To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
July 5, 2016
RE: The betrayal by would-be "anti-imperialists" of the Syrian democratic struggle

Book Review: "Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and
the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution"

by Phil West, Seattle Communist Study Group

"Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution", edited by Jules Alford and Andy Wilson. Unkant publishers, London, 2016

Khiyana means "betrayal" in Arabic, and this book explores the betrayal that the Syrian democratic uprising has experienced at the hands of much of the established Left since its inception in 2011. Although the contributors to this book have varying political backgrounds, they all share a positive view of the Syrian democratic uprising, and they present much useful information to support this view. In this review, I will summarize some of the useful articles included in the book to show the wide range of information presented in it.

In his introduction, "Socialism and the Democratic Wager", Assad an-Nar argues that the present-day Left has become so narcissistic that its concepts have become irrelevant to real democratic uprisings. And since for the left, support for democratic mass movements is its main justification, this means that a wholesale rethink of its conceptual basis is necessary. He contrasts the events of the Arab Spring with the preconceived notions of the Western left, which includes Trotsky's theory of Permanent Revolution. He asserts that this theory was developed to apply to conditions under Tsarist Russia, and it should no longer be applied under current historical conditions. This leads him to address democratic uprisings as a distinct category, as uprisings which can be instrumental in paving the way to socialism, but are also important in their own right since they arise from immediate needs of the masses.

An-Nar writes of the Syrian uprising as a revolution, although it could not be placed in the same historical class as the revolutions against Tsarist absolutism in Russia in 1905 and 1917. The Syrian masses are fighting against a stifling tyranny that prevents them from obtaining even an elementary basis for their survival. They need freedom from this tyranny in order to breathe, gain experience with the bourgeois trends that have participated in the uprising, and build organizations with which to fight for any independent class demands. This is a stage that must be gone through if there is to be a socialist revolution. But Trotsky's theory of Permanent Revolution pits itself against the very idea of necessary stages, not just in Syria but in Tsarist Russia too. Not all uprisings are direct class battles; frequently they cut across class lines, and become distinct stages of an overall revolutionary struggle that need to be carried out in a concrete historical context. Trotsky's theory has always been unable to recognise the distinct historical character of these stages, and that was as true in Russia as it is in Syria.

He goes on to examine the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the political trajectory of Hezbollah with regard to the Syrian civil war. In his remarks on the Brotherhood, he notes that they were in a unique position after the Egyptian democratic uprising, but they began to lose power because they did not break with neo-liberalism. The left in Egypt could not develop an independent strategy under these circumstances. With regard to Hezbollah, he notes the existence of "zombie Stalinism" or "Stalinism without Stalin", as an important aspect of current "anti-imperialism" (what we would term "non-class" anti-imperialism). He concludes with some perceptive remarks about post-colonial struggles, the importance of socialism from below, and some general conclusions about the necessity for the left to support democratic uprisings even if they don't seem to be immediate transit points to a socialist revolution.

In his initial article for this book, Mark Boothroyd informs us about "Who are the Syrian Rebels: The Genesis of the Armed Struggle in Syria". He describes the source of the armed rebellion and tells us how it made the transition from guerrilla resistance to open war. He gives us a history of how the rebellion descended into chaos, with token support from the US aimed at co-opting the rebels, up to the present stage during which the rebels are trying to regroup and regain their advantage. A key aspect of this history was the fact that while the rebels sought aid from outside to fight the Assad regime, it was only when the Islamist Daesh group emerged that military aid was offered, and then only on condition that the rebels would fight Daesh rather than the Assad regime.

In Sam Charles Hamad's article "Anti-anti-Imperialism -- The Syrian Revolutionary War and the anti-Imperialist Left", he attacks those in the left who make irrational objections to the efforts by the Syrian rebels to obtain arms and support from all quarters. He examines the actual record of US aid to rebels and shows how it actually restricted their ability to get arms from sources in the Gulf. Objections to US attempts to increase its political influence in the Middle East became an excuse for ignoring the brutality of the Assad regime altogether and treating the US as the main party in the war, instead.

Several of the articles focus on the betrayal of the Syrian democratic activists by the non-class "anti-imperialists" of the left. In his second article, Mark Boothroyd writes about "The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Anti-War Movement". He relates the stages through which the anti-war movement developed from uncertain support of the rebellions of the Arab Spring through selective anti-imperialism as prescribed by the dictum "the main enemy is at home", followed by disorientation and demoralization at the time of the Obama administration's decision not to intervene in Syria because of the Ghouta sarin gas attack. Since that time, the hypocrisy of such major political groups as the Stop the War Coalition in the UK, and attempts by Western political leaders to manipulate the rebellion to use it as a tool to fight the Islamist forces have hobbled the popular forces, such as the FSA. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad mocks Western inaction with regard to support for the Syrian rebels in his article "The anti-Imperialist's Guide to Inaction in Syria". He guides us through all of the circumlocutions and dishonest self-justifications that can be found in many "leftist" commentaries on Syrian politics. Leila Al-Shami tells us about "The Struggle for Kobane -- An Example of Selective Solidarity", an event which brought about a massive outpouring of support for one single battle by the Kurdish city of Kobane against an Islamist siege. But when the siege was finally broken, the leftist forces could not find their footing in the context of the war, and returned to their habitual inaction. Budour Hassan tells us in "Nasrallah's Blood Soaked Road to Jerusalem" how Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah led his forces to slaughter the Syrian and Palestinian activists in order to aid the Assad regime and the excuses that he used to justify this. All of these articles, and others not mentioned above, provide useful information about the various actors in this complicated situation.

The sole writer from the US in this compilation, Louis Proyect, has written an insightful commentary on "The Betrayal of the Intellectuals on Syria". He takes us into the pages of the New York Review of Books and shows how they have supported the bloodthirsty Assad regime by lies about the rebels. He then tells us about the genesis of the London Review of Books, and some initially useful articles that they printed. Then a sharp turn took place, and articles slanted towards the Assad regime began to appear, typified by Tariq Ali's writings on the sarin gas attack in 2013. He then turns to an examination of the well-known, self-styled "Marxist", Slavoj Žižek, and how his towering ego stooped to banal musings on Syria, excusing the crimes of Assad by constant references to the evil Islamists. He then takes up Robert Dreyfuss and the Nation magazine, describing how their Islamophobic obsessions blind them to the struggles of the Syrian people against the Assad regime. They see everything through the lens of conspiracies to engage in regime change, and anything that does not fit this schema is steadfastly disregarded. This leads to demonization of the Syrian people's struggles, sometimes concealed under the guise of accusations of CIA or Mossad tools. Finally, in Michael Neumann, Proyect finds an intellectual that he can actually praise. Neumann seems to have gone out of his way to really study the Syrian situation, and to have reached many of the same conclusions that Proyect has. This leads Proyect to some final remarks on Noam Chomsky's assessment of Syria, and the conclusion that writers like himself have the duty to speak the truth and expose lies about the situation in Syria. He is not shy about giving a general call to do so.

Sam Charles Hamad returns again with "The Rise of Daesh in Syria -- Some Inconvenient Truths". In this lengthy article, he attacks the Daesh conspiracy story, and provides a useful history of takfir and the Islamic State. Takfir is the practice by Islamists of declaring other Muslims to be unbelievers, who must take up the strict practices prescribed by the founders of Islam or be put to death. The leaders of Daesh view all other governments as objects of takfir, even the Saudi Arabian government, which also practices an extreme form of Islam. Hamad relates the attacks by Daesh forces on Saudi Arabian border areas, as well as their overall campaign to consolidate their control of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Assad regime has replaced the concrete history of Daesh related by Hamad with a fanciful conspiracy theory which paints Daesh as entirely the result of the US campaign for "regime change" in Syria. It is true that the US invasion of Iraq and the sectarian regimes that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were big factors in the rise of Daesh, but these factors did not constitute direct US sponsorship. Even though the leaders of Daesh were initially associated with al-Qaeda, they were far more extreme in their practice of takfir than al-Qaeda leaders were. But the direct cause of the rise of Daesh was the Assad regime's brutal war against the Syrian people. Hamad's detailed account of the background and history of Daesh refutes the Assad regime's disinformation in a very thorough way.

Another important chapter is Javaad Alipoor's article "Quwwah al Ghadhabiyya -- Iran, Syria and the Limits of Khomeinism". Quwwah al Ghadhabiyya means "the power of anger" in Arabic. Ayatollah Khomeini wrote a book of commentaries on the traditions (hadith) of Islam The Forty Hadith in 1940, and his discussion of ghadhab (anger) was a key concept for motivating his followers during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Alipoor gives us a succinct history of Iran during the 20th century, from the Pahlavi dynasty to the Islamic Republic. He shows how the charisma of Khomeini was replaced by the more prosaic regime of Ali Khamenei. This serves as the background for his discussion of the consolidation of Khamenei's tenure, the Khatami years, and the "Green Revolution". After this section, he discusses Iranian involvement in support of the Assad regime against the people of Syria. According to his views, the Iranian public at first greeted the Arab Spring with optimism, but after the rebellion in Syria broke out and Daesh emerged, the mood changed markedly. Although his discussion of these events is interesting and useful, it is sometimes accompanied by obscure references, and this is very disquieting. He concludes that the contradictions in Iran have grown sharper during this period, and Syria has served as the touchstone for this.

Overall, these essays are a very useful survey of the many aspects of the Syrian democratic uprising. In spite of occasional weaknesses and unevenness, this book is essential reading. <>

Table of contents of Khiyana

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Posted on July 5, 2016