Kom News spoke to Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies & International Relations at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), on Islamic fundamentalism and the current situation in Syria. His many books, including his latest Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016), have been published in a total of 15 languages.
It seems as if no one in the West has the luxury to look away from what is happening in the Middle East; a few weeks ago, there was an attack here in London and just days ago in Stockholm. Still, people in the West do not seem to have been able to really understand what is going on in the Middle East. Why is this?
You can’t blame people in general because their knowledge is what they get from the media. It is the responsibility of progressive forces to provide the information and explanation that mainstream media do not provide. The lack of information is general. People don’t understand what is happening or have a distorted view. They are usually unaware of the role of their governments in producing the situation, of their contribution to what is happening.
There is a whole set of conditions that give rise to terrorism and the profile of those involved in the attacks is very different from case to case. The Stockholm attack was carried out by an Uzbek and is rather of an exceptional character. But countries such as France or the UK, however, which are involved in wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Mali, and have a long history of colonial violence have been systematically under attack. As for the US, it would have been permanently under attack had it not been protected by its insularity, its distance and a “big brother” type of surveillance.
There are various reasons behind terroristic motivations. Several of those who got attracted to the Islamic State were French or British citizens of migrant descent. This points to social conditions that combine with political conditions in giving rise to such “radicalisation”. Most governments have no other response than repression and war. Think about the state of emergency in France or in Egypt. The latter example is a good example of how violence breeds violence. Christians were scapegoated there under violent conditions originally created by the regime’s brutal inception in the 2013 coup. Further restriction of liberties and more violence is the only response of such regimes.
Yes, if you look back at the 2005 Banlieues riots in France, there was nothing religious about them. But if you look at the profile of those who went to join the Islamic State, many had been convicted for their actions during the riots back then. This points to an absence of other social and political perspectives for these people…
Jails have become major recruitment venues for jihadi violence. And there are no progressive movements able to represent these people as in the past when there were big working class parties organising the migrants. Some of the anger that could have been channeled through such organisations is nowadays ending up in jihadist violence.
This lack of progressive alternatives is aggravated by the surge of racism and Islamophobia since 9/11. The Islamic State is playing on this by projecting a Hollywoodian image of itself as counter-violence, which attract young guys wishing to escape their difficult social conditions and live through an intensive experience as heroes of their cause.
Take Tunisia for example. Proportionally, it is the country from which the highest number of young people went to fight with ISIS. Why so? Tunisia was a relatively secular country with hardly any tradition of violent Islamic fundamentalism until recently. You can’t separate this from the fact that there is in Tunisia massive youth unemployment, deteriorating social conditions and a big frustration among the youth who participated in a “revolution” that ended up with the return of the old regime’s men and a 90-year old president.
This sort of frustration always produces people on the margins that seek to let out their anger by resorting to terrorism. The same happened in Europe after the youth radicalisation of the late 1960s to early 70s. In Germany, after the failure of the Rudi Dutschke moment, you got the Red Army Faction. Similar things happened in Italy where you had the Red Brigades and in France. Members of a generation went into a struggle with a lot of hopes and failed since they didn’t have the capacity to lead change. The resulting frustration created among a fringe conditions for a violent spiral. The same thing happened to the Arab Spring. Because the left failed to a large extent and has been quite weak globally, Islamic fundamentalism has taken its place in channeling part of the social and political frustration.
We live in a new historical period. The old 20th century left has failed, and there is a need of something new. There is a tremendous potential in the new generation, as the Bernie Sanders campaign and Jeremy Corbyn’s momentum showed. We are witnessing, of course, a polarisation between far right and radical left. What is lacking is a progressive movement that is not a repetition of the 20th left, but is truly different: a left of the 21st century heeding the failure of the previous century’s left. Some individuals and groups work in that direction, but there is still a big lack in this respect. This is a key issue for the 21st century in the face of the rise on the far right of people like Donald Trump and Le Pen.
If we have a look at Syria, what are the possibilities for peace? The current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called for the proxy-war in Syria to turn into a proxy-peace. Is this where we are heading now? How do you think peace could be secured in the region?
I don’t think there can be peace in Syria without international support. In the same way that this war is prolonged through international involvement, peace needs to be implemented with international involvement. That includes not only peace negotiations, where international participation is indispensable because everyone that is contributing to this war should be part of its cessation, but also international peacekeeping troops. I can’t imagine peace in Syria without the deployment of peacekeeping troops.
You have said that there can be no peace in Syria with Assad in power…
The presence of Assad in government will keep the tensions high. Removing him from his position is therefore a condition to stop the conflict. It may stop with him still in position during a transition period, but his departure is an indispensable condition for a lasting peace. While Western governments say that the priority in Syria is ISIS, the priority as I see it is ending this bloody war.
The only significant intervention of the US in the war in Syria, apart from bombing ISIS, has been on the side of the Kurdish YPG. The only US troops on the ground are helping the YPG: the US supports the Kurdish forces because they see them as the most efficient force fighting ISIS, and moreover a secular force involving women fighters which goes well with most of the US public. This said, support to the YPG in their fight against ISIS is good, whether it comes from the US or anyone else. Some people on the left believe that wherever the US intervene, it must be countered. But the fact is that without US support, Kobane would have fallen and the Kurds would have faced a disaster. This shows you the complexity of the situation, which is not one with bad guys and good guys clearly separated. If you are a truly progressive person holding true leftwing values and prioritising the democratic emancipation of the people, you must determine your position in this light – not by a knee-jerk opposition to anything the US does, the US and its allies alone while ignoring Russia and its allies.
From the angle of the Syrian people’s interest, the priority is to stop the war. This goal supersedes all others, including Assad’s removal from power. The aim is to create in Syria the conditions for a resumption of a political process and for the millions of refugees to return. They include the most progressive people many of whom, if not most of whom, left Syria to Turkey, Lebanon, Europe, and elsewhere since they could not remain alive and free under either the regime or the Islamic fundamentalist armed groups. In that sense, it was good that they left. I hope that the conditions for these people to go back to Syria will be created soon and that the political process will be resumed. That is why international troops are needed. People like you and me would not feel safe without international peacekeeping troops protecting you from both the regime or its fundamentalist foes.
What do you have to say about the armed opposition, those who are sometimes called “moderate rebels” or the Free Syrian Army?
The Free Syrian Army does not really exist any longer, although there are still groups using that reference. The armed opposition has become dominated by groups which cover the spectrum of Islamic fundamentalism, from relatively moderate to jihadist and Salafist peaking with al-Nusra and ISIS. This state of the opposition in Syria is a result of the carte blanche given by Washington to Turkey and the Gulf monarchies to handle the opposition. They did everything they could to produce this state of the Syrian opposition through the orientation of their funding, arming and other facilities.
Both the Turkish and Syrian governments have had quite ambiguous positions towards ISIS. The Syrian regime had built relations with the Iraqi ancestor of ISIS and maintained them for long with the so-called Caliphate. The Turkish government, on the other hand, turned a blind eye for long to ISIS movements across its border and actively supported al-Nusra. The main enemy of the Syrian regime is the mainstream opposition, not ISIS. Likewise, the main enemy of the Turkish government is the PYD/YPG and the main reason for which Turkish troops entered Syria last autumn was to fight the Kurdish movement and not ISIS. Of course, the United States bears the major responsibility in the rise of ISIS by creating the conditions for this through its invasion of Iraq.
And the Syrian government somehow favored the Islamic fundamentalists as its counterpart…
That’s what I call the regime’s “preferred enemies”. In the beginning, Assad released several jihadists from jail. One of them founded the Army of Islam. His relative now heads the Syrian opposition in the Russian-sponsored Astana talks. There are many examples like that, of jihadists released by Assad who became key figures in the Islamic fundamentalist armed opposition. This enabled the regime to scare the religious minorities and part of the Arab Sunnis of Syria by claiming that the opposition was essentially made up of jihadists, al-Qaeda and so on. These are indeed the regime’s preferred enemies in the same way that they are the preferred friends of the Gulf monarchies and of Erdogan who’d rather deal with such groups than with progressive forces.
What about the official opposition such as the SNC?
The official opposition failed miserably. The failure of the Syrian uprising began when its leadership shifted from the grassroots coordination committees in Syria to the Syrian National Council based in Istanbul under Turkish-Qatari tutelage and with the Muslim Brotherhood in a privileged position. That was the beginning of the end of the first stage of the Syrian revolutionary process. When, at the end of 2011, such people took control and spoke in the name of the Syrian revolution, one could already predict the failure. At the beginning, they put some progressive figures at the front: a left-wing professor, a man of Kurdish origin, and a Christian. But this game ended after a while, and the Saudi kingdom took over as the Syrian National Council ceded the way to the Syrian National Coalition.
Money corrupted the whole thing. While millions of refugees were gathering at the borders under appalling conditions, these people were meeting in 5-star hotels. It was a deliberate corruption by the funders. The same happened to the Palestinian movement after 1967 when the Saudis threw dollars at them. It was a way of preventing the Syrian opposition from becoming progressive since that would be a threat for the Gulf monarchies as much as it would be a threat for the Assad regime. This corruption of liberation movements is a major problem in the region. You start with the Palestinian revolution and you end up with Mahmoud Abbas or you start with the Kurdish liberation movement and end up with people like Masoud Barzani who is allied with Turkey, the main oppressor the Kurdish people.
What is needed of course is complete regeneration of the movement and new leadership. The same is needed at the global level. Consider the US and the surprising phenomenon of the Bernie Sanders campaign. It was the first time in the US since perhaps the 1930s that big masses, including millions of young Americans, identified with a self-proclaimed socialist. The potential is great, but it needs political organisation and clarification. We are at the beginning of a new historical period. The old system is crumbling and there is a tremendous potential of renewal. To use the quote of Gramsci that I borrowed for the tile of my latest book: “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. The drift to the far right and the increase in terrorism are among the morbid symptoms.
So what about the PYD-YPG, and SDF then? Are they pointing towards something different than the “two counter-revolutionary forces,” as you have called the Syrian regime and the Islamic fundamentalists, including ISIS?
The YPG-YPJ represent the most progressive armed forces on the ground in Syria but they cannot become a model for the rest of Syria due to the ethnic factor. The SDF is multi-ethnic, but people see it as basically a tool of the PYD. Recognising that the Kurdish cantons are the most progressive experience in Syria should not lead to romanticise them. Even with the best of intentions, things cannot be fine under conditions of war. Human rights groups have reported political and ethnic abuses committed under PYD hegemony.
True, those who denounce this from the Arab side should first acknowledge the long legacy of Arab nationalist oppression of the Kurds. We must supersede ethnic tensions and accept each people’s rights. Every people should enjoy their right to self-determination and the Kurdish people should be able to decide whether they want to live in autonomous cantons or even in a separate state – that is not the business of Arabs, but a decision of the Kurds alone as long as it concerns them without infringement of other peoples’ rights. This is, of course, one of the key problems the region is facing. While everyone is focused on ISIS in Iraq now, this issue has only postponed the sectarian Sunni-Shiite and ethnic Arab-Turkmen-Kurd tensions. There is no way out of this conundrum except through basic democratic rights and freedom, the freedom of each being limited by the freedom of the others without dominance by anyone.