Book Review: Washington’s Long War on Syria, by Stephen Gowans

Review of: Washington’s Long War on Syria, by Stephen Gowans. Published by Baraka Books, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 6 x 9 inches. 280 pages. ISBN No 9781771861083. Paper, $24.95 CDN; PDF/EPUB, $19.99 CDN.

Why does Syria matter? What “threat” does Syria represent to the US? Is Syria a democracy? Is the Syrian government a legitimate one? What does Arab Socialism have to do with recent regime-changing wars in the Middle East and North Africa? Is there a “Syrian revolution”? Is the so-called Syrian revolution either popular, legitimate, or even Syrian? Can NATO be treated as an “app,” ready to install on the “smart phone” of an “activist,” with bombs ready to be downloaded against the West’s demon-of-the-day? Or is NATO instead an imperialist coalition with designs that far exceed the naïve “human rights” and “democracy promotion” concerns of the liberal-left-anarchist continuum? Reading Stephen Gowans’ Washington’s Long War on Syria is a great way to address these and other questions that the author both asks, and answers.

Stephen Gowans’ Washington’s Long War on Syria is probably the most important book on the war in Syria that members of the general public should be reading right now. Written by an astute analyst of geopolitical history and contemporary imperial relations, this book focuses the author’s energies on bringing to light the underlying foundations for the current war, how it erupted and evolved, and the determining role played by foreign powers with the US chief among them. The book spans US international capitalism, US-dominated “globalization” processes, Arab nationalism, (anti-)democratic forces, corporate ownership of the state, Salafist allies and adversaries of the US, and a panorama of ideologies along with the political history of Syria post-1963. One of the great advantages of this book is that it takes a longer-term historical perspective, beyond the events of the present and recent past, going back several decades into Syria’s political history and the West’s role in trying to reshape the country. The three major forces in the book are secular Arab nationalism, Sunni political Islam, and US imperialism. The meaning and practice of socialism in Syria, in a real world context, along with national self-determination, in opposition to corporate-led US globalization, is one of the central bundle of themes in this volume. Along the way, Gowans debunks numerous cherished myths surrounding the “Syrian revolution” and the “moderate rebels” which have been bestowed with unquestioned authority in the Western media. The real difference with Gowans’ book is that it is not written by the member of an establishment, a think tank, a circle of bureaucratic elites, or unresponsive politicians with vested interests in fomenting wars around the globe. More than that, it is written with the necessary, basic level of sympathy and understanding for a target of the Western demonization campaign, which attempts to reduce complex Syrian realities to the level of a single person, Bashar al-Assad, who is himself dehumanized as a “monster” and an “animal”. In other words, if you do not want repetition of more of the same, of the self-serving mantra that commands us to intervene in Syrian affairs, and to remake Syria nominally for the Syrians (but really for the sake of our corporations and political elites), then this is the book you will want to read.

washingtons_long_war_on_syria_smChapters in the book are titled as follows: 1) The Den of Arabism; 2) Regime Change; 3) The 2011 Distemper; 4) The Myth of the Moderate Rebel; 5) The Ba’athists’ Islamic Ally; 6) Washington’s State Islamic Allies; 7) Divide et Impera; 8) Echoes of Hitler; 9) Wall Street’s Empire, and an introduction and conclusion. The first chapter is nearly a third of the book, while a number of the other chapters can be 20 pages long or less.

One of two books by Stephen Gowans to come out in the last year (the other being on North Korea: Patriots, Traitors and Empires, which will also be reviewed here in the coming months), Washington’s Long War on Syria injects not just a very necessary dose of realism into discussions dominated by interventionist histrionics and imperial melodrama, but also offers some vital correctives to the increasing tendency of European and North American leftists to side with imperial projects that amount to (desperate, last-ditch) attempts at global recolonization. Gowans is the relentless author of the What’s Left web magazine, a not so ironic title for a socialist whose major counterpoints are directed against other socialists (his articles about Syria are listed here). This book can thus be read in two ways: on the one hand, as counter-propaganda against the official, Washington narratives that seek to justify intervention in Syria, and that mask the extent, origins, and duration of such intervention; and, on the other hand, as a debate within the left about the correct position to take in either joining the attack on the legitimate governments of sovereign nations, or in defending national self-determination and realistic forms of socialism that are modified to be appropriate for local histories and social-cultural contexts. My own intervention in these debates represents a still undefined other category—not concerned with the future or the fate of “the left” (because I am neither an activist, nor a politician, and the prevailing ideologies do little to impress me), I do not see sovereignty as the legitimate right of nations but only conditional on their ruling ideologies being palatable to me. Equally not concerned about managing the affairs of others, and coercing them to reengineer their societies into visions of what I am unable to realistically achieve on my side (hence the search for a vicarious utopia), or into replicas of what I am able to build (the cultural imperialism of imposed mimesis), I see nations and nationalisms as objective realities that deserve more appreciation, and at least understanding, than insults or attacks. I could go on, but I thought it best to insert these comments because they reflect the mindset of the person reviewing this book, and it’s best to alert the reader in advance to the kind of interpretive filter at work here rather than to distract from Gowans’ major contribution.

Compared with his writing on What’s Left, readers may find this book written at a level that is unnecessarily too “accessible,” where complicated issues are sometimes turned into easy-to-digest recipes, which means losing some necessary ingredients and mass along the way. To do justice to some problems, they deserve to be treated richly. That is perhaps my biggest and only qualm with the text. Otherwise, it is a valuable addition to a growing corpus of anti-interventionist treatises being built up steadily and resolutely by Baraka Books, whose presence in the Canadian publishing market deserves respect.

Let us go into some greater depth from this point onward.

Why Syria?

The central argument in Gowans’ volume is that secular Arab nationalism—such as Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya in Libya, following Egypt’s Nasser, and the Baath parties in Iraq and Syria—represented the greatest threat to Western and specifically US hegemony in the region spanning the Middle East and North Africa. By attempting to unify the 400 million people living in that region, under a super-state with centralized power and publicly-owned strategic resources, such a project would clash head-on with the US-sponsored project of creating a friendly environment for investors, banks, and corporations, which required that state power be undermined and the region kept in a state of hostile internal division. Syria takes on greater significance today because it is the last remaining Arab nationalist state. Who is the US backing? Gowans does not mince words here: the US is backing a range of terrorist Islamist groups, who are supported by the repressive oligarchic dictatorships that dominate Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. That fact was attested to by none other than US vice-president Joe Biden, but also by the pattern of US military action on the ground, which for years resisted bombing ISIS out of concern that it would strengthen the hand of the Syrian state (pp. 152, 153).

Myth-Making Meets with a Rigorous Debunking

One of the primary fictions which Gowans sets out to vaporize is the one that casts US intervention in Syria as being only recent (post-2011) and only by necessity (to stop atrocities or fight terrorism). This book documents US efforts to undermine the Baath Party in Syria, going back generations. The history of such efforts goes back at least as far as 1957 when US president Dwight Eisenhower and UK prime minister Harold Macmillan approved a plan to assassinate leading Baath and Communist Party members in the Syrian government (p. 90). Part of the plot, conceived by Kermit Roosevelt (CIA Middle East chief, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, and organizer of the 1953 coup that overthrew Mossadegh in Iran), involved creating internal uprisings in Syria with the collaboration of the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed the Baathists and Communists (p. 91). Though the plan was never executed, the intention was also to form and equip paramilitary groups to engage in armed violence against the government, along with the creation of a Free Syria Committee (echoed by today’s Syrian National Council) (p. 91)—more than half a century before the so-called Syrian revolution which broadly resembles this same pattern. Even without the Roosevelt plan in force, over the coming decades the Muslim Brotherhood engaged in a series of uprisings against the government. The current war since 2011 misleadingly seems like a recent and unique event, but as Gowans shows it is part of a pattern of struggle for power between secular and Islamic Syrians that goes back decades (p. 95).

In an environment where news media in the West are permeated by the Washington trope of “moderate rebels,” Gowans convincingly, persistently, and thoroughly sets that bit of myth-making to rest. Impressively, he often does so using the dominant information sources. He thus guides the reader to the revelation that the Free Syrian Army is in fact dominated by Islamist groups, and the FSA acts in close coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. Using the same connections, it would not be far-fetched then to say the Twin Towers were attacked on 9/11 by “moderate rebels”.

Linked to the “moderate rebel” narrative was one that preceded it: that those who rose up against the government were frustrated civil libertarians and youthful democracy-lovers. What Gowans instead shows, repeatedly, is that the opposition to the government was primarily composed of and led by conservative Sunni Islamist forces. Nowhere was “democracy” listed as a goal of the Free Syrian Army (p. 144). The FSA’s base of support was entirely Sunni—is the argument then that only Sunnis value democracy? The main line of opposition was and always has been between the secular nationalist government and the Islamic right. In 2012, the US Defense Intelligence Agency basically confirmed as much (p. 99). Gowans also cites work done for the US Congressional Research Service that in 2005 confirmed US destabilization efforts long preceded the events of 2011, and had little to do with democracy promotion (p. 99). The recent destabilization campaign began with George W. Bush, who imposed a crippling series of economic sanctions on Syria, which had taken in vast numbers of Iraqi refugees who fled the US war; in addition, Bush allocated funding to Syrian opposition groups in 2005 (pp. 110, 111, 113). Syria was added to a list of target nations in Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech (p. 113).

Not only were Syrian opposition forces neither “moderate rebels” nor democratic idealists, the 2011 uprising cannot be described as “peaceful,” given what Gowans details (pp. 118, 119). Furthermore, the uprising lacked broad popular support. During the critical period of February–March, 2011, the dominant US media were still reporting little interest in an “Arab Spring” revolt in Syria, and noted that the government still enjoyed majority popular support (pp. 119–120).

Likewise Gowans dismantles the notion that the current ruling elite in Syria represents the equivalent of an Alawite-ethnic dictatorship that represses the Sunni majority—though about 30% of Syrians are not Sunni. Gowans instead shows that it was in the interest of the minority Alawites, discriminated against by Sunnis, to seek out secular nationalist parties that worked against sectarian divisions. The same is true of Christians. Taking the “Alawite domination” narrative too seriously, or too far, would be tantamount to calling the US Communist Party an organ of an international Jewish conspiracy, simply because Jews were over-represented in its ranks relative to their numbers in the general population. Indeed, in an environment permeated with lousy Hitler analogies, such as those ardently spread by Hillary Clinton, Gowans points out that the real echo of Hitler is to be found precisely in such reductions of a movement like the Baathists to some minority ethnic concern, the same way Hitler portrayed Communists (p. 197). Gowans explains another key function of this myth: “propagation of the myth of sectarian warfare comported with the predilection of Western discourse for Orientalist depictions of the Global South as a territory riven by ancient inter-communal animosities, necessitating the intervention of the United States—the self-proclaimed force for good in the world—to establish order” (pp. 31–32, emphasis added).

Debates about Socialism, Democracy, Nationalism, and Humanitarianism

One of Gowans’ repeated and warranted criticisms is that the US does not act for the sake of either advancing, defending, or building “democracy” (see p. 100). The vulnerability that this opens is this: if the US had been, or were to become, seriously and credibly interested in promoting democracy in other countries, would that make its interventions any more acceptable? In other words, there is something about the critique that preserves a core value at the centre of debate: that foreign intervention might be justifiable on the grounds of “democracy promotion”. Otherwise Gowans does a solid job of outlining the various constitutional amendments that have taken place in recent years that open the way to multi-party elections and multiple candidates for the presidency, having had a multi-party legislature for decades already. Detractors will, with some validity, point to the fact that recent referenda were conducted during intense and extreme war conditions, which are not conducive to a comprehensive and accurate representation of all of Syria’s electorate. Nonetheless, Gowans succeeds in poking so many holes into caricatures of “Assad the dictator” that no person, informed by reading his book, could reasonably continue repeating such themes. In the spirit of C.B. Macpherson, Gowans urges us to take Syrian claims to building a democracy, seriously. In addition, Gowans also brings recent research to the fore in questioning the US’ own “democracy credentials,” showing the extent to which it is an oligarchic system that routinely ignores the will of the majority.

But there is an even more important point that Gowans is making, and that is how “US global leadership” itself works against the building of democracy locally:

“The external threat to independence posed by Washington’s demand that all states fall in behind its leadership, would militate not only against a competitive multi-party state, but against an open society. By exploiting open society guarantees of civil and political liberties, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, proxies of foreign countries, or indigenous forces which lacked commitment to the national independence project, would be able to organize opposition to the goal of asserting national self-determination”. (p. 54)

Similarly, there is an internal debate within the book about the question of whether Baathists can be seen as true socialists. Such a topic will be of interest primarily to those devoted to socialism in the first place, thus not a majority of readers in North America. Personally, I am doubtful about whether this debate deserves much space. Since the Cold War, if not earlier, and until 9/11, the US had a history of attacking any foreign adversaries for being alleged “communists”. Debating the socialist credentials of Baathists can distract from the reality of US imperialism, or the discussion can go another way, bestowing on US imperialists certifying authority over the veracity of other people’s socialism (see p. 78). Put another way: if we could prove conclusively that the Baathists are not “real socialists,” then where does that take us? Would it therefore validate US intervention? Though it is quite illogical (because the invalidity of my socialism does not validate your aggression against me), it seems that many on the US left think that the “fakeness” of Baathist socialism somehow legitimates or even warrants US intervention. Since when did US imperialism become the proper way of correcting socialists-in-error? To be very blunt, and this question is not directed against Gowans: does Syria exist to satisfy dogmatic demands in exchange for certification from those US Marxists who have never held power and thus know nothing about actual responsibility? (Worst among the latter are those Yankee-centric bigots claiming to be “unrepentant Marxists” but who think, “if it’s in The New York Times then it’s the truth”.) US Marxists in particular have an overweening sense of their centrality to the world, when they are beyond marginal at home. Perhaps their role as peripheral spectators in domestic politics is what has them casting about overseas for a mission to fulfill their frustrated ambitions. At the very least, Gowans could have turned the issue back on fellow Marxists: if their socialism, in the US, is purely ideology without actual praxis, then how is it not just an object of worship rather than something that is down to earth? This debate is not just a polemical one, which obviously it is, but also an esoteric one. In reality, Arab socialism can sometimes be anti-communist too, and let’s not forget that Gaddafi’s Green Book also condemned class-dominated politics. If on one side you have socialists who sometimes persecute communists, and on this side you have communists who side with the Pentagon and secretly weep over the loss of Hillary Clinton, then I am not sure we even have a real debate.

There is also a question about whether the US is threatened by socialism, or is it particularly threatened by anti-imperialism and nationalism. Often, those three go together, but not always (i.e., Russia today)—and in the West today, socialism is becoming safely mainstream, having been “structurally adjusted” to take on neoliberal principles that have diverted socialists into the realm of sectional identity politics, while reinvigorating their Eurocentric missionary aspirations. Many on the contemporary left in North America and Europe sign on to supporting US and NATO intervention to back their favourite band of ethnic anarchists in Syria—as if the Pentagon served as an activist support network. (Having refused to learn anything at all from Libya, since they actively ignored it, much of what passes for the Western left is on a high produced by such chemical laboratories as megalomania, doctrinaire purism, and faddism.) It’s not all “new” either: Marxists have long faced internal tensions over nationalism, even if many of the national liberation movements that fought for and achieved decolonization were led by (neo)Marxists.

“Humanitarianism” may not be the insincere veneer that often seems to be its quality in this book, as in others. Humanitarianism may be, and usually is, permeated with hypocrisy—it’s almost an essential ingredient to such a messianic ambition—but it does not follow that it is not sincerely held. It may be that the worst problem is in fact just how sincere humanitarians are about their humanitarianism, and how sincere they are about justifying their hypocrisy. For sincerity to coexist with hypocrisy it is necessary for a tangled ideological blueprint to be in place, that consists primarily of deflection, projection, misdirection, and misinformation. Thus today one will hear US officials sound high and mighty about the consequences of Syrian army operations in Aleppo—a city that genuinely greeted its liberators once the Islamist forces were vanquished. The city was devastated, and the West pretended as if this was the first city to be destroyed in the region, turning away from the catastrophic razing of Fallujah in Iraq by the US in 2004, or Mosul at the same time as Aleppo, not to mention Sirte in Libya.

Key Points

To say that this book is “thought provoking” is almost an understatement at this point. However, there were numerous particular aspects of the book that I found were especially helpful and informative, that made me very glad to have read the book. The way Gowans frames his analysis is very useful, as when he speaks of Washington in the service of Wall Street, building “a US-superintended global order” that promotes the agenda of free trade, free enterprise, and free markets, and is “overlaid with US political leadership and military domination” (pp. 11, 22, 43, 91). Standing against this order is where we find secular Arab nationalism in Syria, which itself found allies in the Iranian Islamic revolution, the Soviet Union and now Russia. As Gowans points out on many occasions, secular Arab nationalism in Syria meant a program of state socialism—centralized ownership of all key natural resources, central planning, a large public sector that employed the majority of people, and protection of local industries from foreign competition. Though Gowans is decidedly more sympathetic to the latter than Sunni political Islam (with the Muslim Brotherhood being one of its most prominent representatives), he does not engage in a visceral, dogmatic denunciation: he does, for example, try to depict its complicated history, and that Sunni political Islam also contains an anti-imperialist project of liberation from the West, while rejecting socialism and nationalism as foreign importations nurtured by local imitation that is one legacy of colonialism. Speaking of colonialism, Gowans also underscores the continuing coloniality that informs the dominant US discourse on Syria, casting it as a lawless zone of barbarians feuding for power and driven to commit atrocities by ancient rivalries—which only the benign, enlightened saviour that is the US could correct.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Washington’s Long War on Syria, by Stephen Gowans

  1. I’ll admit that I don’t know that much about Syria, but I figured from the examples of Iraq and Libya that however bad Assad is, the people of Syria would be for the most part better off under him than the murderous chaos that would follow his U.S.-engineered overthrow.

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