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Monday, November 30, 2015

Why does the West want "moderate" Syrian rebels?

Barry Goldwater may have been a racist and a reactionary but he was right about one thing, "Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” This truth should be remembered as we discuss those who have been labeled the "moderate opposition" in Syria, and also when we use a related term, "moderate Muslims." Neither should be taken as a compliment by those to whom it is applied and both labels are the creations of a hostile foreign culture for the purpose of denigrating their targets. After all, what is a moderate Christian? Is Pope Francis a moderate Christian? Is Obama? Who are the "moderate" revolutionaries that we admire?

The imperialists have always been very good at labeling their opposition. Better at labeling them than beating them sometimes. Everybody called the National Liberation Front, the opposition in South Vietnam, the "Viet Cong" or "VC." Still, to this day, they are called that. Few realize that "Viet Cong" was a label invented by Everest Bumgardner, a US army PsyOps officer in 1956 to discredit the opposition, and then "sold" to the newspapers. They never could beat the VC, but the name stuck.

Personally, I think the term "moderate revolutionary" is an oxymoron, and I've never heard the thuwar apply it to themselves, although it is almost universally used by the bourgeois media and the Imperial Left to define those who might be worthy of our support in the Syrian conflict. As I said in "barrel bombs," they aren't doing the Syrian revolutionaries any favor by labeling them as "moderates" as the term alone will cause those demanding change to look to the "radicals," which are defined by the bourgeois commentators and, quite ironically, by the "anti-imperialists" as well, as exclusively the right-wing radicals of Islam.

Historically, and as a practical matter, "moderate rebels" have been defined by the imperialists as those fighting the Assad regime that they have vetted and found acceptable by their anything-but-revolutionary criteria. More recently, they have updated their definition of "moderate rebels" to mean those more interested in fighting ISIS than fighting Assad. This makes it all the more a mystery why the term is used so universally and uncritically by large swaths of the Left.

The Syrian revolution has now been presented with the dual tasks of overthrowing the Assad regime and taking back previously liberated areas from Daesh. I would call all who are willing to join in these tasks, the revolutionary coalition. Other observers would apply a religious test and demand that "moderate rebels" also be secular, or at a minimum "moderate Muslims," however they define that.

Rev. M.L. King, Jr.
Some even take such a singular view of the secular versus religious question that they use it to justify supporting the Assad regime over any Islamic resistance. If they were foreigners to America, that logic might lead them to claim the White Citizen's Council was more progressive than the Southern Christian Leadership Council, which after all, was lead by a cleric. Pop Quiz! Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a "moderate Christian", or was he a "radical"? Was Malcolm X a "moderate Muslim"?

Malcolm X
Personally, I could care less who the imperialists find acceptable, I'm interested in two groups of rebels, those that already are consciously trying to move Syria in a progressive direction and those that can be won over. Nevertheless, I can't entirely escape the term "moderate rebels" for the simple reason that now Assad and his many supporters are claiming they no longer exist!

They are doing this in the service of an argument that the only really substantial forces in Syria now are the Assad regime and the jihadists, "jihadists" in this case meaning the pejorative term created by the imperialists, not the term as understood by Muslims. That being the case, Assad, the butcher, becomes the lesser of two evils and the "progressive's choice." The wonderful simplicity of this position was expressed recently by Patrick McCann in a letter he posted to the Veterans for Peace board and chapter contact lists recently:
Dear Friends,

I've investigated Syria these past few months, trying to proceed from investigation, rather than 'a priori' narrative. I have yet to find an organizational expression of 'moderate' Syrian rebels.
...
Where does that leave us? It makes me (reluctantly) support the current government of Bashar Al-Assad. It is the barbaric trend (Al Nusra, Daesh/ISIL, etc.) that is the #1 danger now.
I want to leave aside the media driven notion that although the Assad regime has been beheading little girls since 2012, and has been responsible for 95% of the civilian casualties, that Daesh is the barbaric trend. I have addressed the laughable notion that the Assad regime, which has been so instrumental in the genesis of ISIS, should be seen as an ally in the fight against ISIS elsewhere. Here I wish to deal with the notion that there is no longer any "moderate opposition" in Syria, which is code for saying that none of the groups or people fighting against the Assad regime are worth supporting.

First, on this question of the existence of the "organizational expression of 'moderate' Syrian rebels" that Patrick McCann can't find, Charles Lister who "has spent the past two years coordinating an intensive process of face-to-face engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups" has written an important new piece in The Spectator, 27 November 2015 that explodes the myth that there is no "moderate opposition" in Syria:
Yes, there are 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria. Here’s what we know about them

Yesterday David Cameron told Parliament that there are ‘about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups’ who could help fight Islamic State.

The Prime Minister’s number was the result of an internal assessment made by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), backed up by serving British diplomats overseas whose jobs focus on the Syrian opposition. Such a large number struck many as political exaggeration. The chairman of the Defence Committee, Julian Lewis, said he was ‘extremely surprised’. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may issue a formal demand for clarification. So do these fighters exist and who are they?
...
Having studied Syria’s armed opposition since the first months of the country’s uprising in mid-2011, I can say with confidence that the Prime Minister and the JIC are about right. More...
Most of this substantial Lister article is taken up by a detailed breakdown of the many groups that make up this moderate opposition, their numbers, areas of operation, etc. Its important information and I recommend reading the whole thing, but for my purpose here, we'll skip those details and cut to his conclusion:
Had the West more definitively intervened in Syria early on, we would undoubtedly have more moderate, more cohesive and more natural ally-material opposition to work with. Unfortunately, things took a different path. Our subsequent obsession with the extremists and refusal to tackle Syria’s complexity has clouded our vision. A ‘moderate’ opposition in culturally attuned terms does exist in Syria, we need only open our eyes to it. Only these groups – and certainly not Assad – will ensure the real extremists such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda eventually lose their grip on power in Syria.
Fighting groups in Syria have been very fluid, and our evaluation of the revolutionary forces in Syria must look well beyond the current political and military groupings and what their leadership says about themselves. If we want to know who can be won to the fight for a democratic and revolutionary future for Syria, we must understand the individual fighters and their motivations, even in the most backwards groups.

This struggle has gone on for more than four years and in that time individual fighters have moved into and out of the struggle, into and out of Syria and into and out of a variety of organizations. Which organizations is determined by the practical conditions on the ground, like who has ammunition, who can pay, and most importantly, who is winning victories. Ideology may be everything when judging the different groups from afar, but in the practical instance of battle, it isn't the biggest draw, or turn-off. The case of Eric Harroun, the former US Army private I profiled in "barrel bombs", is a good example. He started out fighting with the Free Syrian Army but ended up fighting with al Nusra. All his reasons had to do with battlefield conditions in the fight against the Assad regime, nothing to do with Islam or any caliphate. This piece in the New Yorker tells that story:
The fighters set off in a convoy of pickups. Along the way, another rebel brigade joined them. They struck Harroun as more professional-looking than Abu Kamel’s men. They travelled in vehicles mounted with black flags.
It was as simple as that. Even among the hard-core al Nusra, which fights the regime, and Daesh, which collaborates with it, the average jihadist foot soldier is no more likely to be a deep-seated Islamic extremist than the average foot soldier in the imperialist army is likely to be a monopoly capitalist. Neither is our enemy.

What a divinity school has to teach the Left about religion

Leave it to a writer from a divinity school, Alireza Doostdar, to warn us of the danger of taking religion too seriously in analysing ISIS. His How Not to Understand ISIS, 2 October 2014, also deserves to be read in full. Skipping to the section I want to bring to your attention here:
Information about the militants who fight for ISIS is likewise scarce. Most of what we know is gleaned from recruitment videos and propaganda, not the most reliable sources. There is little on the backgrounds and motives of those who choose to join the group, least of all the non-Western recruits who form the bulk of ISIS’ fighting force. In the absence of this information, it is difficult to even say what ISIS is if we are to rely on anything beyond the group’s self-representations.
He warns us against assuming we understand the rank-and-file of these groups based on what the leadership says:
First, we lack a good grasp of the motivations of those who fight for or alongside ISIS, so we assume that they are motivated by Salafism and the desire to live in a caliphate. What information we do have comes almost entirely from ISIS propaganda and recruitment videos, a few interviews, and the occasional news report about a foreign fighter killed in battle or arrested before making it to his or her destination.

Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’ military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.

For example, CNN recently quoted former Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Ruba‘i as claiming that in Mosul, ISIS was recruiting “Young Iraqis as young as 8 and 9 years old with AK-47s… and brainwashing with this evil ideology.” A Pentagon spokesman is quoted in the same story as saying that the U.S. was not intent on “simply… degrading and destroying… the 20,000 to 30,000 (ISIS fighters)... It’s about destroying their ideology” [6].

The problem with these statements is that they seem to assume that ISIS is a causa sui phenomenon that has suddenly materialized out of the thin ether of an evil doctrine. But ISIS emerged from the fires of war, occupation, killing, torture, and disenfranchisement. It did not need to sell its doctrine to win recruits. It needed above all to prove itself effective against its foes.
Tunisia revolutionary with "Che" in 2011. Tunisia has sent fighters to Syria at highest rate.

It is this western perspective that Salafism is the beginning, middle and end for evaluating these groups that causes them to lump Daesh and al Nusra together. Daesh has Iraqi leadership, is largely foreign based, and collaborates with the Assad regime. Al Nusra has Syrian leadership, is largely Syrian, and collaborates with other opposition groups to fight both the Assad regime and Daesh. From the point of view of the revolution, what separates the two is far more important than what unites them. From the point of view of the Left, the keys questions should be 1) can the rank-and-file be won to revolution? and 2) if yes, how? Doostdar continues:
A large number of ISIS fighters in Syria (as in Iraq) are indeed foreign, but the majority are local recruits. The emphasis on ISIS’ Salafi worldview has tended to obscure the many grievances that may motivate fighters to join an increasingly efficient militant group that promises to vanquish their oppressors. Do they need to “convert” to ISIS’ worldview to fight with or for them? Do they need to aspire to a caliphate, as does ISIS leadership, in order to join forces with them? These questions are never asked, and “beliefs” are made simply to fill the explanatory void.

Second, the puzzle of foreign fighters is no less obscured by an overemphasis on the allure of Salafism. Again, the tendency here is to ignore any motivation except the overriding call of the Salafi jihadist who persuades converts of the truth of Islam and of their responsibility to wage war in defense of the Islamic community. In ISIS’ case, the aspiration to create a caliphate is added to the equation. Foreign fighters must be joining ISIS, we are told, because they desire to live in a pristine Muslim utopia.

Some analysts allow the possibility that the jihadi convert is mentally unstable, a privilege usually reserved for white non-Muslim mass murderers. But rarely do they consider that sensibilities and motivations other than or in addition to mere commitment to Salafi Islam or a desire to live in a utopic state may guide their decisions.

For example, could it be that a sense of compassion for suffering fellow humans or of altruistic duty—sensibilities that are very much valued and cultivated in American society [9]—has prefigured their receptiveness to a call to arms to aid a people they consider to be oppressed?
The imperialists, whether in the US camp or the Russian camp, have made it clear that their strategy is to destroy ISIS with air strikes. Their intention isn't just to neutralize the leadership with a few targeted strikes, they hope to decimate the rank-and-file with massive raids. Clearly they will fail in this because each new air strike will create more potential recruits for ISIS than it will kill. We've seen this movie translated to many languages already.

The imperialists know that the militants who make up the rank-and-file of al Nusra and Daesha are too far gone ever to be plugged back onto the imperialist grid, so it has no problem with murdering them for being jihadists. They can, however be won to an alternate vision of change. Only the Left can defeat Daesh by winning its rank-and-file, and would-be recruits, to a progressive vision of revolution. But that can't be done by the Imperial Left we have today. Before that can happen, the Left has to take out the trash and reclaim itself.

See also:
"Well, what about the barrel bombings that kill thousands?"
Qui profite? Who benefits from the Paris attacks?
The Imperial Left's sarin song: still "Regime Change" after all these years!

Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria
 

2 comments:

  1. Interesting piece. The writer you mention though seems to be named Doostdar.

    ReplyDelete