The impression of a region teeming with internecine enmities along bewilderingly archaic ethnic and religious lines hampers understanding of the Middle East. Stephen Gowans’s book on Syria contests this impression powerfully. It focuses on the origins, motivations and interactions of four key actors: U.S. imperialism, secular Arab nationalism, the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist offshoots, and Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism.
The Left in particular should pay attention. As things stand, it is tearing itself apart over how to understand and act on the Syrian conflict. Large swaths are effectively lined up alongside the U.S. and the West in opposition to a “brutal dictator with the blood of ‘his own people’ on his hands” (as though it is less execrable to have the blood of other people’s people on one’s hands).
Gowans’s analysis busts many myths: that the Assad regime is an Alawite dictatorship over Syria’s majority Sunnis; that there is a “democratic opposition” in Syria; that there are “moderate rebels” whom the West can and should support and, above all, that the conflict is over ethnicity and religion. In reality, the Assad regime in 2011 was more democratic than the monarchies allied with the West. The opposition to Assad is largely Islamist. And the idea that conflicts in the Middle East run along sectarian lines is among the “Orientalist depictions of the Global South as a territory riven by ancient inter-communal animosities, necessitating the intervention of the United States.” (p. 31) In reality, the conflict between Tehran and Riyadh has less to do with the arcana of the succession to Muhammad than with “contrary views of the relationship of the Muslim world to its domination by the United States and the West.” (p. 176).
The current war in Syria, Gowans argues, is simply the latest chapter in the U.S.’s long war on the forces of secular Arab nationalism. As the most acute analysts of the Cold War have long understood, the Cold War was a war against all regimes that opposed the more than century-old U.S. project of fostering a world economy complementing its own. While the U.S.S.R., China and other actually existing communisms were the strongest among them, the Cold War had many other targets. That is why a quarter century after its alleged end, so many are speaking of “new” Cold Wars.
Gowans shows that the Baathist regime is the last significant representative of the popular, secular, developmental and welfarist regimes in the region, the U.S. having already dispatched those in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. They had been the modern and progressive response to the encounter with formal and informal colonialism while political Islam was the obscurantist one. Arab nationalism sought to overcome the legacy of colonial underdevelopment and disunity. Such goals clearly stood athwart and narrowed the options of U.S. and western corporations. If allowed to succeed in one country, they posed the danger of setting an example for others. It is this entirely rational opposition between the U.S. imperial project and the opposition to it that underlies the conflict.
If Western governments, well served by a parroting mainstream media, would have us believe otherwise, they are merely carrying forward the long and insalubrious tradition of imperial powers obscuring the ugly truths with myths about the beneficence of their economic motives and equally powerful myths about the irrationality of those who resist them.
The recent targeting of Qatar by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has only increased the importance of Gowans’s careful analysis of the various Islamist forces and shifts in U.S. preferences among them. While Wahhabism is important chiefly for its function in legitimizing the Saudi monarchy, Al Qaeda, its offshoots such as al Nusra, and ISIS are closer to the more modern ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood to which they are formatively connected. On the one hand, this enabled relatively seamless connections between them, ensuring that the “moderate rebel” would remain a myth. On the other, Washington distinguished between the vast majority of these groups, which stood opposed to this or that radical government, and ISIS which “aspired to replace more governments than Washington cared to see replaced” (p. 151) including those in Baghdad and Riyadh.
Like most books, this one has its problems. Three major forces are not considered in the detail they deserve: Russia, Turkey and the Kurds. These are, however, regrettable omissions in this otherwise solid antidote to dominant Western discourses about the Syrian conflict.
Radhika Desai is Professor, Department of Political Studies and director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, University of Manitoba. She has written Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire (2013).
This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (Canada 150).