After Libya: Syria, counterrevolution and Counterfire

Syrian flags: Hands off Iran and Syria protest 28 Jan London

By Andrew Williams

The veto, by Russia and China, of a US-backed UN Security Council resolution aimed at giving cover to stepped up imperialist intervention in Syria has made this more difficult. But this setback will not stop the offensive of the US and the other imperialists, backed by Israel, to overthrow Syria’s government.

This is now the most immediate imperialist aim in the Middle East, as it will cut the supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon, further isolate Iran, and by these means strengthen Israel.

This imperialist offensive, conducted with active collaboration of the most reactionary Arab states in the region, headed by Saudi Arabia, as outlined in a previous article on this website, follows on from their victory in Libya. Defeating this imperialist offensive is the crucial task of progressive forces on an international scale.

However, some forces on the left have been supporting the side of this counter-revolutionary offensive, through promoting forces in Syria which are directly tied to imperialism. In the case of Counterfire, this repeats the position it held during the NATO-led, assault on Libya where it supported the side backed by the imperialists in the conflict – an analysis of these positions is here.

This article looks at the struggle in Syria and the positions of Counterfire on it. However, the same arguments would apply to other currents, such as the SWP, which also supported the imperialist-backed opposition in Libya and the present one in Syria (see here and here).

UN Resolution

The draft UN resolution that was vetoed on 4 February, would have endorsed imperialism’s ‘regime change’ strategy – that is the drive to overthrow Assad and impose an imperialist backed government on Syria. The vetoed motion said that the Security Council ‘fully supports’ the Arab League request that Assad transfer power to a deputy and the establishment of a government of national unity within two months – a position formulated and promoted by the Saudi dictatorship, the US’s key ally among the Arab states.

Russia had successfully argued for the removal of clauses in the draft that threatened military action against Syria. However, before supporting this new motion Russia sought further amendments which would impose the requirement for simultaneous withdrawal from the towns on both the Syrian government forces – as set out in the resolution – and on the armed opposition groups operating inside Syria – not mentioned in the resolution. The US, wanting no such restrictions on the armed opposition to the Syrian government, declared these proposed amendments unacceptable, ended further negotiations on the resolution and pushed it to a vote.

Of course, the veto in the UN will not deter the imperialists. The US and its allies had been stepping up their campaign in support of the opposition and against Assad despite the veto of an earlier UN resolution in October 2011. Their response to this new setback at the UN is simply to intensify the offensive.

U.S. Secretary of State Clinton has called for the establishment of ‘friends of democratic Syria’ group to coordinate imperialist aid to the Syrian opposition. France has already signed up to this group, which is likely to be similar to the ‘Contact Group on Libya’ that coordinated NATO operations with the Libyan opposition. The US imperialists rapidly followed this with the withdrawal of their ambassador from Syria.

With US encouragement, the Arab League is ignoring the veto and claiming the 13-2 vote means there is ‘clear international support for the resolutions of the Arab League’. Qatar is calling for Arab states to assemble a military intervention force.


The overall context for the situation in Syria is imperialism’s response to the wave of struggle that swept across the Middle East last year – in particular the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. Initially thrown on the defensive, imperialism responded by launching a determined counterrevolutionary offensive to hold back and divert further advance of the popular revolt. Across the region, strongly supported by Israel and the Saudi regime, it mobilised its clients and sought new allies to defeat the progressive wave of struggle.

The six month war that toppled the Libyan government delivered a significant blow to the Arab revolution. The next objective of this counterrevolutionary offensive is to overthrow the Syrian government. Alongside this, the US continues to consider military action against Iran’s nuclear program. Both countries are under threat.

Syria, the FSA and SNC

Despite the difficulties of dealing with conflicting information coming from Syria, it is clear the regime retains significant support. There are regular large mobilisations across Syria in support of the Assad government, some are even reported in the Western media such as these examples from the New York Times, BBC, Euronews and the Guardian.

Also the Qatar Foundation, even though it is based in one of the countries playing a key role in the attack on the Syrian government, found in a poll it commissioned last month that 55 per cent of Syrians do not want their President to resign.

The Syrian regime, including its military, currently remains essentially united. All reports indicate that the defections from the army are of individuals and small groups, not whole units. As a 5 February review entitled ‘The how-to guide to toppling tyrants’ in the FT commented: ‘The principal reason most in the region expect Mr Assad to cling on for a while is that soldiers have defected as individuals and not en masse.’

Confronted with this situation imperialism is coordinating various proxy military forces and orchestrating guerrilla attacks. Like the Contras sent to attack Nicaragua in the 1980s, these groups are financed, armed and trained by imperialism and its clients. The groups include Libyan fighters fresh from assisting NATO’s campaign in their country.

The various groups, including the so called ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) are widely reported to being hosted and shielded by Turkey and Jordon, trained by France and Britain, provided with intelligence by the US and financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

These armed groups attack Syrian government forces, but also target civilians and economic infrastructure. Sectarian violence is encouraged against the minority Shia and Alawite communities.

The FSA is calling for a direct imperialist military intervention in Syria along the lines of the assault made last year on Libya. In short the FSA is directly allied with imperialism.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) is likewise allied to the imperialists – it calls for foreign military intervention and coordinates closely with the FSA. It is being pulled together in a similar fashion to Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) as the ‘regime-in-waiting’. Imperialism is building up international support for the SNC. The new Libyan regime – which most identifies with it for obvious reasons – already recognises the SNC as ‘the sole legitimate government of Syria’. Saudi Arabia, a strong backer of the SNC, has indicated it will confer such recognition at some later date. Key imperialist powers are also indicating their public backing for the SNC. The US, France and Spain treat the SNC as ‘a legitimate representative of the people’. Currently the SNC is recognised in some capacity by 16 states.

Sectarianism, Saudi Arabia and Qatar

A long standing tool used by imperialism to divide and rule in the Middle East is to promote conflict between different branches of the Muslim faith. Currently a wave of anti-Shia sectarianism is being whipped across the region. In Iraq it has helped divide those opposed to the US occupation. It was promoted against last year’s uprisings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and it is used to promote hostility to the governments of Iran and Syria.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are central to this campaign. The dictatorial feudal states of the Gulf are potentially threatened by the mass struggle for democracy. Fearing for their survival, the Saudi Arabian and Qatari monarchies have taken decisive action against the wave of struggle dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’. Saudi Arabia led Gulf States’ military forces into Bahrain in March 2011 to put down the popular movement. Both mobilised the Arab League behind imperialism’s proposed attack on Libya. Qatar reoriented its influential media outlet, Al Jazeera, to assist this campaign.

Both are centrally assisting the offensive against Syria. Saudi Arabia initially pushed for an Arab League monitoring mission into Syria, but when the Mission’s report effectively backed many of the Syrian government’s claims, Saudi Arabia pulled out of the Mission and pushed the rest of the Arab League to suspend its work.

The Arab League Monitoring Mission

The Arab League Observer Mission to Syria did not confirm the imperialist propaganda that has been aired so much this past year. It reported (English translation here) there are armed opposition groups including the Free Syrian Army, using armour piecing weaponry, which have been killing civilians as well as Syrian troops. Their confirmed targets have included a civilian bus, a train carrying diesel, bridges and pipelines. It also noted ‘many parties falsely reported’ the conflict with some media reports of explosions or violence by the regime being entirely false and others exaggerated.


It is only necessary to look at what is now happening in Libya to grasp what a successful offensive against Syria would mean. Many tens of thousands of Libyans were killed and the country ravaged causing immense human misery. Victorious NATO installed its puppet NTC regime, about which there is nothing remotely progressive or ‘revolutionary’. It awards lucrative oil contracts to the countries whose military campaign put it in government. And violence continues in Libya. Even some NGOs in the West are now raising objections to the executions, torture and abuse, carried out under the new regime and which have been particularly directed against black people.


Counterfire, since taking the same side of the military conflict in Libya as the imperialists, has down played the imperialist threat to Syria and been promoting an analysis of the current conflict sympathetic to the principal forces allied to imperialism.

As Lindsey German explained in the July 2011 documentary Syria At The Crossroads: ‘there will be pro-Western forces involved in the demonstrations…it is also true that if the West gets a chance to exploit these divisions they will, but both of these questions are relatively minor in comparison with do the people of this country, as with all the other countries in the Arab world, have the right to demonstrate against their government….and that has to be an absolutely unequivocal right’.

This is wishful thinking. The questions of imperialist involvement in the opposition movement are not ‘relatively minor’ – the campaign is being organised, led, and backed by imperialism. The fate of the entire population rests on such questions, as was clear in Libya.

Counterfire’s web-site has also been running a series of articles by Khalil Habash, the main line of which is to support the forces fighting the Syrian government. Habash encourages support for opponents of the regime irrespective of whether or not they are clearly tied to imperialism, including supporting the FSA. A recent article on 11 January lauds the FSA and argues that it ‘helps the Syrian revolution and the popular movement’.

To justify support for the FSA – because to support an armed group allied to imperialism is to politically aid counterrevolution – Habash entirely misrepresents reality by omitting to indicate its ties to imperialism through its funding, arming and training and its support for imperialist military intervention.

Habash also sowed illusions in the Syrian National Council (SNC) after it was established in August 2011 to a fanfare of imperialist support. The analysis on 13 September absurdly described the SNC’s Chairman Burhan Ghalioun as a ‘prominent leftist figure’.

Ghalioun is not remotely left wing, as can be seen from the explicitly counterrevolutionary programme he outlined to the Wall St Journal on 2 December. There he spelt out that he stands for a Syria no longer allied to Iran, but to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia with support for Hezbollah and Hamas cut off. Clearly he is a very public ally of imperialism.

Since then presenting Ghalioun as leftwing has been untenable, so Habash tried to cover his tracks and acknowledged the SNC’s pro-imperialist alignment in an article on 14 December but does not conclude that this places it firmly on the side of the counterrevolution. For Habash the problem with the SNC is not its fundamental alignment but that it ‘relies too heavily on the recognition by imperialist powers’ and that (as is argued in an article of 11 January) it does not ‘reinforce the popular movement inside the country’. Only imperialism can be assisted by its favoured alternative government, the SNC, ‘reinforcing’ its intervention in Syria.

Habash verbally claims that foreign intervention in Syria, as in Libya, would throw things backwards but promotes the FSA, which is a direct conduit for that intervention.

Counterfire, by playing down imperialism’s threat to Syria and uncritically presenting Habash’s views as serious analysis, is pursuing the same path it took over Libya.

In earlier conflicts those associated with Counterfire, although then within the SWP, not only played a central role in mobilising wide coalitions of forces against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but in both these conflicts Counterfire clearly opposed the side backed by the imperialists.

This changed when Counterfire supported what they should have understood was the side of imperialist counterrevolution in Libya last year, and is reinforced by it going down that same path on Syria.

These positions supporting the counter-revolutionary, pro-imperialist side in the conflicts in Libya and Syria weaken the anti-war movement. While it would not be possible for the anti-war movement to have mobilised mass forces against the intervention in Libya – or currently in Syria – Counterfire’s support for the side backed by imperialism in Syria leads to them downplaying the reality of actual and covert imperialist intervention, while presenting the imperialist-linked oppositions as in someway progressive, hinders the case – and the urgency – for opposing imperialist interventions.

However wrong and confused their positions on the process unfolding, Counterfire has opposed imperialist intervention. This is the basis of unity of the anti-war movement. But their wrong positions do not help clarify wider forces as to why they should join the opposition to such intervention. Instead they create illusions in the side backed by imperialism in Syria, whose victory, by cutting off support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, is also directly in the interests of the Israeli state.

Counterfire made a disastrous mistake in supporting the side of counter-revolutionary forces in Libya. Unfortunately they do not appear to have learned the lessons from this in relation to Syria.

At a time when imperialism is increasing its offensive against Syria, an argument is put forward that the only serious risk of imperialist backed intervention in the Middle East is in Iran. But there is already a covert imperialist intervention in Syria, and this is stepping up.

Following the veto of the UN motion on Syria, the imperialists are daily stepping up their offensive, arming the Free Syrian Army, supporting the SNC, encouraging the Arab League to consider military intervention, setting up a pro-opposition ‘contact group’ and other steps. It is vital the left takes a completely clear position against this imperialist offensive and those they are supporting in Syria.

For a further discussion on imperialism’s intervention in Syria go to here.

For more theoretical analysis of what lies behind Counterfire’s mistaken approach on Libya and Syria go to here.