Debate regarding Syria with Richard Seymour

Debate below regarding Syria with Richard Seymour. Richard is the “”Lenin’s Tomb” blogger, a former regular contributor to the Media Lens website, and now regular op-ed contributor to the UK Guardian.

Our debate was prompted by this very recent blog post of his regarding Syria.


Hi Richard.

Just read your recent blog on Syria.
The U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, has stated
"The provision of arms to the Syrian government and to its opponents is fueling the violence. Any further militarization of the conflict must be avoided at all costs."
Do you support the idea of an arms embargo on BOTH sides?

Joe Emersberger  

SEYMOUR: No, I don't call for an arms embargo. I think that objectively favours the better armed regime. I think our priority has to be stopping imperialist hijacking of the revolt rather than restraining the uprising.

MY REPLY: Isn't the outside supply of arms plus other military assistance by NATO powers and their clients to armed rebels precisely what facilitates the "hijacking" you oppose. It provides a powerful – if not overwhelming – incentive to rely on powerful sponsors rather than mass support.

I put "hijacking" in quotes coz your blog leaves me far from convinced that this hasn't already taken place.
How could a one sided embargo only on the Syrian government lead to demilitarization – putting aside the improbability of Russia and China agreeing to it?  

SEYMOUR: Well to be clear, I have said I am not in favour of an arms embargo, not that I favour a one-sided embargo. I think this is a false solution.

As regards hijacking – where the rebels buy their weapons from is not the determinant factor in how the revolution ends and on whose terms. The determinant factor is whether the masses are marginalised, as they were when Qadhafi started to defeat the insurgency there: it was the demobilisation of the popular struggle under bloody assault that allowed the leadership to form an alliance with imperialism. In this case, the rival imperialist powers do not have control over the politics, tempo or tactics of the struggle. Even if the SNC leadership still wanted to play a role analogous to the NTC leadership, (which some of them might do), they have very little control over the politics and strategy of the LCCs, or the militias. Moreover, they have rival political groupings comprising left-nationalist and Kurdish forces vying for leadership, a problem them NTC didn't have as there basically was no organised Left in Libya due to the repressive conditions in the Jamahiriya. There simply is no tool available to imperialism to take control of this struggle at the moment.
MY REPLY: That's interesting. You really favour – or are indifferent to – allowing arms to flow to both sides?
Considering the UN's bias, I see little reason to doubt what Navi Pillay stated about arms fuelling militarization of the conflict ("the violence")..

I think you massively underestimate the major powers (and their clients) capacity for destruction when you write that "There simply is no tool available to imperialism to take control of this struggle at the moment."
They need not establish "control" to do an incredible amount of damage. They often don't establish "control" in places where they murderously intervene.  

SEYMOUR: I simply don't believe an arms embargo will help the revolution. That's my criterion. I don't agree that the flow of arms is what is fuelling the militarisation of the conflict; rather, it is the militarised response of the Syrian regime which is fuelling militarisation, and only its defeat can put an end to it.

Contrary to what you say, I do not underestimate the imperialists' *capacity* for destruction. But we simply disagree as to the importance of their intervention in the *present* situation: the imperialists are *not* the principal sources of violence in Syria today. They are opportunistically intervening to try to tilt the balance in favour of an outcome they want, and in the case of the US and its allies their strategy is to try to assemble a political leadership composed of defecting regime elements which can impose themselves on the revolt and hegemonise it, as in Libya. Thus far, there is no sign they can achieve this. Sarkozy complained about this before he was booted out: paraphrasing, "we in the West would *like* to intervene and support your cause, but you aren't unified and we can't trust that we will have any control over the situation". And that's absolutely right: the LCCs, militias and other political forces wouldn't sign up for intervention.

Btw, we really have to think about the wisdom of crediting an extremely popular revolution against an extremely unpopular regime in the Middle East to US imperialism, at a time when US imperialism is desperately trying to claw back some semblance of credibility by being seen to be on the side of reform…

MY REPLY: I don't see why we need to cheer for armed rebels to defeat Assad any more than we should cheer for – or, more appropriately, fantasize about – the Palestinians militarily driving out Israeli occupiers.
We need not cheer for Assad to crush his enemies either.

You can talk about the moral validity of Palestinian violence against occupiers for example. The real world consequences of funnelling arms to them is something else. I don't buy the logic that says Assad is about to fall but that demilitarizaton can take place at any time if only his regime pursued it.

You might want to recall what happened to Aristide, Zelaya and (briefly) Hugo Chavez. Pursuing a path that is completely democratic and non-violent offers little defence against foreign backed regime change. Saddam Hussein's total compliance with Western demands that he disarm did nothing to prevent the invasion of Iraq. I see no grounds for proclaiming with such confidence that most Syrians are cheering for rebels to violently overthrow the government.

That's off to the side of the rather predictable and gruesome consequences of western backed civil war.

SEYMOUR: You don't have to cheer on anyone, of course, but I am cheering for the rebels, just as I will cheer when the Palestinians and their allies defeat Israel. You say you don't see why 'we need' to do this. Speaking strictly for myself, I am in favour of all genuine popular liberation movements, and I don't impose conditions on that support. This is such a movement; I support it. Whether you 'need' to share that purview, I would not presume to say.

I am afraid I don't understand the argument about "funnelling weapons" to the Palestinians. If there was, say, a leftist group that was funnelling weapons to them, and which I could influence – much as the Jeanson brigades funnelled weapons to the FLN – then we would be able to discuss that. As it is, I'm being asked whether I would support or call for an arms embargo on both sides in Syria. And if the analogy holds, then this is like being asked to support an arms embargo 'on both sides' in Israel-Palestine. Well, since you ask, I think that would be a ridiculous posture for any leftist to adopt: we don't want the Palestinians to be armed? Arms embargos almost always affect the weaker parties, while the stronger parties find ways to route around it, flout it, ignore it, etc. So calling for an arms embargo – as opposed, say, to trying to stop our own governments from arming the aggressors – strikes me as a futile and self-aggrandising gesture.
You invite me to compare Assad to Chavez and Aristide. I'm afraid I find this juxtaposition repellent. Assad is a dictator, implemented neoliberal policies, organising a state-capitalist bloc on a consistently repressive and sectarian basis. He responded to what was indeed a non-violent protest movement by savaging it, by having his armed security forces shoot at and murder peaceful protesters: and thus produced an armed opposition. (This means, by the way, that there is no need to debate whether or not the Syrian regime could put an end to this war tomorrow; all we need to know is that it has actively pursued war and has never once relented from this strategy or from the mass murder it entailed; hence any talk of negotiations is completely missing the point). If any of this could be said of either Chavez or Aristide, and it cannot, then Chavez would already be gone and Aristide would have been deposed a lot sooner. And few leftists would mourn. Because then they would not be the brave, leftist radicals doing their best to use elected office to empower their populations.

You refer rather vaguely and generally to foreign-backed regime change. But what does this mean? Apparently it can mean anything from CIA death squads and genocidaires allied with sweat shop owners rampaging through a small island nation to a popular revolution with some extremely limited penetration by external forces. Presumably, because some external powers were happy to see Mubarak go, that overthrow was "foreign-backed" regime change. Any term this broad in its application ceases to mean anything. Likewise your term "foreign backed civil war".

You assert that you see no ground for saying "with such confidence" that "most Syrians" want the government to be violently overthrown. But I have made no such proclamation. It is impossible to know for sure what "most Syrians" wanted, just as it was hard to know what "most Egyptians" wanted in the run up to Mubarak's fall. Revolutions aren't poll-driven processes, and it isn't as if anyone was ever given a say in whether the Ba'ath Party should rule Syria. And it isn't as if there is a significant third force to choose from between the regime and it's supporters, and the revolutionaries as presently constituted. Given this, one doesn't need a referendum or poll result to make the decision; the choice is between a dictatorship and a popular movement, and I choose the latter without apologies.

MY REPLY: I think we need (ie should) try to prevent another Iraq, Another Libya. These are hardly far fetched outcomes. They are, unfortunately, very likely ones. The "genuine liberation movements" you write about generally welcome – enthusiastically – a shift from the military arena where they tend to be weak to the political arena where they are strong. No surprise, for example, that democratic movements in Latin America are near their weakest in Colombia where the conflict has remained militarized..

I think outsiders trying to "support" the legitimate struggle of the Palestinians through arms shipments would be disastrous for obvious reasons. And note, that is off to the side of the morality of Palestinians using violence against the Israeli military. It is keeping the struggle militarized that favours the stronger party – not a comprehensive arms embargo.
I didn't invite you compare Assad, who is a dictator, to Aristide, Chavez, Zelaya – democratically elected heads of state. I am merely asking you to remember that where absolutely no violent "crackdown" on opposition exists at all, the western media very effectively invents one at the behest the US and its allies. I also asked you to remember that compliance with Western demands – as in Iraq under Hussien – can prove worse then useless and actually be more dangerous than defiance. If is very far from clear that Assad, or Gaddafi before him, could have prevented being overthrown through a different approach when there were armed rebels given a very powerful incentive – by the major powers – to remain completely intransigent.

In the aftermath of Iraq and Libya (and also Haiti, Honduras) I can't accept that foreign backed regime changed is a puzzling concept. Preventing it should be our priority.

SEYMOUR: I think another Iraq is highly unlikely. The US does not want to commit its troops to another land war. The military leadership has been very clear about this.

I think another Libya is more likely than another Iraq, but still unlikely in the circumstances. This is because the opportunity for the kind of intervention that took place in Libya was the result of a very specific conjuncture of circumstances that don't present themselves here. To wit: 1) the uprising against Qadhafi took place in a situation where the Jamahiriya had outlawed all opposition (on the basis that parties and unions and so on were oppressive hierarchies that were unnecessary in a free socialist society), and this meant that there was very little tradition of popular self-organisation, no labour movement and no left – quite different from Egypt in this respect; 2) the regime very quickly forced the conflict onto the military terrain, and shortly thereafter started to win very handsomely, landing devastating blows on a very poorly armed revolutionary force, with the result that most of the masses who had mobilised and helped take control of major cities and towns started to melt away and retreat to their homes in fear of reprisals; 3) the dominant forces that emerged at the end of February and early March were ex-regime elements and segments of the ruling class – people who already had social powers and who had been dealing with the US and EU powers for a good few years while Qadhafi schmoozed them – and it was they who basically formed the only organised political representation of the revolt, the National Transitional Council; 4) from early on in the Libyan struggle, bourgeois elements were arguing for an alliance with imperialism, and as the defeats mounted up they started to win over wavering groups, such that eventually when they negotiated a deal with imperialism there was basically no resistance to it at all. I think these circumstances (the absence of a leftist anti-imperialist force, the dominance of a single bourgeois political faction, the rapid spate of defeats, the lack of popular self-organisation, the rapid marginalisation of the masses) are conditions peculiar to a thwarted uprising that was too short in its incubation period due to the Jamihiriya conditions I mentioned. They don't at all apply in Syria. This is not to say there isn't a risk that the US *could* hijack the Syrian struggle, but as yet I have seen *no* evidence that this has actually happened: so far from it, the dominant organised forces on the ground reject US involvement, the armed groups are far too diverse, disarticulated and localised to be converted into a proxy, and the relationship between the SNC leadership and the other political forces and the militias and the grassroots is far too antagonistic and distant for them to be able to impose themselves in the manner of the NTC.

Regarding Palestine, let's not get carried away: no one is sending arms shipments to them, at least no leftist groups I am aware of. It's not a real debate. My point was that I don't see an arms embargo helping the Palestinians. I think the onus must be exclusively on depriving Israel, the aggressor, of arms. That's a concrete goal that can be achieved, albeit with some difficulty (ie requires mass movements in the imperialist societies). In Syria, I see nothing that can concretely be done to disarm the aggressor, since the aggressor is armed by Russia. And in that circumstance I am not for restraining the revolutionaries, because that will lead to their bloody defeat.

You claim that arms embargos restrain the strong and help the weak; that isn't necessarily the case. If they result from popular pressure and are targeted against aggressors (ie, if they restrain imperialist states from arming aggressors), that can sometimes help – ie South Africa. But when they target 'both sides', as for example in the Spanish Civil War or during the US embargo on Palestine in 1947, they generally hurt the weakest parties. First of all because they generally *target* the weak, and secondly because even where they don't, the strong parties have more resources for negotiating around them. Contrary to what you appear to assume, an arms embargo does not cause demilitarisation: that follows only from a change in the political circumstances.

As regards whether Assad could have avoided being overthrown; well, it's not my problem to be honest. I am not trying to calculate how Assad could have redeemed himself: I don't care about his fate. I am simply saying that at the beginning of this struggle, it was non-violent; this was a self-conscious strategy on the part of the opposition; whereas it took months of repression before armed groups emerged in various localities and, converging around defectors from the army, announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army. In other words, regardless of whether Assad could have done anything to avoid being overthrown, he consciously chose a strategy of militarised crackdowns at a time when the opposition had consciously chosen a strategy of peaceful protest. So, the blame for the militarisation of the conflict – indeed, the blame for the fact that there is a struggle in the first place – rests on the shoulders of Assad and the Syrian ruling class.

You speculate about 'the major powers' giving the armed rebels 'a very powerful incentive' to 'remain completely intransigent'. This just strikes me as purblind: have you missed what has happened since the revolt began? The intransigence is on the side of the regime; all speculation about what 'the major powers' could have achieved had they needed to in this respect is beside the point. The fact is there are going to continue to be revolutions and upheavals in the region, some of them affecting states and regimes that the US has historically been antagonistic toward. Sometimes the US will be able to intervene, sometimes it won't; sometimes its interventions will be decisive, and sometimes they won't. The point is not to prejudge the situation, but to determine concretely what is taking place: the questions of what types of forces are operating on the ground, what class alliances are available, what ideologies are involved, the extent of popular self-organisation, the relationship between militarisation and repression, the specific socioeconomic basis of the regime, etc., are not secondary concerns which can be alluded to after it has been established which side of the imperialist cleavage the regime is on – these *are* the questions. They are the *fundamental* questions, every bit as important as the question of imperialism itself. This is what most of those arguing your position don't seem to take seriously.

MY REPLY:You’re invoking micro considerations (very dubious speculation at that) to justify a stance that falls apart at the macro level. US backed regime change in Iraq, Libya, Haiti, Honduras (and Venezuela where it has been foiled thus far) – all vary in their particulars. Only one of those examples involved prolonged deployment of US troops which you bring up. All have involved significant collaboration and support from other imperial powers that have very similar goals and values. In all these cases you can debate the extent to which the US actually controls or has “hijacked” the opposition. That’s off to the side of the incredibly destructive impact of US intervention (typically assisted by other major powers). To say we should prevent “another Iraq” or “another Lybia” (or another Haiti and another Honduras) simply means preventing the major powers from fuelling yet another bloodbath. Given the horrific outcomes in all the countries I’ve mentioned (except Venezuela where regime has been prevented thus far) I wouldn’t find your speculation about likelihood very relevant even if I found it convincing (and I don’t). I take Navi Pilla’s assessment (considering the UN’s bias) as more than enough evidence to conclude that it is happening already and likely to get worse.

Regarding Palestine (where armed resistance to Israel is vastly weaker than armed resistance in Syria to Assad’s regime) it is clear that a comprehensive arms embargo on both sides would be immensely helpful to ending the occupation. How in the world could it be helpful for western leftists to say “jolly good show” if Palestinian suicide bombers succeeded in killing several Israeli generals? [NOTE TO READER The tweeted reaction of “lefty” UK Independent pundit Owen Jones to the killing of high level Syrian officials was "Adios Assad. I hope"] If your interest is in restraining the stronger party, and achieving demilitarization, isn’t that the exact opposite of what one should do? I can’t think better way from pro-Palestinian activists in the West to discredit themselves than to cheer armed resistance – or oppose restraints on armed resistance – as you suggest we do in Syria. In fact, if western leftists are not discredited for cheering Syrian rebels, that alone says plenty about the western establishments’ confidence in their capacity to influence the conflict.

SEYMOUR:What you refer to as "micro considerations" are among the most important factors in the analysis of any situation of uprising: the degree of popular self-organisation; the involvement of the left; forms of political representation; the alignments of oppressed minorities; the degree of popular involvement in and control of the armed struggle; etc etc. Moreover, my statements in this respect are not "dubious speculation" as you assert, but empirically well-founded observations. I've done enough research to say this with confidence.

US-backed regime change indeed does vary in particulars; but only one of the examples you raised actually involved the US hijacking a revolution in motion and taking control of it, and that example is Libya: and that is why I said to you that a repeat of Libya was more likely than a repeat of Iraq: but still, unlikely due to the absence of the main enabling factors. The other examples you raised – Iraq, Haiti, Honduras – involved not the infiltration of *popular* forces but the imposition of regime change by external armed forces or internal ruling class factions (just as frequently, there's an alliance between the two). That's why speaking in vague, general terms about 'the opposition' is not helpful: 'the opposition' was not the same type of thing in Iraq as in Syria, because in Iraq what counted for 'the opposition' was a bunch of clapped out exiles and not a well-organised, politically diverse mass movement.

If your only point is that we should prevent the imperialist powers from producing a bloodbath in Syria by one means or another, then the question of how likely this is certainly is relevant. It is *absolutely decisive* actually: what forces are most likely to produce a bloodbath in Syria today? Are they the imperialists; are they the revolutionary forces; or are they in the Syrian government? And the overwhelming evidence of the last year and a half has been that it's the Syrian government. So, no speculation is required to judge this. On the contrary, it is *your* position, in which you are invoking a threat of civil war produced mainly by imperialism, that is speculative. I have asked again and again, what is the *evidence* for the dominance of imperialism in this situation? All we have is allegations of *marginal* involvement, typical of which is the report of the CIA training squads on the Syrian borders. How much weight do they have relative to the local militias, the coordinating committees, the NCC, the Kurdish groups, etc etc? How much weight do they have compared to the Syrian regime? For your stance, that imperialism is the dominant factor and more important than any internal revolt, to be viable, you have to speculate because there just isn't evidence on your side – or if there is, you have been notably slack in presenting it.

On Palestine, we just disagree. You keep repeating that an arms embargo would be helpful to ending the occupation, but I find the logic of this utterly opaque. There are simply too many examples of arms embargos being used to blockade the weaker side while the stronger side, the aggressor, continues to arm. The assumption that arms embargo = demilitarization just isn't sustainable. Moreover, I don't see what calling for an arms embargo would do: who would listen to this? Concretely, you can restrain the state in which you operate through social struggles. This makes it possible for us to demand that our states, the imperialist states, stop arming Israel. But there's no way, for example, that the Left in the imperialist countries is going to be able to restrain Iran from sending Hamas rockets or whatever other measly weapons it possesses, even if this was a reasonable use of its energies. The major problem for the Palestinians is that they *will* face continued assault and violence, and for the majority of their existence as a nation-in-waiting, they have suffered the racist assumption that they have no right to self-defence. The Left, being unable to stop the flow of arms to Israel in the short-to-medium term, should *at the very least* be the ones to say "the Palestinians' violence is legitimate and justified in self-defence". And if your major worry is *credibility*, then I don't know why you're talking to me: I am not interested in placating popular opinion or common sense. One has to be prepared to be in a minority over important matters, otherwise one will never make any difference at all.

One last thing – not that I really care, but it is a little discourteous that you didn't tell me you were posting these exchanges on Media Lens. I don't automatically assume that such correspondence is for public consumption, and I would guess most other correspondents don't either.

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