The Ossington Circle Episode 16: The Destruction of Syria and Solidarity with Max Ajl

Max Ajl and Justine Podur.

Interview transcript posted on on April 29, 2017.

In this episode of The Ossington Circle, academic, activist, and editor at Jadaliyya Max Ajl discusses the destruction of Syria and the vitriol directed at leftists and Palestine activists who have opposed intervention in Syria.

Justin Podur: Hello and welcome to the Ossington Circle. Today I’m here with Max Ajl, PhD student at Cornell University, and editor at Jadaliyya and a Palestinian solidarity activist. We’re going to talk today about Palestine a little bit, but mainly about Syria. Max, thank you for joining me.

Max Ajl: Thank you very much for having me.

JP: So Max, when Trump launched those cruise missiles at the Syrian air base, I saw a Facebook post that you wrote – it was circulating on Twitter and other places – and you said:

Six years of Qatari and Saudi propaganda has given a great gift to the US regime, making those who oppose the violent dictatorship of US capital feel sometimes guilty, muted, fumbling, silenced about doing so, and making those who support it feel right and righteous in so doing.”

And I think that feeling is something that I have personally been feeling for a really long time – guilty, muted, fumbling, silenced – about opposing imperialism, especially in Syria, and it’s been really confusing for me. And so for you to write that…I felt a lot of relief reading that somebody else felt that way. And that’s a big part of why I wanted to have you on this show. So can you just elaborate on this idea of…what is this Qatari and Saudi propaganda, because – I think as people who know Palestine, we’re familiar with the way the pro-Israeli lobby works and the way Israeli media and PR operations work – but the idea that there could be similar operations coming from the monarchies in the Gulf is fairly new, for me anyway.

MA: Yeah, so I think that you can trace this back to the founding of Al Jazeera and then the founding of Al Jazeera English, which is owned basically by the Qatari government. And since that time, the Gulf states, in consort with the US government and US ruling class, have really built up their capacity substantially – both their overall economies and specifically their media systems, and have created a large apparatus that has played an interesting and complex role in terms its overall service to the US ruling class. And it’s important to break these systems apart so we see how each system, how each component of the system, is playing a unique role.

Like, in the same way that we see that the Israeli lobby’s primary role is to attack critics of Israel, but also to make sure that Israel stays separate – and that the Palestine case stays separate – from other progressive movements. And this isn’t to absolve the rest of the propaganda system or the elites more broadly; it’s just to identify the specific roles each conglomerate, or each set of conglomerates plays in the larger system.

So one portion of this has been that US media consumers grew to….first of all, we were like: “Ok, we want to centre Arab voices”; second of all, we were like: “Anyone who supports Palestine is being transgressive, so we can take that as a valuable point of reference on other regional affairs. So this kind of made newscasts like Al Jazeera English and more recently the New Arab, and Middle East Eye uniquely suited to use their occasional and usually decent support on Palestine to cover up for the larger US/Qatari/Saudi regressive agenda in the region more broadly.

And so, what we can see since 2011, are a variety of almost formulaic attacks on the left in Syria: “the left isn’t doing this on Syria”; “the left is all Putinites”; “the left is supporting genocide”; “the left has a double standard”; “the left should supply the same standard of Palestine to the Syrian conflict”; “the left is inadequately supporting the revolution”. And at the same time, we have so-called news coverage saying that whatever is occurring in Syria has no foreign help, is not getting support from the US government, there are no sectarian elements, and so forth.

So it’s been kind of a one-two punch, and the result has been – and it’s not them alone that’s been doing it, of course; there’s lots of other organizations that are doing it and we can discuss them further on, but these groups and these media platforms have played a really effective role unfortunately, in confusing Anglophone media consumers about what exactly has been going on in Syria, and more specifically, about the negative role played by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and of course behind and largely coordinating them, the United States.

JP: I just want to start with Al Jazeera, because Al Jazeera was a big story in 2003 during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. And we were all watching Al Jazeera, fascinated by the whole idea that a US war would no longer enjoy the kind of monopoly of information that it had previously. And so it was this incredibly refreshing thing, like, here are people from the region with their own powerful media organization that has a way of breaking through that propaganda wall. And I think that is a big part of why we’re having a hard time mapping that opening on to what’s going on in Syria now, because we’re expecting that same level of opposition to power that we saw Al Jazeera do in 2003, but it doesn’t seem to be working the same way.

MA: Yeah, absolutely not, and this is really the fruit of what the Gulf media and the US media have insisted on calling the Arab Spring. Without entering into divisive polemics about what has occurred there, I think we can say one good thing: there were people who were expressing legitimate discontent about the prevailing orders in most of the region, but with very different levels of mobilization in different countries…Yemen has had the largest per capita mobilizations, and it’s gotten some of the least coverage, especially in comparison to most mobilizations in the region.

The reverse is the case in Syria. So there was that aspect. And then it was also the occasion for Saudi Arabia and Qatar – sometimes in coordination, sometimes backing various sorts of regressive groups – to kind of recompose the governing system and to battle for a recomposition of regional hegemony. And Qatar has powerfully deployed Al Jazeera in the service of this broader goal. And one of the crucial things is that in 2011, many people were observing that Al Jazeera was basically silent about what was happening in Bahrain. Whereas it was recording and publicizing in a wildly disproportionate manner – compared to the scale of the protests – what was occurring in Libya and Syria, both of which were, not at all coincidentally, on the US target list.

And here we can see that, within the most basic parameters, we can see that who they chose to target, which protests they chose to ignore, basically were in concordance with the framework and the agenda of the United States.

JP: And then, another point that you raise, and you raised it earlier, but also in your (twitter) feed, where you say:

My feed is filled with folks ripping into an imaginary left that has been silent on the Obama regime’s bombing campaigns against Syria…Well, find me an organized anti-war formation that’s been silent on these bombing runs and tell me how many are silent versus speaking up.”

So the fact that the target all this is always the left – often when it’s leftists even making these speeches…people who call themselves leftists and identify as leftists that say: “The left is pro-Assad” and “The left is pro-Putin”…

And it strikes me that, on the one hand, some of these people that are saying this are leftists, but a lot of them are not, and I think we get confused because we see…again, we’re looking back and we are saying: “These are people that are pro-Palestine”, or “These are people that were against the invasion of Iraq in 2003” – I covered the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – but they’re not leftists. They actually hate leftists. They hate the secularism, they hate the equality, they hate the republicanism that leftists express, especially leftists from the region. But from the west we think, “Oh, they’re pro-Palestine, they’re anti-invasion of Iraq/2003, they must be leftists.”

MA: Yeah, it’s been a remarkable phenomenon. It should all be traced further back. The need to express rhetorical or symbolic support – rising to political, monetary or material support – for Palestine has been what the political scientist Mike Hudson called “an all-Arab legitimating issue”. So every Arab government of any kind has had to support Palestine as part of its moves towards domestic legitimacy. And some governments have taken that quite far, such as the Gaddafi government’s support for the PFLP for example in the 70s, and the Syrian government has had ongoing relations with Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front; whereas the regressive Arab regimes – you know, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – have mostly kept this support at the symbolic level and have offered some material support, for example, to the Hamas movement in Gaza, but this has been more in the measure of trying to co-opt and contain them to a very marked degree. So we need to understand it all occurring within this broader framework in order to be understood in the US context. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is that Iraq was a long time ago. If you take 2011 it was eight years ago, and by now it was fourteen years ago. And there is a tendency among most people to shift to the right. So they were opposing the war on Iraq and they may have even been leftists then, and they would often have ceased being leftists now. And that’s a fundamental shift and there are lots of these people who have shifted very markedly. Furthermore, part of how they’ve represented Syria itself has allowed some of them to retain the credibility as whatever this very difficult and confusing umbrella term “leftist” means…they’ve been allowed to maintain credibility and that credibility in turn relies on them pushing forward this narrative of a revolution that they support and that we oppose because we’re not committed to human emancipation, we’re just committed to geopolitics, those of us on the anti-imperialist left which is another target of smears.

By itself, this framework is actually vicious in the first place, because geopolitics is not a term I hear all that many anti-imperialists using; it’s about things like state sovereignty – that’s the entire framework of the post-Nazi international juridical order and it’s meant to actually prevent wars of aggression and to allow states to be sovereign, and for political movements to feel that that state sovereignty has social and political meaning. Once you collapse that, basically you have carte blanche for anyone to intervene for any reason whatsoever, which is a very old imperial agenda…to go in and save people from themselves. So this entire discourse has been topsy-turvy from the beginning.

And in a sense it reflects the power of intervention discourse, that even people calling for intervention, such as calling for lifting the US arms embargo – they actually have to say is that what they’re against is intervention. They say that the US has been blocking anti-aircraft weapons from flowing in over the Jordanian and Turkish borders, and that we should be against US intervention and that therefore we should be against the US blocking those shipments from going in. We can go a little further into that argument and what has actually been going on in terms of the logistics of arms transfers. But what’s significant is that they actually have to justify it with references to (inaudible…)

JP: Yeah, I was struck by that argument. I was actually going to bring that up with you. I saw an article after the Tomahawk missile strikes on the Syrian airfield mentioning this. It was comparing Syria to Palestine of course, as they always do, and they were saying “How could you oppose what Israel’s doing to the Palestinians and not oppose what Assad is doing to the Syrian people?” and “Don’t you know that the US has blocked these advanced anti-aircraft missiles from getting into the hands of the Syrian revolutionaries?” And I just thought: it’s so inconsistent…I can’t imagine these people – or any people – complaining that the US is blocking advanced anti-aircraft weapons from getting to Hamas, for example, or to the Palestinians that are trying to fight Israel. That’s way outside of anything anyone could imagine saying publicly. But they make comparisons with Palestine and then talk about the blocking of these missiles as if anybody could ever say that the USA should supply Hamas with missiles.

MA: Yeah, it’s quite absurd on a number of levels…I mean, the absurdity of the article you actually refer to – which was in Jacobin and the author was Bashir Abu-Manneh – the absurdity starts even with the personnel itself. This individual – who I used to be on relatively good terms with and I would publish his stuff in Jacobin on Palestine when I was editing the middle east content there – kept on pestering me for years to be publishing Gilbert Achcar, who took a rather tortuous approach to ensuring that the US dissidents did not mobilize against the US intervention in Libya. He refused to call this supporting the Libyan intervention; Achcar just said, well he didn’t want anyone…..

JP: Yes, I remember this…

MA: …he said he didn’t want anyone opposing it, which comes to the same thing. The only way to stop something that the US is…

JP: He was not for intervention….

MA: He was neither for nor against, and urged that we be able to counsel interventionists once they had done so. So this very much put him on the opposite side of what I considered a fairly non-controversial red line. But Bashir kept on writing to me. I was civil to him because I think he has some interesting things to say on Palestine – he’s Palestinian from ’48…

JP: Yeah, and he’s done a great book, a really good book on literature, right?

MA: Yeah, it’s a nice book although he feels the need to rouse up support for the US destruction of Syria at the end of the book, unfortunately.

He was quite insistent about this and I didn’t really have time for it, so Bashir…the long and short of it was that Bashir helped orchestrate a kind of soft coup d’etat against me at Jacobin. And since then, the Jacobin content on Palestine has had nothing on political prisoners, scarcely mentions right of return, has not really had a consistent anti-imperialist stance on geopolitics. But even on the Palestinian case in my opinion, the coverage has been much worse. And as for what it’s done for Syria, it’s not like anyone on the editorial board shifted their position.

It’s obviously just much more convenient, and you get banner ads from the New Arab, which is a Qatari enterprise; you get banner ads when you support the war on Syria. So it’s totally cynical. Bashir wrote this article comparing the post-colonial state of Syria to Israel which is quite disturbing. It almost beggars belief, because for one thing the US supported and created Israel whereas the post-colonial Syrian state emerged out of resistance to French colonial sovereignty. So these aren’t really units that one should intelligibly compare. This struck me as intellectually and morally bankrupt. But maybe it was convincing to some other people, especially those who support the destruction of Syria.

JP: Yeah, I doubt it changed anybody’s mind. It probably reinforced what people already thought. I did want to go back to Achcar, because I remember when he was saying one shouldn’t oppose the bombing of Libya, one shouldn’t support the bombing of Libya. If we call for a no-fly-zone over Libya now in 2011, next time Israel bombs Gaza, we can go out there and have a very powerful case for arguing for a no-fly-zone over Israel. And after that happened, when Israel bombed Gaza in 2012 and 2014, and I don’t know if you saw any of these demonstrations calling for a no-fly-zone over Israel, but I certainly don’t remember seeing them.

MA: Yeah, what it does is it completely confuses and saps any clarity around a consistent anti-imperialist position. Part of what we oppose about Israel and what the Palestinian left has historically opposed, why it has such regional and international appeal, is because it’s such a crushing example – if not a condensation – of US global racism. And now we’re going to call for a no-fly-zone? It just confuses people beyond belief and it’s the most disingenuous argument. You can use as many words as one likes to cover up the basic line of argument being taken, but I don’t find it particularly convincing and it only serves to sow confusion. That’s the only political agenda.

JP: Another intra-left line of reasoning – and all these roads lead to why we need to support the bombing of Syria and they’re all different constructions – one of them I’ve seen is: anti-imperialists follow Chomsky in saying “We have a primary responsibility for trying to stop our governments from doing bad things in the world because that’s where we can have the most effect.” And it goes back to some of what you were saying about the idea of sovereign states and the sovereign state being the unit in which people can exercise their democratic rights and develop their capacities. But then the counterargument I’ve seen is: “Well, how can we accede to this narrow nationalist argument when what we should be going for is a global working class solidarity”, and global working class solidarity with the Syrian people requires supporting the destruction of their state.

MA: Yeah, you know this is a very old argument in a sense. I studied Tunisia and many of these same arguments were put forward by the trade unions linked to the French colonial socialist trade unions as opposed to the more domestic indigenous trade unions linked to Tunisians, and some of them said, “Well, we’re just going to ignore the national question, pretend it doesn’t matter”, and the other ones insisted on the importance of the national question. And the national question continues to matter. It is global south countries that need to affirm that principle to avoid being destroyed.

So it’s not about internationalism versus parochial nationalism. It’s about substantive versus vacuous nationalism. It’s about internationalism that takes account of one’s location, and the privileges and political opportunities that are available to one, and that one has in a given location, versus one that is very much blind to it, and ends up being very idealist. I believe in internationalism and international solidarity but I believe that supporting the peoples of the global south in their struggles begins with looking at the ways the US government prevents people in the global south from determining the courses of their own lives. And frequently – given that we live in a world which is commonly broken up along national units – then part of that is going to take the appearance of nationalism.

But this accusation that nationalism is parochial is actually historically a position that comes from the colonial end of the so-called socialist movement, and is very chauvinist in my opinion and regressive. Because for people in given geographical territories, living in that territory often imposes common experiences and a common fate on them. Like when the US destroyed Iraq, for people in Iraq to support national resistance…was that nationalism? Yes, and was it bad nationalism? Of course not. The Latin American experiments have seen a very creative and powerful reinvigoration of nationalism, the nacional-popular, and recuperated discourse of sovereignty. And emanating from that sovereignty, they branched out into more regional agendas and have engaged in a more substantive internationalism. So to just sidestep how that happens, how struggle marks the course of history, and to just assert this very idealist internationalism of globally-linked civil society struggles…this kind of discourse seems to come straight from the State Department.

JP: Yeah, exactly. And those origins and those debates are really interesting to trace and I’m happy with the discussion we’ve had about the left, and the targeting of the left, and the imaginary left that has been supposedly silent and so on. I’m also very interested to talk to you about the targeting of the Palestine movement, because that has also, in addition to Syria, been something that is used to attack ‘the left’ – whatever ‘the left’ is – claiming that the left has been totally inadequate on this issue. But I’ve also found a really strong degree of targeting, and in some cases of destroying, local student activist groups around Palestine. I know you have some experience and something to say about that, so I’d like to ask you about that now.

MA: Absolutely, I mean, we could sense that this was becoming a rather urgent issue….it was a rather urgent issue about Syria from the outset. It was apparent to me that there was an attempt to – and one can have a range of legitimate opinions about what was going on in the early months in Syria – but what was clear was that certainly the Gulf governments and the US were looking to use whatever had happened and to elevate the strands they preferred, to use those strands to justify or incite a militarization and destroy Syria. It’s targeted particularly the Palestine movement in a variety of ways. And one of the most effective ways has just been through Yarmouk – what happened in the Yarmouk camp.

What actually happened is still a bit cloudy and argued over but one can certainly say that by late 2013 the Yarmouk camp had been an arena of fighting between sectarian groups and militias that were on the same side as the Syrian government, and that the Syrian government was deployed on the outskirts of the Yarmouk camp, basically in order to contain the situation. And one of the consequences of that was that food was becoming very difficult to access in the camp. There were a lot of actors actually bringing food in, it wasn’t a hermetic siege by any means. But, as always whenever there’s a situation in which food is harder to access, prices go up, and the most vulnerable suffer. And this, in turn, was being used as a way to split the Palestine movement, especially globally. In fact, an intern for the American Task force for Palestine – which had been continuously funded by Gulf regimes and was a pro-normalization organization – started writing a wide range of articles calling on us to take action about the Yarmouk camp. The basic call that came from the Palestinian factions, from Palestinian solidarity organizations in the US, was that two things should happen: One, that there should be measures taken to ensure the food could be brought into the camp so that food did not become a weapon of war against a civilian population; and two, that these armed groups – whatever support people in Yarmouk had for what had occurred in Syria and for the Syrian opposition, certainly the armed groups did not appear to be broadly welcomed in the camp – all relevant representatives and institutions appeared to be calling for the armed groups to leave. And those were the basic demands.

My student group, recognizing that there was this attempt at manipulation going on, amplified those demands and situated them in anti-imperialist politics, identifying the US role in first using Israel to divert Syria from what had been a progressive course through 1967, and then setting it on a further rightward course after that; and then also playing a role in destroying the PLO, and in militarizing the process…all of which is openly acknowledged. And furthermore, that people living in the US didn’t stand outside of that history, and that any negative things going on in Syria at the hands of the government – insofar as that was relevant – they were, in part, responsible for. And we think that this is what substantive internationalism looks like: identifying the way that US power has actually constituted history as we confront it in front of us. For us, anyway.

Now, we – that is, Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine – were very viciously attacked. People were trying to say we were justifying collective punishment which was very disingenuous since we called directly for food to go in, and we weren’t sure how you could at the same time justify collective punishment and call for it to end. It’s incoherent. But the people making this attack were primarily from Chicago-based student groups, people who were more or less engaged in various forms of provocation, some from the Trotskyite movement, socialist organizations, grassroots membership coordinators, US Campaign to End the Occupation, and so forth.

And, very broadly, we, and especially I, were marginalized in the student movement. We were told to dissolve ourselves during an April attempt to get Cornell to divest itself of Israeli investments – we were doing a divestment campaign – and they actually told us too dissolve our chapter. And the individual who made that call is friends with a wide range of student activists and people who, at the time, were on the coordinating committee of National SJP. So really this was kind of a precursor to, or first step towards really splitting apart the Palestine movement, and it only got worse and worse.

I’m sure you’ve seen the attacks on journalists linked to Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss, which are… – both have a broad range of politics, both on Syria and more broadly – but they are media institutions that play a fundamental role in supporting the Palestinian liberation movement and solidarity movement. They’re fundamental, and to attack them and sap their energy in this way, and say: “Either you’re going to toe the line on US intervention in Syria in terms of supporting it, supporting a ‘revolution’” (that – whatever it had been in 2011 – simply had zero progressive credentials by 2014) is to basically hold the Palestine movement hostage. It is to say: “We don’t really care if the Palestine movement collapses due to infighting if it won’t support the uprising.” And it’s clear that a movement can’t really survive – or flourish, certainly – under such pressures: under pressure of attempts to split it.

And if you take for example, the student movement 2012/13, 2013/14 versus 2015/16, 2016/17, the volume of divestment or attempted divestments, has decreased by – I would estimate – a factor of ten. And divestment is the primary tactic of the student movement. Now, tracing a direct linear line of causality between one and the other is difficult, although one can certainly identify people who have been involved in saying “we don’t really want a movement if it doesn’t support what we call the Syrian Revolution, and blame the Syrian government 100 or 99 or 95 percent for what is going on.”

It’s been very much wracked with infighting; there are certain places and people who have managed to maintain a principled…

JP: Yeah, I’ve seen many people say: “I don’t talk about Palestine unless you’re anti-Assad. Don’t talk about Palestine; I don’t want to hear anything about Palestine unless you support the Syrian Revolution” which I’ve always found to be a really bizarre line to take, when everybody in your society is telling you to shut up about Palestine. Making an additional condition – that you’re supposed to shut up about Palestine unless you agree with me about facts and interpretations of what the nature of this opposition to Assad is – doesn’t strike me as something that has Palestine at its heart. It doesn’t seem to me to be people who are looking after Palestine’s interests that are making this call.

MA: One has to be honest and state that a lot of vocal young people from the [Palestinian] Diaspora basically signed on to that position. I don’t mean thousands, or a numerically high percentage, but I do mean that, of people who are active, a lot have taken this position. So it creates a great difficulty. If you look at the Palestinians in Syria, they’ve been very much split. A lot of them have been pro-government, and pro-government in ways that, in the west, you would be accused of eating Syrian babies for breakfast. But a lot have been pro-government. And also in Palestine.

The bottom line is that…the Palestinians are split. Any claim that there’s a kind of unity on the issue is not really true, and so we should own the political position …we should take a position on Syria and own it for ourselves. Often we’ll end up working with people we may disagree with about interpretations of what’s going on in Syria. Unless people prefer to do otherwise, which strikes me as very sectarian and has been manifestly disruptive.

JP: A theoretical question going back to our discussion of the left debate: another thing that I’ve heard (we haven’t discussed this before but I suspect you’ll have something interesting to say about it) is the idea that, being anti-imperialist in the Syrian context, really means opposing Russia and Iran because those are the real imperialists in Syria right now.

MA: To talk about who is or isn’t imperialist isn’t a question of describing who is or isn’t intervening in Syria, or if you don’t like them or don’t like the side they’re supporting. It should be a theoretical category. It should be a theoretical category that derives from what was going on before, and be used to interpret it and make sense of it, not just opportunistically deployed in order to justify whatever side one’s on.

So one can go back to 1917 – or earlier – and talk about Lenin’s theory of imperialism or export of capital, and in that case, Russia is not exporting capital to Syria – at the current moment, Iran is expending capital in order to support the Syrian government: there’s loans, I think there are oil shipments that are ongoing. Both countries are supporting the Syrian treasury, extending large credit lines. Calling a post-colonial state – no matter what one wants to say about its political and social track record post-1970 – that called on allied forces to support the state institutions doesn’t strike me as imperialism by any understanding of the word, especially if one actually looks and tries to understand why both Russia and Iran have actually supported it.

Now there’s been a real paucity of analysis about these forces. More so, there’s been an absence of good analysis based on why Russia has responded to this call by the Syrian government. People say it’s ok, it’s just to maintain its one Mediterranean outpost. Well yeah, of course that’s certainly true, but that just adds a little more detail to the issue without clarifying what is actually at stake.

I would say for Iran, that the Iranian government fundamentally understands that it is under siege by the west: it’s basically surrounded by US military bases. And to the extent that it’s able to extend either state or asymmetric, popular, militia-based arms-capacity, it’s able to exert a certain pressure against the US political goal of putting both economic, political and diplomatic pressure on it in order to collapse the state institutions and reverse the 1979 revolution. This is the keystone of US strategy in the region…to reverse 1979 and re-impose a client state on Iran. And also, the Gulf States and Israel also play their role in supporting and encouraging this strategy, but fundamentally it emanates from 1979 and US strategic preparedness.

And so Iranian support for Syria is quite defensive and reactive. Really, I think it’s the same for Russia. Yes, Russia does want to extend that and yes, it’s true that Russia appears to have reconstituted a Soviet military-industrial complex. And people are saying that its sale or other provisioning of weapons to the Syrian government is something that the domestic arms industries are profiting from…this may very well be true, but I don’t think it accounts for Russian involvement. I think Russia is also under siege by the US. There may be a partial rapprochement under Trump, but I think this is an attempt to target…if anything, it’s an attempt by the Trump administration to target China and Iran, and an attempt to leverage Russia outside of that so it can isolate and take them one by one, as opposed to the Obama administration strategy, which was kind of a full-spectrum confrontation. During the tailing days of the Obama government, they moved thousands of tanks right up, practically, to Russia’s western border. And Russia basically just recovered its Soviet levels of life expectancy, its percentage of GDP military spending – far, far, far under that of the US. All of this is very well known. What people mean by imperialism is that Russia’s doing something they don’t like and therefore it’s imperialism. And this is not a coherent theoretical account of imperialism at all. No one has made a coherent account of whether or not Russia is exporting a surplus, whether or not it’s securing profit from its endeavours in Syria. What it most resembles – speaking in broad terms – is actually the Soviet defensive strategy in Eastern Europe where it actually cost the Soviet Union money to uphold these states as a political/military defence line against US/European encroachment and aggression and which was along the historic invasion route through Germany into the USSR. I would say it has the most family resemblance to this pattern of action; whether or not it’s imperialist…is quite absurd.

The idea that Iran is acting in an imperialist manner in Syria just beggars belief. Such terms by these people are never applied to Saudi Arabia. I’ve seen estimates from Camille Otrakji – who is a Syrian who used to get quite a lot of coverage and is now excluded from western media – and he’s estimated that the collective western and GCC’s cost to support this war on Syria is 35-50 billion dollars: mercenaries and black-ops and weapons transfers and so forth. I don’t know whether that’s true – it strikes me as a ball-park estimate.

And the amount of Iranian troops that are on the ground is not very many at all. We don’t have accurate information, but we do have accurate information on death-counts for pro-government, non-Syrian militia and it’s a few thousand at most, whereas the broad range of anti-government militia, including Daesh and all the rest of the anti-government militia, the foreign dead, according to the count of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – which is problematic but at least more credible than any other source on these – has put it at 50,000. So that tells you something about who’s doing the fighting. So sending in tens of thousands of mercenaries is not imperialism, but sending in a third or a quarter of that many is? I don’t know what kind of imperialism they’re talking about but it sounds more like they’re throwing around concepts to justify US aggression.

JP: Maybe we can move towards wrapping it up, but I wanted to return to your statement here where you say: “We were the first to raise our voices sice 2011 against the US/Gulf pouring weapons in when just thousand were dead, not hundreds of thousands.” And that really burns me to think about that, how long this has been allowed to go on, how many more deaths have happened because people just dug in, and joined a kind of an “anti-war” position and just kept digging in no matter what the facts on the ground were telling them.

MA: People will shift, at various times, their political position; the flood of propaganda about Syria was immense. Even now, I would say, it costs more to people to speak out about Syria than it costs them to speak out about Palestine. So if you look at US Middle East scholars and Middle East academics, the people speaking out against the US war on Syria are very few indeed. Even in 2011, by July-August-September-December, it was clear that there was a militarization going on, including offensive attacks against Syrian armed installations. There were reports of people crossing the Lebanese border. And Al Jazeera refused to air video of this by someone named Ghassan bin Jiddo, who went on to found the Pan Arabic, Al Mayadeen channel which has taken a very different stance on the Syrian conflict. He represented the Arab nationalist side at Al Jazeera, and he resigned from Al Jazeera because they wouldn’t share this video. And if one talks to Lebanese communists, they’ll say, “Yes, there were people, there were training camps in the north of Lebanon, they were sending fighters.

Now I don’t want to sidestep or really enter into a very fraught discussion about what was indeed going on in Syria, what was the dominant dynamic. Even very anti-imperialist media, a Lebanese leftist newspaper have criticized the Syrian government for putting in place what it called the “security solution” in response to what was going on in March-April-May, meaning, choosing to respond to nonviolent protests that were met with, sometimes, murder, in the words of a columnist for Al Akhbar.

Now again, whatever was going on in Syria – and I do think the rhetoric of the revolution was, at this stage, was far more a propaganda edifice than meant to illuminate what was going on in Syria. And as for what people outside were saying, you could barely trust it at all. It was clear that there was an attempt to use whatever went on in Syria to destroy Syria itself, as is the case basically on the entire planet.

The role of people in the core, in Canada and the US, was to identify what the government was doing and act to come out against it. And those of us speaking out about this were accused, even then, of “denying Arab agency”. We might say, “Ok, the US is basically acting with total convergence with Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, and they would say, “Well, you’re denying the agency of the Arab working class”. Well what does that mean? I mean these countries are, first of all, the modern states were half-created by the US, their entire capital flows, their developmental apparatus…you know, they rely 100% on the US: their treasuries go to the US, their weapons come from the US, the US police are there, they’re under the US security umbrella. In essence, they’re US protectorates. So what does this rhetoric of “agency” mean, other than to deny…

JP: I think it means “Shut up!”

MA: Yeah, it means “Shut up”, and the people saying “shut up” have been emerging from the woodwork since 2011. They want people to shut up, and that’s the basic agenda. I mean it was clear what turkey’s role has been and it’s clear that this has been in coordination with the US which has operating [bases?] in both Turkey and also in Jordan. And it’s been reported, including by Andrew Cockburn, that there are CIA agents coordinating weapons flows on the Turkish border, and there were militants going in, and the Turkish border guards going in. Now it was clear as early as 2011 that this was going on, and it was clear that Syria, already in 2011, was a massive international news item.

Now what the people saying that this wasn’t going on with US approval are suggesting, is that from 2011, Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States, historic US allies, were carrying out extensive operations in one of the most hot-button conflicts zones of US imperialism over the last 90 years, were carrying out huge policies that the US didn’t want them doing, and basically the US just did its best – unsuccessfully, perhaps – to control these people. And all it could do was to prevent anti-aircraft missiles?

The flip side of this is that to report a more complicated narrative going back to March 2011 or to this narrative of a popular revolution at all – and the revolution narrative has been used to justify any [ ] US/Gulf malfeasance in that arena.

Because revolution is meant to carry its own legitimacy. If there’s a revolution it doesn’t need to draw on any external claims for legitimacy, we just assume “Ok, there’s something beautiful going on and we need to support it, which is precisely why this revolution rhetoric continues to live on, because it serves quite a powerful purpose for destroying Syria. And so if there’s a revolution and it’s calling for US weapons, or if there’s a revolution calling for a US no-fly zone, at the very least – we might not need to support such actions – we certainly shouldn’t oppose it. Which was the same rhetoric of Gilbert Achcar, almost to the letter, about Libya. And the upshot of this has been that this war – which in the first six months claimed, at a very rough estimate, 3,500 lives. By now it has claimed maybe half a million.

Whatever one wants to claim about the violent role of the government, there’s zero dispute amongst serious people that the US role has been absolutely massive in destroying Syria. We know this both from open and public reporting and we know it because this is basically what the US government has announced that this is what it has wanted to do since 2006. It said, “We want to destabilize and destroy Syria.” And these people have said, “Ok we don’t want you opposing any of the violence. If you do, you’re responsible for what the Syrian government does.” Whereas they, who don’t want us opposing the US government, or the fighting, they who don’t want us to act to oppose the ongoing violence, don’t want to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, which are basically meant to destroy the country. It’s very much upside-down in fact.

JP: Last question, where do you think this is all going. I mean, I studied Haiti, and in Haiti there was a fake revolution that was used to destroy an elected popular government and to then enact an occupation of the country that’s now gone on for, I guess it’s thirteen years now. And a lot of people supported that and said, “Ariside (who was president of Haiti at the time) has become unpopular; it’s time for him to go; and we support his overthrow from the left.” A lot of people who supported that have just kind of forgotten that they ever said that. You know, their statements have been scrubbed from the internet, and those of us who remember, don’t really talk about it anymore, because they’re back to doing their good work against neoliberalism, or whatever it was. So I’m sort of disgusted by that on the one hand but on the other hand I’m almost hopeful that that’s something that could happen for Syria where people will come around to this. But I don’t know, I don’t see a lot of people coming around even now. I wonder what your sense of it is. Is there any sense that this is changing on the horizon, or is this just a sign of how easy it is to capture and undermine solidarity in anti-imperialism.

MA: Broadly, I thin it’s a sign of how easy it is to capture people. People have to admit that they were wrong, that they were duped, or that they were complicit in lies. If this was 2013, you know there are people who switched positions. I think that was late, but people switched, finally. And people switched positions in 2014. We’re almost halfway through 2017. It’s very late for people to begin to switch positions, and accept that they were allied with US imperialism, that they were allied with Israel…

For one, it just seems very unlikely that they’re going to do it. For two, it seems that there’s still hope in pushing the destruction of Syria. I mean, the project is ongoing, because the scale of a US defeat is very large, and this is underappreciated. The US goal hasn’t necessarily been to overthrow the Syrian government; it’s been primarily to destroy Syria.

It’s also a very much wanted Syria to change course on foreign policy, because a foreign policy that supports the sovereignty of states, which is also the foreign policy, to some extent, of Palestine and to a much larger extent, of Iran. It’s a foreign policy that the US won’t tolerate in the region when its primary goal is to reverse the revolution of Iran. So this attack, this assault, is still ongoing, and many of these people stake out these positions, you know, they are the cultural compliment to this assault. I don’t think that they’re independent agents. I don’t actually think that they could be independent agents.

A lot of them are bought-and-paid-for. They have built lucrative careers and reputations by being intellectual mercenaries of a US assault on a sovereign country, which the US intends to continue until it is somehow forced to stop for one reason or another.

I haven’t really even thought or hoped for people to shift their ground, but what I have hoped for is people who are scared to speak out, to speak out. Those are the people I’m most concerned about. I hope that they can overcome the intimidation and the thuggery, and speak out in defence of Syria as a nation, and against the war going on against it, in which the US government is so heavily complicit. But for the other people, the real heavy ideologues, I don’t see them ever shifting.

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