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The Syrian Vortex

The Bitter End of the Arab Spring

by VIJAY PRASHAD

Over the weekend of August 16-18, 30,0000 Syrians crossed into Iraq over the Peshkhabour Bridge that spans River Tigris. They left the towns of Aleppo, Efrin, Hassake and Qamishly for the Kurdish region, where UNHCR field officers were stunned to see them. “The factors allowing this sudden movement are not fully clear to us,” said spokesperson Adrian Edwards. Thousands continue to make the transit, leaving a Syria paralysed by what U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi calls “a civil war, a sectarian war, and a proxy war,” and entering Iraq, where a string of car bombs over the past month has brought the highest death toll since 2008. A major bomb blast in Beirut’s southern district of Dahieh (which means suburb) rattled Lebanon, where one million Syrians have sought refuge — now one in four of the people who live in this small Levantine country. Sounds of gunfire and bombs have become routine from the Mediterranean coast to the Iranian border, from the souqs of Egypt to the small coastal towns of Libya.

Since the Arab Spring of 2011 opened up in North Africa, all eyes are focused there once more as events seem to turn the clock backwards. In Tunisia, assassinations of left-wing leaders (Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi) convulsed the country into recriminations. Next-door Libya has been beset with major security challenges, and the new government of Ali Zeidan finds his Interior Ministers and his defence chiefs playing an uneasy game of musical chairs. The most dramatic events are reserved for Egypt, the self-defined centre of the Arab world. The massacres of August 14 portend for many a turn in Egypt toward the kind of slide into darkness that took place in Syria through the second half of 2011. Crackdowns against peaceful protests, there as well, morphed into a major collapse of state hegemony and the development of a serious and unending civil war.

Keeping the lines open

A year ago, the U.N. turned to its veteran Lakhdar Brahimi to start a political process in Syria. Its previous envoy, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, had failed, as had every detachment from the Arab League. Already catastrophic numbers of dead and of injured filled the rosters of the U.N. agencies tasked with relief. When Mr. Brahimi began he was sceptical, but nonetheless met with the various opposition groups as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After a meeting with the latter in December 2012, Mr. Brahimi found himself the brunt of a hostile speech by Mr. Assad the next month. The Syrian state media, Mr. Brahimi said in an interview this month, was “not only critical of my declarations — which would be perfectly acceptable — but insulting, at times in the most vulgar terms.” Mr. Brahimi’s deputy, Mokhtar Lamani, maintains an office in Damascus and keeps an open line to the regime. The myriad and fractious opposition groups are also in touch with Mr. Brahimi, whose calls for an end to the supply of arms to both sides has led to some conflict with the rebel groups. There is no question that the war inside Syria remains asymmetrical, despite some defections from the armed forces to the rebellion, and that the destruction of the cities and the killing of civilians have proceeded apace. “The biggest concern,” Mr. Brahimi says mournfully, “is that one day Syrians and everyone else will wake up to find that Syria has been completely destroyed.”

Unwilling to relent

Does an exit remain for the carnage that has claimed over 100,000 lives? Neither side in the conflict is genuine about a ceasefire and a peace process. Mr. Brahimi called for a four-day ceasefire over the Id al-Adha holiday, which was accepted by all parties. But it did not hold. The Assad regime believes that it has the upper hand on the ground, with the rebels defeated in several strongholds along their logistical supply chain (notably when the regime took back Al Qusayr and Homs). The local geo-politics has also altered to Mr. Assad’s favour. The Gezi Park protests in Turkey as well as the revival of the Kurdish resistance have dampened the Erdogan government’s neo-Ottoman policy. The new emir of Qatar has had to drawdown the ambitions of the small emirate as their ally has fallen in Egypt and as their old rivalry with Saudi Arabia has given the advantage to the latter. The Syrian opposition, on the other hand, is undaunted as Saudi Arabia presses its advantage amongst them with its funds and as the North Atlantic states continue to give verbal support to their ambitions.

Sucked into the vortex

The powers that live far from the region (the U.S. and Russia) play their Cold War type antics in Syria, whose neighbours will have to suffer the consequences of its social haemorrhage. Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are being sucked into the vortex of the civil war, says Mr. Brahimi. But they are not the only ones who will suffer. “Remember 11 September 2001,” asks Mr. Brahimi chillingly. “That was the direct result of the neglect of the conflict in Afghanistan.” The U.S. and Russia have committed themselves to a
15125371process that is called Geneva II, whose meeting has been repeatedly postponed because, as Mr. Brahimi notes, “the conditions for starting that conference with a reasonable chance of success are not there yet.” The reason Mr. Brahimi did not create a peace plan over the course of the year is that he believes Mr. Annan’s plan is sufficient. It is not the lack of a peace plan that stops the process; it is the lack of trust between the parties to agree to any plan. A U.S.-Russia meeting in The Hague next week is unlikely to result in any forward motion.

If the far powers (U.S./Russia) cannot or will not broker such a peace, two other blocs exist for the task. One of them, the Syria Contact Group (Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), worked in 2012 with no support from the international community. In fact, the U.S. and the Russians consistently undermined it. With the turmoil in Egypt and Turkey, and with an ascendant Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely that the Contact Group will be revived. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of the Saudi Intelligence Directorate, travelled to Moscow to insert the Kingdom into the process but returned with nothing concrete. It is a sign that Riyadh wants to have a seat at the table with Moscow and Washington, rather than be part of a regional platform.

If the regional players have failed, convulsed by the implosion of the Arab Spring, and the far powers are uninterested in a foundation for peace, it is perhaps appropriate for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to send envoys to both the Assad regime and the opposition. India could play a crucial role in such an endeavour.

India’s advantage

The Syrian government and the opposition see India as a sober party. India’s votes at the U.N. have depended on the merits of each vote rather than based on partisan support in one direction or another. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement at the 2012 NAM meeting in Tehran set out a course that appeals to all sides: “India supports popular aspirations for a democratic and pluralistic order. Nevertheless, such transformations cannot be prompted by external intervention, which exacerbate the suffering of ordinary citizens.” Verbal support is no longer enough. India needs to push for a NAM, a BRICS delegation or a Sino-Indian delegation to visit all sides and press for a ceasefire and a new peace process. It is the kind of initiative that Mr. Brahimi needs, anything to revive the dialogue and prevent Syria from slipping into a social coma.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013).

A version of this article originally ran in The Hindu.