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imperialist military intervention is always designed to advance imperialist interests.
Sunday September 08, 2013 08:30 by Serena - Fedayeen Khalgh
No Humanitarian exceptions to Western intervention
by Yassamine Mather
This article is mainly a response to Gilbert Achcar’s ‘Slander and gossip’ (Weekly Worker August 8). However, it also addresses arguments by others who have advocated ‘humanitarian intervention’ or ‘arming the Syrian revolution’ in the last few months.
Achcar’s accusation that what I wrote about his positions vis-à-vis Libya and Syria was “slander” is bizarre. As far as Libya is concerned, there is no doubt that Achcar supported (or, as he prefers to put it, ‘refused to oppose’) United Nations-authorised ‘humanitarian intervention’ and, as far as Syria is concerned, he has been calling for the arming of the rebels since 2011. In an interview with the South African magazine Amandla in April this year he says: “As in Libya, it [Washington] refuses to deliver weapons to the insurgency despite insistent requests … The truth is that the war has dragged on much longer than it might have, had the insurgency received weapons. And the cost is terrible and tragic because of the loss of thousands and thousands of lives.”1
Obviously this confirms what I wrote. Of course, I did not quote him expressing reservations about the ineffectiveness of a no-fly zone in Syria - as opposed to Libya, where it would have been “just morally and politically wrong for anyone on the left to oppose” it.2 The fact of the matter is in both cases he advocated some form of intervention, justifying it as “humanitarian”, and arguing in the case of Libya that “we need to analyse concretely each specific situation and determine our position in light of our factual assessment”. He continued: “Every general rule admits of exceptions. This includes the general rule that UN-authorised military interventions by imperialist powers are purely reactionary ones, and can never achieve a humanitarian or positive purpose.”3
And here lies the problem. Achcar seems completely ignorant of the long association by imperialism of ‘humanitarian intervention’ with its military actions and how this relates to social-imperialism. ‘Humanitarian intervention’, far from being the exception, has a long history, going back to the Spanish colonisation of Latin and central America. In the 19th century colonial expansion itself was justified in such terms. In 1839 the British empire’s first war in Afghanistan was fought to liberate Afghan women! And indeed more than a century and a half later the same argument was used to justify the 2001 war against Afghanistan.
Contrary to what Achcar writes, ‘social-imperialist’ is not just a “favourite label of Stalinism in its heyday”. The term long precedes Stalinism and was used extensively in the late 19th century against those advocating the “benevolent spirit or principle of empire”. For example, Karl Pearson in Socialism and natural selection wrote in 1894: “When the extra group struggle with inferior races abroad has run to its end; then, if not sooner, the population question will force on a severer struggle for existence between civilised communities at home.”
In Britain, France, Italy and elsewhere ‘imperial socialists’ identified the ‘progressive nature’ of many colonial and imperialist interventions and they were promptly condemned for their “social-imperialism” by Marxists. In 1915 Luxemburg used the term in ‘Rebuilding the International’4 and Lenin used it in drafting a motion of leftwing delegates to the international socialist conference at Zimmerwald.5 ‘Social-imperialism’ and ‘social-chauvinism’ were used interchangeably to describe those who were “socialist in words, imperialist in deeds”.
In more recent times Marxists have used the term to describe those such as the Eustonites, Norman Geras and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, who have excused, advocated or supported western intervention against self-evidently reactionary states.
Achcar accuses me of failing to understand long articles - apparently I only read the first paragraph, and that is why I have failed to grasp the ‘complexity’ of his arguments. I am sorry, but I like to call a spade a spade, and when someone tries to deny the essence of what they have said, using weasel words about “exceptional circumstances” to justify their excuses, I refuse to be fooled. The irrefutable fact remains that Achcar, having in reality supported western intervention in Libya, now calls on the west to arm the rebels in Syria.
There is a serious problem with Achcar’s argument about ‘exceptions to the rule’, in that it invites us to ignore the historical background to specific conflicts, such as the post-colonial carve-up of territories which led to the drawing up of artificial borders. It invites us to look at contemporary conflicts in the Middle East or north Africa in isolation from the rest of the world, ignoring the political economy of the region and the world, and the consequent cause of conflict. The obvious question is, what possible interest of the ruling class in Britain, the US and France could possibly coincide with that of the working class in either the west or the region concerned?
I ended my first article by saying that any call for imperialist ‘humanitarian intervention’, including a call for the west to arm an opposition force, is unacceptable because imperialism itself is the main problem and can have no role in any solution. What did I mean and how do I justify this?
For socialists, every war, every local conflict has a history and is a continuation of politics by other means. That is why, faced with complicated scenarios currently playing out in the Middle East and the north of Africa, the left has to consider the consequences of what it advocates - be it foreign intervention or ‘military support’ for this or that dictatorship. First of all, in trying to make sense of a conflict, including civil wars, we cannot rely on media reports, eye-witness statements or even short visits. Both sides - in Syria the reactionary regime and the religious-fundamentalist opposition - will exaggerate the extent of atrocities committed by their opponents and it is quite healthy to be sceptical about every statistic, every report of brutality or mass murder. Gilbert Achcar has been very selective in accepting one version of data coming out of Libya and now Syria.
On Libya, according to Achcar, “if Gaddafi were permitted to continue his military offensive and take Benghazi, there would be a major massacre”; and “from an anti-imperialist perspective one cannot and should not oppose the no-fly zone, given that there is no plausible alternative for protecting the endangered population”.6 Yet Sliman Bouchuiguir, the secretary-general of the Libyan League for Human Rights, who made the claim of an impending massacre at a UN meeting, later admitted he had no evidence for this except the words of the Libyan opposition.7
It is true, as Achcar says, that Iran and Russia are supporting Assad, but then Achcar condemns the west for failing to arm the Syrian opposition, or specific sections of it:
... by denying the mainstream of the Syrian opposition the defensive anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons that they have been requesting for almost two years, while Russia and Iran were abundantly purveying the Syrian regime with weapons (and recently with combatants from Iran and its regional allies), the US administration only managed to achieve two results: on the one hand, it has allowed the Syrian regime to keep the upper hand militarily and thus to believe that it can win; hence, the regime has had no incentive whatsoever to make any concessions. On the other hand, benefiting from generous funding from Wahhabi sources … Jihadist networks that were already present in neighbouring Iraq (where the Syrian regime itself contributed to their development) were able to impose themselves as an important component of the Syrian uprising. 8
In fact it is untrue that Washington has refused to deliver weapons to the Syrian opposition. According to the New York Times, by March 2013 the CIA had smuggled in “3,500 tons of military equipment” via Turkey.9 As for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, they make no secret of the funds and weapons they are running into Turkey and Lebanon for the opposition.10 The fact that these weapons have found their way into Jihadist hands is no coincidence.
The progressive forces who initiated a popular uprising in Syria are under attack by Shia/Alawi forces associated with the Assad regime, as well as Sunni Jihadists and al Qa’eda, and the left is not in a position to gain much support during the current civil war. The most brutal, reactionary Islamist forces have gained the upper hand and no amount of wishful thinking will change that fact. Sections of the Syrian opposition have even publicised some of their own atrocities in the last few months.
For those of us involved in revolutionary politics in the UK, France or the United States, the main struggle is against global capitalism. Imperialism is our main enemyand we call for its defeat. How can we invite them to ‘impose peace’ in Libya? How can we call on western governments to arm “the revolution in Syria”? What kind of ‘revolutionary’ force will seek or accept western arms to fight a dictator whose very survival until now has depended on the global interests of imperialism? Even if it were successful would this not be regime change from above?
What kind of conditions would be imposed on the Syrian opposition in exchange for this support? Already one Syrian opposition leader, the National Coalition’s first president, Moaz al-Khatib, has resigned, complaining that foreign powers were placing too many conditions on their aid to opposition forces. On the other hand, why should the west arm a genuine revolutionary force, when throughout the last few decades it has done precisely the opposite, propping up reactionary states that suppressed the left? What would be the economic or political rationale?
Those of us who have always argued against support for reactionary anti-western forces (such as Iran’s Islamic Republic or its proxies in the region, including Assad and Hezbollah) do not deny that there is a global hierarchy of states. But despite the complications of the Middle East there is no reason to choose between support for western intervention and becoming apologists for reactionary states or Islamist forces, Shia or Sunni.
Advocating any form of intervention - not just military, but in the form of support for sanctions, participation in pro-imperialist ‘tribunals’ to condemn dictatorial rulers, etc - is at the end of the day not just striking a compromise with imperialism: it is siding with and supporting it. It is to accept regime change on imperialist terms, to accept the fist of military involvement under the glove of humanitarian intervention. All Achcar’s talk about “abstaining” on imperialist intervention, rather than “voting in favour”, cannot change this.11
Faced with a choice between imperialism and reactionary Islam, it is correct to oppose both (I do not describe this position as ‘third-campist’, because for sections of the Iranian left, for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and so on who use the term, third-campism has become synonymous with being soft on imperialism and exaggerating the threat of “clerical fascism”).
In Afghanistan, revolutionary groups were able to oppose both US imperialist intervention and the Taliban and al Qa’eda, refusing to join with the Taliban in a ‘united front’ against imperialism. They rightly pointed out that the Taliban would turn their guns on them before attacking the invader. Similarly inside Syria no-one on the left should choose between, on the one side, Alawi reactionary repression aided by the revolutionary guards of Iran’s Islamic Republic and Hezbollah, and, on the other, western-funded Islamists and other sectarian, reactionary forces, including al Qa’eda. There is a thin line that cannot be crossed, and that is calling for western ‘intervention’ and accepting conditional support from imperialist forces.
As for Arab nationalism, it had little to offer the masses in its heyday, but in these dying stages of its existence Ba’athism, Nasserism and the only substantial force that exists, fundamentalist Islam, have become a plague on the region. The ‘official communist’ parties of the Middle East, which repeatedly acted as supporters of and apologists for these regimes, must take their share of blame for this appalling situation.
However, all of these states exist as a result of colonial history. Current conflicts do not exist in a vacuum, independent of such history. We cannot pretend there was no Ottoman empire, no Italian rule in Libya. We have to remember that current Syrian borders are the result of a rather arbitrary partitioning of the Ottoman empire, that brought together different peoples and religions (Alawi, Shia, Kurd, Assyrian) within the same borders under a French mandate. These borders were set entirely according to imperialist requirements following World War I.
We cannot obliterate the history of the 1951-69 Idris period in Libya, when Britain was involved in extensive economic projects and was the country’s biggest supplier of arms. We cannot ignore the fact that towards the end of the Gaddafi era the US and its European allies conveniently forgot the repression previously undertaken by the regime. Gaddafi’s role in the massacre at Abu Salim prison, where 1,270 prisoners were said to have been killed, was no longer mentioned. No-one doubted the use of torture, lengthy jail terms for political opponents, the execution and disappearance of Libyan dissidents. Yet during the ‘war on terror’, Gaddafi was an ally - Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice and other ‘dignitaries’ visiting him were no longer concerned about such matters.
The same is true of Assad after the mass murder in Homs. As John McDonnell MP, the chair of Hands Off the People of Iran, rightly pointed out during the August 29 Syria debate in Westminster, the UK has itself sold arms to the Assad regime.
So what has changed? Why is the western press now suddenly concerned about repression? I offer two reasons. One, the Arab spring - itself partly a consequence of three decades of conflict in the region, of hated dictators supported by the west and of increased immiseration of the countries of the periphery following the 2008 economic crisis, which I will deal with later. Two, the changing map of the region, the increasing influence of Iranian/Shia/Alawi forces ironically brought about by the collapse of the Iran’s two main enemies: Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
There is no doubt that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah are playing a significant military role in support of Assad in Syria and, as US secretary of state John Kerry and others have pointed out, the current conflict is as much about weakening Iran as it is about Syria. However, many armed groups among the Syrian opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are also financed and armed by Iran’s main enemies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
All this is a direct result of the war in Iraq and the coming to power of a Shia government in Baghdad, courtesy of another imperialist intervention in the region.
I do not suggest that the uprisings in Libya or Syria resulted from a conspiracy by western powers or Gulf states, a view put forward by some supporters of Gaddafi and Assad. On the contrary, I firmly believe the Arab spring was an inspiration to those opposed to such dictators.
According to sections of the media, including some left-leaning reporters, it is Twitter, Facebook and new forms of communications that are responsible for the spreading of the uprising from one Arab capital to another. The truth is more complicated. I have mentioned colonial history, artificial borders and dictatorial rulers. Minority Alawis found themselves in power in Syria, minority Sunnis in predominantly Shia Iraq, while Kurds were separated in different states, and Christians and Jews were uprooted from their country of origin. Then there was the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq fuelled by US interests, which left at least half a million dead, the civil war in Lebanon and Israeli attacks against Palestinians.
Add to all this the transfer of the burden of the economic crisis from the west to the periphery post-2008. Mass unemployment sparked events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, while the process of intensification of economic and social crises, the increase in the cost of living and particularly of food played a significant part in the Arab awakening and its timing. Since 2008, western capitalists have been taking a far more cautious attitude towards investment in the Arab world. This has affected the economies of the Gulf, but also those of Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, whose migrant workers used to send money back to the homeland and have now been forced to return, adding to the massive unemployment statistics. In Syria, the country is also facing the consequences of severe sanctions on Iran, in terms of that country’s ability to provide economic assistance aimed at propping up the Assad regime and its regional ally, Hezbollah.
Iran had provided Syria with subsidised oil since 1982, when Damascus agreed to close Iraq’s pipeline through Syrian territory. In the last few years Iran’s inability to sell its oil on the world market, together with the collapse of Iranian economy, has reduced its capacity to support Syria. The Syrian currency was losing its value in a situation of ‘managed decline’ for more than two years, further reducing the regime’s ability to hold down prices, particularly food. None of this is to play down the increasing opposition based on political demands which fuelled the rebellion.
For France and Italy in 2011, and currently Obama, Cameron and Hollande, the desire for military intervention is also about diverting attention from internal problems. There is no appetite whatsoever for a full-scale war. However, there is and has always been an eagerness for short, sharp air raids. The US is very open as to why it would get involved. In the words of the White House, US action “will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States”.
It is true that under normal circumstances the US and Israel would have preferred keeping Assad in power. However, two years into the civil war, according to some reports Iranian revolutionary guards are running the Syrian military, and Iranian heavy artillery is being employed in Damascus. If that is the case then both the US and Israel would be in favour of regime change in Syria.
In other words, imperialist intervention should never be taken out of the context of the current international political and economic situation. That is what determines imperialist policy, not the desire to ‘save lives’. There are no exceptions to this.
Finally let me add an Iranian view. Recent military engagement in the Middle East and north Africa has played a crucial role in extending the life of dictatorships in the region. In Iran, sanctions have caused unprecedented suffering - this particular form of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has so far cost of the lives of thousands of Iranians, who have been deprived of medication, of the basics of life. Yet millions of Iranians look at the current civil war in Syria and the situation in Iraq and they fear the chaos that might follow the collapse of the Islamic regime. This and this alone makes them prepared to tolerate a brutally reactionary government, makes them willing to support impossible moves to reform the regime from within. And, of course, in this they are mistaken: the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed.
They also remember the previous major use of chemical weapons in the region - by Saddam’s Iraq against Kurdish Iranians. And this week, quite by coincidence, we were told that it was US intelligence that prompted the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein - and the US also chose to ignore the shelling of Iranian forces with sarin or mustard gas.
So don’t tell Iranians about “exceptions” and “humanitarian interventions”. We have had enough of them in the last few decades.
7. ‘Humanitarian war in Libya: there is no evidence!’, YouTube November 28 2011.
10. R Fisk, ‘If Alawites are turning against Assad then his fate is sealed’ The Independent July 23.