In August 2011, the Lebanese nationalist leftist daily newspaper Al-Akhbar undergoes its first crisis, since its creation in the summer 2006. Assistant editor, Khaled Saghieh, resigns from the journal he contributed to create citing the lack of support from the journal to the Syrian popular uprising of March 2011. Al-Akhbar has never kept secret its political proximity with Hezbollah, one of Syria’s president Bashar el-Assad principal regional allies, nor hidden its preference for dialogue between the government and part of the opposition over the pure and simple fall of the regime. However, at the same time, the daily has opened its pages for the Syrian opposition to express itself. Among those published was Salameh Khaileh, a Syro-Palestinian Marxist intellectual, arrested at the end of April 2012 by the security services.
Last June, the dissent appeared in Al-Akhbar English online version with an article by Amal Saad Ghorayeb: ‘Syria Crisis, there is a crowd’. In it, the Lebanese chronicler adopts a clear line of support for the Syrian regime and critcises ‘third wayers’ who denounce the authoritarian Syrian regime while warning against western foreign military intervention, Libya style. The same month, another Al-Akhbar collaborator, Max Blumenthal, resigns denouncing what he calls ‘Assad apologists’ inside the journal editorial team.
What happened at Al-Akhbar is symptomatic of wider strategic and ideological divisions among the Arab Left regarding the Syria crisis. Some show support for the regime in the name of the struggle against Israel and the ‘resistance against imperialisme’. Others support the uprising in the name of a ‘revolutionary logic’ and the defence of ‘democratic rights’. Finally, some express a middle position between a distant solidarity with the uprising demanding freedom for the protests while rejecting ‘foreign intervention’ promoting ‘national reconciliation’. Diverse sensibilities exist within the Arab Left : there are communists, Marxists, Leftists Nationalists, Radicals, and Moderates. The Arab Left appears, with the Syria crisis, as a fragmented mosaic.
Anti-imperialism as the analysis grid for the Arab Left
On one side, the unconditional support for Al-Assad is not mainstream among the Arab Left and very few are the voices calling to maintain the regime as it is. But, on the other side, the unconditional support for the popular uprising is not a dominant position. It can be found among movements that are at the extreme Left of the political Spectrum ; Trostkyistes, the Lebanese Socialist Forum, the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt, Maoists, and the Democratic Voice of Morocco. These latter movements have built relationships with a fraction of the opposition to the regime, namely the Syrian Revolutionary Left of Mr. Gayath Naisse. They have participated, since the Spring of 2011, in discrete mobilisations like protests in front of Syrian embassies and consulates in their respective countries.
Some intellectuals from the independant Left, like the Lebanese historian Fawwaz Trabulsi, support the logic of uprisings. They demand the fall of the regime. This current excludes any dialogue. And even if this part of the Left insist on the necessity of pacifist popular protests, they do not deny to protesters the right to take up arms. At the extreme Left, the partisans of the revolution diverge from the Syrian National Council on the alliance with Qatar, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia. They denounce such alliances as compromising the independance of the popular revolution in Syria.
Denouncing the regime and calling for its fall does not prevent the radical Left from being suspicious of the support given to the Syrian revolution by Gulf monarchies neither from dissociating itself from the anti-Assad discourse of a part of the ‘international community’ headed by the United States. However, their anti-imperialist reflex comes after their support for the revolution. The priority is given here to the internal situation in Syria : the logic of the uprising of the people against their political regime is what counts first, as in Tunisia and Egypt.
[What has been described so far is the position of a minority situated at the extreme Spectrum of the Arab Left.]
On the contrary, a cautious distance toward the Syrian revolution is what characterises the majority of the Left in the Arab World. This majority denounces the militaristaion of the uprising, a process it thinks is profiting the radical Islamists and foreign fighters entering Syria. It fears the confessionalisation of the conflict leading to opposing religious minorities, Alawis and Christians to Sunnis radicalised by repression, seeing in this the spectre of an unending civil war. This majority also takes into account the balance of regional and international powers : Iran and Syria against Gulf monarchies, Russia and China against the United States. In this confrontation between multiple international state actors, the majority of the Arab Left does not hesitate to take sides where its affinities are rooted, with Iran and Syria as state actors against Gulf monrachies and with Russia and China against the United States.
Thus, when the union of Socialist and Leftist parties in Jordan, a coalition of six political formations including communists and Arab nationalists, met in Amman in April 2012 to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Syria crisis, more than the fall of Saddam, was front and center in the discussions, leading to firmly denounce any foreign intervention in Syria, where some of the speakers did not hesitate to draw the parallell between the military intervention in Iraq and the support the SNC and the Syrian armed opposition enjoy in the West.
In Tunisia, in a communiqué dated May, 17, 2012, the UGTT, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, which is the main unionised force in Tunisia whose executives come partly from the extreme Left, while affirming its support for the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people, warns against the ‘plot’ fomented by the ‘colonial states’ and ‘Arab Reactionaries’. Two months before this, the Communist Labour Party of Tunisia (POCT, acronym in French) called, along with Arab Nationalist Movements, to protest the venue, in Tunis, of the conference of the Friends of Syria formed of the SNC and 60 international delegations.
The Lebanese Communist Party has adopted a cautious position. While opening its Press to opponents of the Syrian regime like Michel Kilo (who is not member of the SNC), it abstained from participating in the daily protests that have been taking place for a year now in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut. The party is under criticism from the extreme left in Lebanon for its support for Qadri Jamil, head of the Popular Will Party in Syria, and member of the ‘legal’ opposition, who joined the newly formed Syrian government of Mr. Riyad Hijjab in June 2012 as vice PM for economic affairs.
It is mainly a reformist logic that has the favours of a part of the Arab Left : the solution to the Syrian conflict must be political, not military. The final communiqué of the Arab Nationalist Conference meeting in June, in Hammamet, Tunisia, the gathering of 200 members of Arab Nationalist Leftist - and to a lesser extent - Islamist formations, reflects this reformist logic. Their communiqué, trying to please everybody, recognises the right of the Syrian people to ‘freedom, democracy, and pacific alternance of power’, denounces violence from all origins, thus highlighting the violence of both the uprising and the regime and calling on both to commit to a logic of dialogue based on the peace plan of March 2012 of UN special envoy, Mr. Kofi Annan.
If, for a part of the Arab Radical left, the revolutionary perspective must come first in Syria, the majority of the Arab Left has renounced this perspective. This majority does not want the brutal fall of the regime. For this majority, there is a contradiction in what’s going on in Syria : a cold war that doesn’t say its name. The fear of the void in a post-Assad Syria reconciled with the US and allied to gulf monarchies is much stronger than the fear of the continuation of the regime.
Moreover, Syria is some sort of Janus to many Leftist militants in the Arab world. Very few among them deny the repressive and authoritarian character of its regime, but even today, the defensive discourse of a regime under international sanctions, echoes the profound ideological bedrock of the Arab left which can be found in the third worldist and anti-imperialist paradigm. To some, this ideological paradigm is nuanced by the attachment to the popular character of the revolt, to others, this ideological attachment is, to the contrary, multiplied and amplified by the increasing internationalisation of the conflict.
Not to forget the Islamist dynamic born from the Arab Spring which translates by seizing power, in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, by the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. These events have provoked a backlash among part of the Left: from now on, Arab revolutions are feared because they may lead to an Islamist hegemony in the Arab world.
What stokes these fears among the Arab Left is the support of Islamist movements to the revolution in Syria: Ennahda in Tunisia, as well as the Msulim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, are fervent supporters of the Syrian revolution. Thus, the position of a majority of the Arab Left toward the Syrian revolution reflects the history of their own confrontation with political Islam. This is why, Arab Leftist parties with commitments to ‘revolution’ and ‘progressism’, and for some, to ‘Marxism’, have, paradoxically, set their preference for a negotiated and gradual transition in Syria, out of fear of the disillusion these revolutions will bring.