reached a low-point with a stunning 91% of Americans voicing opposition to the proposal, it was quietly withdrawn by the Administration.
Though the protests against the war on Syria were far smaller than those protesting the build-up to the war in Iraq a decade ago, they were significantly larger and more targeted than the movement against President Obama’s strike on Libya. In part, this owed to the courageous activism and organizing of countless Syrian-American organizations, not least of which was the Syrian-American Forum. This strong strategic alliance between the anti-war movement and the bulk of the Syrian-American community played a significant role in stopping the Administration’s threats of war.
Despite overwhelming unity within the active anti-war movement against intervention and against the US and Saudi-backed rebels, several so-called “leftist” organizations remained obstinate and continued calling for the downfall of President Assad’s government, even during the height of the US’ pro-war propaganda campaign. These organizations preferred to continue supporting an imaginary “Syrian revolution” free from Western, Saudi, Israeli, or al-Qaeda influence against the “tyranny” of the Assad government instead of taking a stand in principled solidarity. While they played no significant role in the anti-war movement during this latest victory, it didn’t stop national chauvinist leftists like those in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) from slandering the activists who resisted war.
This dynamic of delusional nay-sayers on the sidelines sparked one of the more interesting controversies on the US Left this year. Eric Ruder of the ISO published a polemic on September 10 entitled “Standing against both war and dictatorship” blasting leaders in the anti-war movement – the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), the Party for Socialism & Liberation (PSL), and the Workers World Party (WWP) – for their activism and their principled anti-imperialist stance, which included supporting Assad’s government against the US and Saudi-backed rebels.* Ruder’s piece similarly attacked the Syrian-American Forum and other Syrian-American activists who attended anti-war rallies for their overwhelmingly pro-Assad stance.
This provoked a blistering response by the FRSO, entitled The ISO and the War on Syria: Silly and Shameful. In it, the FRSO lays out a thorough defense of anti-imperialism and lays waste to Ruder’s chauvinistic attack on the Syrian-American Forum. The entire rebuttal is worth reading, but we will quote this passage at some length for the purposes of this essay:
In many cities, Syrian Americans have one of the most constant, dynamic, and in some cases, the largest force in the current anti-war movement. Most people would say that is a good thing, but not the ISO. Instead they complain about the flags, signs, and portraits that Syrian Americans bring to protests.
For example in Chicago, Syrian Americans have been extremely active in anti-war demonstrations. How does the ISO evaluate this? Ruder’s article says, “The ugly consequences of ‘antiwar’ support for the Syrian regime were easy to see in Chicago, where organizers of ‘Hands off Syria’ protests repeatedly turned over the platform to representatives of the Syrian American Forum…” Imagine that. Syrian Americans help organize demonstrations, turn out in large numbers and often speak from the platform.
The ISO, which has never been big on opposing U.S. intervention in Syria, was apparently “caught off guard” when they finally did make their way to the anti-war protests and found Syrian Americans expressing their views. It seemed “ugly” to them. Perhaps it is more a case of ISO playing the Ugly American.
Indeed, this kind of “Ugly American” chauvinism led the ISO to support the so-called “Libyan revolution” in 2011, despite overwhelming evidence that post-Qaddafi Libya is a nightmare forworkers, women, and ethnic and religious minorities. The ISO reads this evidence and makes claims to having opposed NATO intervention in Libya, but when the situation repeats itself in Syria and they take the same debunked position, their claims lack sincerity.
After the FRSO’s takedown of the ISO’s original piece, Ruder couldn’t leave well-enough alone and wrote another polemic, this time singularly directed at the FRSO. In “You can’t be anti-war and pro-dictator,” one can practically imagine an embarrassed and hysterical Eric Ruder throwing a temper tantrum as he wrote this barely coherent response. As usual, the ISO’s attack dog hearkens back to the beginning of the unrest in Syria, arguing that the initial wave of protests were peaceful until the Assad government repressed them. He also trots out the ISO’s go-to “organization” in Syria that they use to claim that “not all opposition to the Assad regime is ‘jihadist’”: the Local Coordination Committees (LCC).
Countless analysts have dispelled the myth that the initial protests in Syria were totally peaceful and only turned to violence after government repression. The US and Israel funded Syrian opposition groups long before the actual unrest began, and violence against Syrian state workers and civilians by protesters began prior to the Assad government’s response.
But let’s tackle these Local Coordination Committees that the ISO extols. Finding it increasingly hard to identify actually existing groups in Syria that they support – the ISO says they don’t support Assad’s government, US intervention, the Free Syrian Army, or the jihadist rebels, which a study by IHS Jane in September found make up about half of all rebels – the ISO continues to rely on the LCCs, frequently republishing their statements. Specifically, Ruder claims in the original article:
But if the U.S. has been successful in its perennial strategy of finding regime opponents willing to play ball with Washington’s plans–in this case, former members of the Assad regime itself, among other dubious characters–that obviously doesn’t discredit everyone fighting for change. In particular, the Local Coordination Committees and other revolutionary currents have a proven record of challenging the regime while remaining independent of imperialist maneuvers.
The inconvenient truth for the ISO, though, is that the LCCs actually do support imperialist intervention, both implicitly and explicitly. This truth became painstakingly clear in a September 13 Democracy Now interview with a prominent LCC spokesman, Rafif Jouejati, in which he claimed:
I think many in the Syrian expatriate communities certainly do favor a military strike. This is not because they are puppets of the Saudi government, as Rania says. This is not because they don’t represent the Syrian people. I believe this is because many, many Syrians inside Syria—not in the United States, but inside Syria—feel that Assad will not stop unless he is stopped militarily. This is the man who is responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians. This is the regime that is responsible for the internal displacement of at least four million people, two million refugees abroad. So, Syrians, who are inside, are feeling that there is no hope but for a military strike.
Jouejati goes on to repeat the same delusions the ISO feeds themselves on, including that “these [jihadists] are a minority, and we recognize that Syrian civilians across the country have come out in protest against them” – a fact proven completely wrong by the IHS Jane study cited above. Finally before a brief break, Jouejati drops this gem and effectively shatters the ISO’s delusions completely:
We do say yes to humanitarian aid. We do say yes to stop the killing. But the LCC has said, if the international community is going to do something, let it stop the murderer, let it stop the massacres, let it stop the bombing campaigns against civilian communities, whether these campaigns are done via Scud missile, whether they’re done via barrel bombs at civilian bread lines in Aleppo, for example.
To be clear, Jouejati is saying “stop the bombing campaigns” in reference to Assad, not NATO, the US or Israel. The LCC demand to the international community to “stop the murderer” presumably includes the use of bombs by the US, NATO, or whomever, as long as they take down Assad. Frankly, the LCCs have a greater grasp on reality than the ISO – they understand that being anti-Assad – anti-”dictatorship” in the words of Ruder – actually does mean being pro-war. Faced with the reality that they lack any popular support – a NATO study from Mayfound that about 70% of Syrians support Assad, versus 10% who support the rebels – the LCCs join their jihadist brothers in al-Nursa Front, al-Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army (with incredibly blurred lines between those three groups) in calling for military intervention. Thankfully, they did not get their wish.
The ISO is so heavily invested in their nearly four year delusion that the “Arab Spring” is some incarnation of Trotsky’s permanent revolution that they find themselves supporting US intervention, in both word and deed. The point isn’t even that they repeat the same lies told by the imperialist media about Assad and demonize an anti-imperialist state, though to be sure, they do that too. They actively support organizations in Syria that support US intervention. The bogus claims they publish in their online paper about “opposing both war and dictatorship” are meaningless when compared to the actual support they give the Syrian rebels, which support imperialist intervention in Syria. Ruder even acknowledges this in his response to the FRSO:
To be sure, some popular forces against Assad, not linked to the U.S. and its allies, are calling for a U.S. attack on the regime’s military capabilities. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given Assad’s murderous use of advanced military hardware against defenseless civilian populations. Under such dire circumstances, even groups that earlier opposed U.S. intervention may hope that a military strike will damage the regime. They may be short-sighted for not recognizing other consequences of an American attack, but they certainly aren’t puppets of imperialism merely because they want to see the murderous regime punished.
As the FRSO editorial pointed out, the ISO “was never big on opposing intervention in Syria” and preferred to make bombastic calls to support a non-existent, imaginary Syrian “revolution.” The addendum to that, of course, is that the ISO knows they are supporting groups that call for intervention, revealing that the ISO is by extension knowingly supporting imperialist intervention. They rationalize the treasonous and vile calls by the rebels for mass murder by the US, pretending like they are just benign “short-sighted” but well-intentioned declarations. Meanwhile, real socialists and communists in Syria consistently oppose intervention and call for the defense of the Syrian national government, flaws and all. But it’s never about socialism or liberation for the ISO – it’s about taking the most convenient, opportunist position that allows them to sell newspapers to affluent college students until they graduate.
This, in essence, is “Ugly American” national chauvinism – the tendency to rationalize your own imperialist government’s barbaric acts of violence and posture as a leftist, in effect providing a “left guard” for imperialism.
If this seems too far-reaching of a conclusion, consider an October 7 interview published in Socialist Worker with ISO member and part-time imperialist shill Gilbert Achcar, entitled “Syria’s uprising versus the counterrevolutions.“** Achcar is asked, “Is it not true that their [Russia’s] involvement has not only an important material effect through their supply of arms to Assad, but also an important ideological one in that they disorient some who you would expect to support the uprising?” His response is flat-out shocking:
In the final analysis, the Syrian uprising has very few friends. Even among people that one would expect to be friendly to revolutions, you can see some hostile attitudes–people taken in by the propaganda of the Syrian regime, which portrays the whole uprising as jihadist as well as that of Moscow.
And some people look to Russia as if it were still the Soviet Union, even though in terms of its political and social character, the U.S. appears as rather progressive (!!!) compared to what Putin’s Russia is: an authoritarian government, wild capitalism, a flat income tax rate of 13 percent, robber barons and so on. There is much more ground to consider Russia as an imperialist country than an anti-imperialist one. (emphasis mine – VS)
You read it correct. Achcar, a longtime ISO member regularly writing about Syria for Socialist Worker, believes that the US appears “rather progressive” compared to what Putin’s Russia is.” This is Ugly American national chauvinism on another level, revealing that the ISO truly does prefer US imperialism to the self-determination of Syria. After all, as we started this essay with a discussion of the factors that stopped the impending US intervention, Russian retaliation was undoubtedly the largest calculus the imperialists had to weigh. If the ISO actually stood for self-determination for Syria and opposed intervention, as they’re so fond of saying, they would celebrate the actions by Russia to counter a US intervention in Syria. Even as supporters of the US rebels, the ISO should be able to recognize that Russia’s stance was principled and laudable for preventing intervention. Except the ISO doesn’t actually oppose intervention in Syria.
Instead, the ISO thinks that the US – the greatest purveyor of violent imperialism in world history – is “rather progressive” compared to Putin’s Russia. Russia is a capitalist country, no doubt, but whether the country is principally anti-imperialist or not, it doesn’t come close to the US on any honest measurement of imperialist violence. How many wars has the Russian Federation fought with other countries in the last 20 years? What percentage of the world’s wealth is owned by Russian banks? In comparison to the US? Achcar’s statement is pathetic and vile, showing clearly that neither he nor the ISO are friends of the Syrian people.
With the threat of intervention blunted for the time being, many anti-war activists in the US have taken a step back. However, the imperialist proxy war on Syria continues, as does US and Saudi military intervention in the form of lethal aid to the rebels. Principled supporters of the global anti-imperialist struggle must continue building the anti-war movement in the US and supporting the victory of Assad’s government over the foreign-backed rebels. And in building that movement, we must continue to look out for, identify and expose snakes in the grass like the ISO.
Hands Off Syria!
NO to Intervention!
Victory to Assad!
*We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the unintentionally hilarious picture accompanying the article, featuring three lone individuals (presumably ISO members) holding a grossly oversized banner that read, “NO TO INTERVENTION, YES TO SYRIAN REVOLUTION.” This tiny, motley crew is standing to the side of the main event – an impressive 600-person protest in Chicago organized by the Chicago Anti-War Committee, the Syrian-American Forum, the FRSO, and the ANSWER Coalition – awkwardly twiddling their thumbs and imperiously holding the banner high. Ruder must not have chosen the picture, leaving that task to some Socialist Worker editor, because it undercuts every claim the ISO makes to representing the anti-war movement.
**If we can speculate briefly on the internal dynamics in the ISO, one might guess from the varying level of hysterics in the Socialist Worker articles on Syria that Achcar represents the far-right wing of the ISO, probably in favor of open calls to support military intervention. Achcar is more acidic and less likely to veil his views the way other ISO members, like Ruder, do behind the “No Intervention” slogan.