Syria: a response to my critics

By Jamie

12 September 2012

A guest post by Jamie Allinson, responding to As'ad AbuKhalil's critique (part 1, 2, 3, 4) of his New Left Project article on the revolution in Syria, 'Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but Popular Revolution'.

As'ad AbuKhalil has issued a four-part critique of my piece 'Neither Riyadh nor Tehran' on the blog of the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar. This response mostly comprises laboured invective and repetition of points I covered in the original article—such as that the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are interfering in the Syrian revolution, that there is a debate within the Syrian opposition about the military strategy, that arbitrary killings have been carried out by the FSA, the predominance of religious slogans in the revolution, the position of women and so on.

AbuKhalil musters his most direct engagement with what I actually said when he charges with me with 'blatant lying' in my interpretation of an opinion piece in Al-Akhbar. A foolhardy move for the "Angry Arab" to make, given that his entire critique revolves around a (presumably deliberate) misrepresentation of my argument—a misrepresentation that would in AbuKhalil's hyperbolic prose no doubt be rendered a flagrant deception, outrageous invention, scurrilous fabrication or the like. AbuKhalil has spent four articles arguing against my supposed claim that the Syrian revolution is a 'leftist revolution', whatever that means. Nowhere have I written this phrase or made this argument. AbuKhalil simply made it up, attributed it to me and satisfied himself writing four articles directed against this argument of his own invention.

AbuKhalil’s invocation of this straw man indicates not only an inability to engage with an opponent’s real argument, but also the deep political flaw at the heart of his own. I wrote not that the Syrian revolution was a 'leftist' one under leftist leadership, but rather that it was a popular revolution in which leftists were obliged to intervene from a position of unambiguous support. AbuKhalil seems to be unable to distinguish between the two, perhaps imagining that there is such a thing as a purely 'leftist' revolution subject to the appropriate criteria in Los Angeles or London and that anything else is not good enough. What I argued was that the Syrian revolution (as AbuKhalil accepts) began for the same reasons as the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni revolutions and against the same blend of nepotistic, neoliberal capital and tyrannical state that has disfigured most of the Arab world for a generation or more.

Where we seem to differ is my argument that the FSA arose as a defence mechanism of that revolution, not simply as a machination of Gulf and Western powers and that the revolution remains a popular one as evidenced by the continuing demonstrations and self-activity of the Syrian masses. Nowhere did AbuKhalil counter my evidence for these points, except to dismiss Anand Gopal's reports on the grounds that Gopal is a comrade of mine. I am very proud of this fact, and that such a comrade has actually made the effort to enter the Syrian war zone and find out what's going on. AbuKhalil presumably thinks that either Gopal made up what he describes in those reports, or that the people he spoke to did.

AbuKhalil says that Syrians will be unmoved by what either I or my opponents write. Perhaps he is correct.  Given that my piece was expressly directed as an intervention on the English-speaking left, it doesn’t seem much of a criticism to make. Nonetheless, at least some Syrians did take enough interest in my argument to translate it into Arabic and circulate it. I say this not to present an image of self-important authenticity that would permit me to declare who is fit to comment on Syria – I’ll leave that to As’ad AbuKhalil – but to demonstrate that the arguments I make are not simply the irrelevant scribblings of some who knows ‘as much about Syria as Trotsky did about New York in his address to the workers and peasants of the Bronx’. Indeed, I would stress that my argument is neither particularly original nor really mine: it is simply based on the position of leftist activists in the Syrian revolution, examples of whom can be found here, here and here.

It is in his treatment of such Syrian leftist activists on the ground that AbuKhalil’s response reaches its nadir. AbuKhalil accuses me of a ‘victory parade’ in presenting the work of the Syrian Revolutionary Left (incidentally, their paper is an offline one, the link I posted having been to a PDF version of the one they distribute) as steering 'the revolution towards the global Permanent Revolution.' This is tosh. Anyone who read my original piece can see that I wrote nothing of the sort – I argued instead that Western leftists should do what they could to support this small group, fighting against the Assad regime and those very same dangers of imperialism and sectarianism with which AbuKhalil charges me. They are indeed a handful. What is AbuKhalil going to do help change that, to increase the space for progressive, anti-sectarian and anti-imperialist politics in the Syrian revolution? To condemn the Syrian revolution because of its allegedly sectarian and pro-imperialist character only then to mock anti-sectarian and anti-imperialist Syrian revolutionaries is shabby stuff.  Shabby stuff indeed.

AbuKhalil’s bad faith on this issue reflects his wider position. He informs us that he opposes the Syrian regime and calls for ‘its immediate overthrow’. Well, in the abstract we can all call for whatever we like. In the face of the actually existing overthrow of the Syrian regime by its people, AbuKhalil’s position amounts to calling for its overthrow at some unspecified point in the future, at the hands of people vetted by him for approval. I assume of course that someone committed to the immediate overthrow of the Syrian regime, and witnessing what he acknowledges to have been a ‘promising popular uprising’ would bend every sinew to aid its victory, and only leave the field when it was completely clear that all was lost. With whom in Syria did AbuKhalil conduct such work and what did they do to forfeit their promise in his eyes? Perhaps AbuKhalil should dissolve the Syrian people and elect a new one.

There is an old quotation from Lenin that it has become a cliche to use in circumstances such as these, and which I therefore avoided mentioning in my original article. However, since it seems not to have reached AbuKhalil, amongst others, it bears repeating here:

'To imagine that social revolution is conceivable … without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism", and another, somewhere else and says, "We are for imperialism", and that will be a social revolution!…

Whoever expects a "pure" social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.

Jamie Allinson is a researcher specialising in Middle East politics

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18 Comments on "Syria: a response to my critics"

By qunfuz, on 12 September 2012 - 13:11 |

an excellent rejoiner to someone who needs to be deflated. your original article was also excellent. please keep writing.

By Binh, on 12 September 2012 - 20:00 |

The truth is the Angry Arab had no counterargument; instead he spun webs of conspiracy theories and harvested a lot of imaginary hay for his Allinson strawman. His piece was one of the most terrible things I’ve ever tried to read on the Syrian revolution. At least Syrian state media “reports” are short and to the point.

By James Arnold, on 12 September 2012 - 20:38 |

Jamie: In your original article, I believe you misrepresented Patrick Seale when you said:

“The charges laid by, amongst others, Charles Glass and Patrick Seale, are that the Free Syrian Army is trained, funded and armed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia (leading to an increase in Islamist influence within its ranks) as the co-conspirators of the USA and Turkey. ...  It is this weaponry that accounts for the recent boldness of the rebels, and the likely demise of the current regime will be a victory for the suppliers of this ordinance and not the Syrian people.”

Seale claims, in the article you link to, that the Gulf states have “pledged $100m to the opposition, to enable it to pay its fighters and buy arms”, and that “[t]he US has no intention of getting involved in a war in Syria itself, but it is said to be co-ordinating the flow of weapons and intelligence to the rebels”. However, this seems to me very far from what you have said above.

Indeed, Seale’s core argument is that the conflict has the potential to carry on, spiralling out of control into a prolonged civil war that could entrench sectarianism (a point that is somewhat orthogonal to the question of the composition of the opposition fighters, which is what you focus on). This would be a disaster scenario, both for Syria and for other countries in the region. Wanting to avoid such a scenario, Seale suggests following something like the Kofi Annan plan, to “demilitarise the conflict and bring maximum pressure on both sides to negotiate.” That sounds sensible to me.

By NB, on 14 September 2012 - 05:21 |

“AbuKhalil’s bad faith on this issue reflects his wider position. He informs us that he opposes the Syrian regime and calls for ‘its immediate overthrow’. Well, in the abstract we can all call for whatever we like. “

Yep, that just about sums up Angry (read Smug) Arab’s position on…well, almost everything.  Really, why is he that big a deal, for potato’s sake?  I honestly tried to read everything by him, taking into consideration the rapturous ravings from certain quarters about his analysis and his rhetorical style that seem to me to be nothing more profound than gussied up sloganeering.  He is all sound (not even fury despite the moniker), signifying very little.  This is especially true of his recent rants on Syria attacking straw men.  I’ve yet to read anything by him on Syria that makes sense or clarifies anything or at the very least is food for thought.  I have, however, read quite a few compelling pieces with viewpoints I don’t necessarily agree with, but they seem to be making honest effort to understand a messy situation and suggest ways to deal with it.  Abu Khalil, meanwhile, is doing what he does best – frothing and foaming at the mouth just by calling for storming the Bastille.

By Brian S., on 16 September 2012 - 14:22 |

@James Arnold. I don’t see any significant difference between the viewpoint that Allinson attributes to Seale in summary form and the argument Seale actually articulates: “the opposition – of which the most formidable element is the Muslim Brothers – is waging an urban guerrilla war backed by outside powers.”

Seale is one of a number of commentators who have long argued the case for a negotiated resolution to the Syrian conflict: in my view they were extremely naive in thinking that there was any prospect of the Assad regime entering such a process in good faith, but back in April it was worth giving the UN ceasefire a chance, in the hope that it might provide a breathing space in which the civilian opposition could regroup. But that prospect was definitively shattered with the Houla massacre in May.
I can’t see any serious prospect for meaningful negotiations in the present situation. And there seem to be increasingly few people in the Syrian opposition who have this hope. 

In July Michel Kilo, an historic leader of the Syrian left and long-standing advocate of a negotiated solution, announced after his visit to Moscow as head of a delegation from the Syrian Democratic Forum “we don’t want to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. Three weeks ago, he officially declared war on the people of Syria.” Last month Kilo told L’Humanite: “The solution now is for Syrians to defeat the regime through armed struggle.” I am afraid he is right.

By James Arnold, on 17 September 2012 - 02:32 |


The bit you quote still does not say what Jamie Allison claims Seale said. It does say that the “Free Syrian Army is trained, funded and armed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia (leading to an increase in Islamist influence within its ranks)”; or that these Gulf States are “co-conspirators of the USA and Turkey”; or that “this weaponry… accounts for the recent boldness of the rebels”; and it certainly doesn’t claim the demise of the regime is “likely”.

Indeed, one point Seale and other knowledgable commentators about Syria have made is that the regime is unlikely to be defeated at the situation currently stands. This somewhat invalidates your suggestion. It is fine *calling* for the downfall of Assad, but as it is unlikely this is not a real proposal.

At present the Assad regime have not indicated any willingness to enter into negotiations, I grant. But then, international pressure has not really been brought to bear on the Assad regime. A key point made by Seale and others who argue for some kind of negotiated settlement is that Western governments need to ratchet up the pressure on the Assad regime (and that doesn’t just mean rhetorically, but actually taking punitive measures against them). Plenty of measures have been suggested that stop far short of materially supporting the insurgency, and thus fuelling the conflict (I won’t run through them, as these points have been made over and over by several commentators).

But regardless of whether Seale is right, my specific complaint, to reiterate, was that Jamie misrepresented Seale. You haven’t convinced me otherwise.

By Brian S., on 17 September 2012 - 11:34 |

@James Arnold
James, I guess the issue of whether Allinson misrepresents Patrick Seale or not is a subsidiary one, so let’s agree to disagree. I don’t see most of those who press the case for a negotiated solution (e.g. Jonathan Steele) coupling it with a call for “ratcheting up the pressure” - on the contrary they complain that the US has tried to apply too much rhetorical pressure and thereby alienated Russia. In his most recent piece ( Seale refers to the US “sabotaging Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria”.He doesn’t elaborate on what he means by this, but I can’t read it in any other way than as a reiteration of the Steele et al. argument. True, he goes on to call for ” a ceasefire imposed on both sides, followed by a negotiation and the formation of a national government to oversee a transition.” But apart from the use of the word “imposed” (how or by by whom he doesn’t say) this seems to be just further repetition of the “negotiations” illusion.
I take your point that the FSA currently lacks the capacity to overthrow the regime. That seems to leave only two ways out of the current impasse - somebody’s “boots on the ground” (disasterous in my view, but it won’t happen anyway) or provision of weaponry to the FSA to allow them to block the regime’s use of armour and airpower to attack civilian populations. Sure, there are other ideas in the wind (like the creation of a “zone of safety”) but I haven’t seen anyone make a credible case for them as a durable solution.

By James Arnold, on 19 September 2012 - 11:40 |


I am not knowledgable enough about the situation in Syria to comment on possible likely solutions, which is why I defer to people who ARE knowledgable and creditable commentators, such as Patrick Seale, Jonathan Steele and Charles Glass. However, I will make a couple of points.

You say that pursuing a negotiated solution does not involved putting pressure on the Assad regime, according to such commentators. But that’s just false. Sticking with Jonathan Steele, he consistently mentions using economic and diplomatic pressure to influence them here:

You say that Patrick Seale seems to endorse the Annan plan, but Annan himself has said it relies on “serious, purposeful and united international pressure” (quoted here:

What I have seen no one effectively deal with is the central argument against funding and arming the FSA, namely, that it could well lead to prolonged sectarian civil war, like we saw in Lebanon, perhaps worse. That is the worst outcome I can perceive, and so the argument is a pretty strong one, but I have seen no commentator give a convincing refutation of it.

By Brian S., on 20 September 2012 - 19:16 |

Hi James - I don’t see any call for serious pressure being applied in this article of Steele or in anything else he has written. Indeed, his main thrust is to criticise the Security Council resolution advanced by the West because it contained the most mild of hints that there might be a follow up if Assad ignored the resolution. Instead he favours an utterly toothless version in order to keep the Russians happy. You’re quite right about Annan - he did recognise the need for serious pressure if a UNSC resolution was to be of any value - but Steele, Seale, et al do not (and regularily misrepresent Annan’s views)
On your second point: obviously not sufficient space to address this properly here. But in a nutshell: what is needed to break the Syria deadlock is not more small arms but weaponry that would allow the FSA to at least partially counter Assad’s armour and air power. Even a small number of such weapons would provide protection for civilian populations currently being bombed at will and make Syrian pilots think more closely about what side they are on.

The current influence of foreign jihadists arises from the fact that they are the only people currently able to fill this vacuum (through their skills with explosives); the growth in sectarian attitudes that is taking place at the moment arises from the fact that Assad’s sectarian butchers can shelter cozily behind the Syrian Army’s firepower. Shift the asymmetry of this conflict and you would reduce the pressure from both of these forces, and allow the civilian oppositionscope to counter-balance the militarisation of the struggle. The best way to ensure a bitter sectarian conflict developing is to allow the current stalemate to fester on. The only way to reduce the dangers is to expedite the downfall of the regime - and that means the victory of the FSA forces.

If you are seriously interested in Syria and haven’t done so already I’d urge you to read the ICG report: East North Africa/Iraq Syria Lebanon/Syria/128-syrias-mutating-conflict.pdf
This doesn’t provide any easy answers or reassuring assessments for either side in this discussion - but its knowledgeable, intelligent, and sobre.

By James Arnold, on 22 September 2012 - 22:37 |


That is a very spurious representation of Steele’s criticism of the Western veto. His criticism is as follows:

“And then there’s Russia and China. The Western media have largely caricatured them as defenders of the regime thanks to their vetoes of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria. But in the days before the vote on 4 February diplomats in New York had been working with two separate drafts, trying to find a compromise text. Far from siding with Assad, the Russian draft differed little from the Moroccan one the West supported. It condemned the authorities’ ‘disproportionate use of force’. It called for an immediate ceasefire. The two substantive differences were that the Russian draft said the political process should start ‘without preconditions’ while the Western-backed draft supported the Arab League’s call for Assad to transfer power to his vice-president before a dialogue could begin. In the event of non-compliance, the Western draft threatened ‘further measures’. The Russians had no such clause. For reasons that are still not clear, the West decided to ambush the Russians and Chinese and put the Moroccan draft to a sudden vote just before Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was due to visit Assad to conduct negotiations. The West knew that in its regime-changing form the Russians and Chinese would have no choice but to veto the resolution. If the Russians had been less diplomatic, they might have put their own draft to a sudden vote. We might then today be shouting at the West for vetoing a solution.”

That criticism seems quite reasonable to me. For example, why call for Assad to step down if that will make negotiations for a ceasefire more difficult?

In the article above Steele quotes favourably various opposition figures and analysts who argue some form of pressure should be applied to Assad regime, but who stop short of endorsing Western military intervention on the side of the rebels. Elsewhere he has argued there should be an arms embargo against the regime ( He also here makes a similar criticism of the Western approach:

“A few days later, Russia circulated a draft resolution at the UN in New York to endorse the new approach. It urged member-states to work in the co-operative spirit of the Geneva text, extend the UN monitors’ team in Syria and press for a ceasefire. Then came the spanner. Britain, France and the US proposed a rival resolution with the one-sided elements that provoked earlier Russian and Chinese vetoes – punishment of Assad if he did not comply, threats of new sanctions, no word of pressure on the opposition and veiled hints of eventual military force by referring to chapter seven of the UN charter.”

He further points out that it was Western failure to keep squarely behind the Geneva resolution that caused Annan to resign:

“The resolution was a disaster, and it is no wonder that in explaining his resignation (in a Financial Times article on Friday) Annan highlighted the security council’s failure to endorse the Geneva recommendations. Annan remains too much of a diplomat to take sides openly but his disappointment with the big western states for their “finger-pointing and name-calling” of Russia and China over Syria is clear.”

Again, all of this seems pretty reasonable to me. What do you think is the flaw in his arguments as quoted?

On the best way to avoid a civil war, as I said, I am not particularly knowledgable, hence trust the opinion of an array of very astute and deeply knowledgable commentators. I don’t know what makes you so certain that you have a better understanding of the on the ground situation. One can propose virtually anything and make it *seem* plausible. The only way you can tell is if you have long experience of the region, and sound politically judgement, both of which e.g. Steele has. Nevertheless, I will read the ICG report, as you suggest.


By Brian S., on 24 September 2012 - 17:05 |

Hi James - Steele’s comments on the 4 February resolution submitted to the Security council are very inaccurate. It was NOT the original “Moroccan draft”  but a substantially amended text; it did NOT call for Assad to step down, but simply referred in positive terms to ” the League of Arab States’ 22 January 2012 decision to facilitate a Syrian-led political transition”

Now it seems to be the case that the Arab League plan had called for Assad to hand power over to his Vice-President (not exactly “regime change”), but by providing this highly oblique reference the resolution clearly signalled that even this was open to negotiation. Steele claims that “In the event of non-compliance, the Western draft threatened ‘further measures’. The Russians had no such clause.”  What the western resolution stated was “in the event of non-compliance, to consider further measures”, As I said in my last post, Russia (and Steele) wanted a resolutoin that was entirely toothless (“we’d like you to do this, but if you’d rather not , don’t worry, we won’t do anything about it”: hardly “ratcheting up the pressure”)

Steele describes this as a “regime changing” resolution, but for some reason fails to quote the clear statement in its preamble: “nothing in this resolution authorizes measures under Article 42 of the Charter” (ie military action was explicitly excluded).
Russia blocked S/2012/77 not because it contained unreasonable western demands, but because they supported the Assad regime. Read the text of the resolution and make your own judgement:{65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9}/Syria S2012 77.pdf

Steele’s treatment of Annan’s final statement displays a similar degree of distortion.
Anna:n “For Russia, China and Iran this means they must take concerted efforts to persuade Syria’s leadership to change course and embrace a political transition, realising the current government has lost all legitimacy. A first move by the government is vital, as its intransigence and refusal to implement the six-point peace plan has been the greatest obstacle to any peaceful political process, ensuring the distrust of the opposition in proposals for a negotiated transition. ... It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office. ” (

Now , would you have expected that by reading Steele’s account?

I could do on, but this discussion seems to have shrunk to just you and me: if you are interested in continuing it, and no one else joins in,Iwe could shift to an email dialogue, which would give us more flexibility. If you are interested, I am contactable on : .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Whatever your preference, I’ve enjoyed this serious and reasoned discussion - Brian.

By James Arnold, on 24 September 2012 - 21:39 |


I disagree on the 4 February resolution, which has been widely interpreted as endorsing the Arab League plan for Assad to step down and elections to be held in 6 months. This is presumably based on point 7 of the resolution, which “[f]ully supports in this regard the League of Arab States’ 22 January 2012 decision to facilitate a Syrian-led political transition”.

Furthermore, the July resolution vetoed by Russia and China contains threats of new sanctions against Syria, as well as an appeal to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which can be interpreted (although Western states deny it) as a “veiled hint of eventual military force”, as Steele said. Personally, I am certainly opposed to military intervention, but also strongly against the use of economic sanctions. One only need recall the horrendously devastating effect of economic sanctions on Iraq to baulk at this suggestion. Pressuring the Syrian leadership to commit to a ceasefire and negotiations must find some other form.  You suggest that Steele only supports a “toothless” resolution, but I think it is these particular “teeth” that he is keen to extract. Measures can still be taken, such as diplomatic pressure applied to Syria, as well as an arms embargo against the regime which, as I pointed out, Steele supports, though you neglected this point.

With regard to the Annan plan, you left out Annan’s criticism of the US, UK, France, Turkey Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who he says must press “the opposition to embrace a fully inclusive political process – that will include communities and institutions currently associated with the government.” Also, Steele is quite possibly right that the “finger-pointing and name-calling” remark was aimed at the Western states. Granted, Steele should have indicated that Annan believes a solution requires Assad to step down. I am not sure that I agree with Annan on this point. As I already said, why call for Assad to step down if that will make a ceasefire and negotiations more difficult?

If you want to continue the dialogue via email instead, mine is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). But I am equally happy to continue it on here.


By Brian S., on 25 September 2012 - 15:11 |

Hi James - I’ll make a brief response to your points here, but I may send you a more detailed email in a few days.On the 4 February resolution, I did point out in my previous post that it made positive reference to the Arab League plan, and what that was reported to have contained (I have not been able to find an authoritative text anywhere.) But my point was:

1. It did not contain an explicit demand for Assad to step down (something Steele either isn’t aware of, or chooses to ignore)

2. Without such an explicit provision, the requirement for Assad to step down would not have been an obligatory provision of the resolution. I think that this limited , general reference to the Arab League plan was very probably a signal (we are in the world of diplomacy here, where words are as much signals as overt communication) that this element was being left open to negotiation between Assad and the Arab League. But whatever the case, the simple fact is that the resolution did not create an obligation for Assad to step down to be in compliance, so Steele’s claim regarding this is false.

Its true that the 19 July resolution contains a reference to Chapter 7- but it had to do that to propose ANY form of action against Syria (even your “arms embargo” woud have to draw its authority from Article 7): but Chapter 7 clearly differentiates between “measures not involving the use of armed force” (article 41) and any form of military action (article 42). The July resolution (para 14) clearly places the threat of further action in the event of non-compliance under article 41 (non military measures). In fact, if you wanted to enforce your arms embargo, rather than just suggest it as a nice idea, you would have to invoke article 42.)

In my view, the overwhelming thrust of Annan’s criticisms are directed agains the Russians and Chinese, just as they are in the Syrian context directed against the regime . I accept that is open to interpretation (certainly one might make a case that it was directed against both sides) but for Steele to just assert, without argumentation, that it was directed against the West is just plain dishonest.

I don’t have space here to respond to most of your other points. But a word on the “teeth” you are prepared to envisage:

“Diplomatic pressure” against a regime that is in the process of destroying its two principal cities? Pull the other one. An “arms embargo”? The regime is not short of arms (including stocks of chemical weapons) : it only lacks the capacity to deploy what it already has in abundance because of the unreliability of much of its armed forces. And how would you   enforce it this against its allies Russia and Iran?
Please feel free to respond in your preferred medium.

By James Arnold, on 25 September 2012 - 20:31 |


With regard to 1 and 2, if Steele is wrong, then so are the preponderence of newspaper reports I have seen on this. So it is not a ‘distortion’ unique to him. In fact, I see no reason to think he, or the rests of the journalists reporting on this, are wrong. If the resolution “fully” supports the Arab League proposals, then it clearly supports the requirement for Assad to step down which is part of them. Nothing vague or ambiguous about that, and I don’t know why you’re pretending otherwise. Your points 1 and 2 are just a way of trying to evade the obvious.

On the 19th July resolution: As you well know (as you’ve clearly look at Chapter 7 of the UN Charter), Article 42 states that if the SC should “consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate” they can invoke Article 42. By labelling the Syrian situation as “a threat to international peace and security”, bringing it under Chapter 7, immediately implementing measures under Article 41, they open up Article 42 as a plausible next step should they decide to escalate things.

On Annan: It is certainly not the case that the “overwhelming thrust” of Annan’s criticism are directed at the Russians and Chinese, just as it is certainly not the case that the overwhelming thrust are directed at the Western states. But Steele doesn’t claim that. He says that he was clearly disappointed with the Western states. Nothing about absolving Russia and China of any responsibility. It is you who is trying to portray Annan’s criticisms as directed at one side in particular, not Steele.

On your last paragraph: First of all, pressure has to be brought to bear on BOTH sides. The rebels have, after all, committed crimes as well, and as long as sections of the rebels remain committed to deposing Assad, they will not be able to enter into effective negotiations with the regime. It is the principal backers of the rebels (the West and Gulf States) that need to convince them of this. But they have not been doing so. Instead, you get people like Hillary Clinton making declarations like: “The US will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end.” Not helpful, if the aim is to achieve a ceasefire and negotiations (the aim of Annan plan). And yes, there is a responsibility on Russia and China to exert diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime to agree to such a programme. I would say that they could be more critical than they have, certainly. They have criticised Syria for “disproportionate use of force”, which is, incidentally, stronger language than the West is willing to accept when Israel carries out atrocities, like the massacre in Gaza in 2008-9. But they could go much further, without agreeing to the West’s proposed policy of economic sanctions. I don’t know why you think tougher diplomacy (which means international criticism, threats of long-term damage to relations with other countries, and so on), and an arms embargo INCLUDING Russia and China against Syria wouldn’t be effective (it seems like you’re dismissive of all but the most radical measures, with little argument). But at any rate, it strikes me as obvious that such measures should be tried before more radical ones are even contemplated.


By Brian S., on 26 September 2012 - 14:38 |

I will one of these days get around to sending this threatened email - but in the meantime:
You are completely wrong to suggest that Steele’s views reflect any sort of consensus among western commentators. Even his own colleagues on the Guardian don’t agree with him: see for the clearest and most forceful statement, in which the Middle East editor Ian Black says more or less exactly what I have said.Or try for a similar view from the Diplomatic editor Julian Borger.
On the 19 July resolution: sure Chapter 7 article 41 says what you indicate - but the resolution does not invoke that: it explicitly provides only for a response under article 41, so there could be no automatic progress from non-military to military measures: that would require a further determination and resolution by the Security Council (which Russia and China could block). And as I’ve pointed out (and you don’t respond to) any form of material action in response to Syrian non-compliance - including your “arms embargo” would have to come under Chapter 7. Simple equation: no Chapter 7 - no substantive action of any sort. (other than being rude to the Assad family)
Steele is also disingenuous in another respect: he characterises the 19 July resolution as a rejection of the the Geneva agreement with “no word of pressure on the opposition” 19 July resolution:  Preamble: “Condemning the armed violence in all its forms, including by armed opposition groups” Para 5: “Demands that all parties in Syria, including the opposition, immediately cease all armed violence in all its forms,” Throughout the text the phrase “all parties including the opposition” repeatedly occurs. What Steele also doesn’t tell us is that, apart from the Section 41 provision, the Resolution is entirely based on the Geneva Communique , the text of which is even appended to it, replete with references to obligations “on all parties” (not a whisper of Assad having to step down). I repeat: the only form of Resolution acceptable to Russia and Steele is an entirely toothless one that relies on the goodwill of Assad for its implementation.
On the issue of the thrust of Annan’s s statement. You assert “It is you who is trying to portray Annan’s criticisms as directed at one side in particular, not Steele.” However Steele refers to Annan’s “disappointment with the BIG WESTERN STATES for their “finger-pointing and name-calling”. Where exactly do you find anything in Steele to suggest that Annan might also have had a complaint or two against the Russians?
As to the actual thrust of Annan’s statement: on two of the three key issues underlying the Security Council disagreements he takes a position contrary to that of the Russians:
1. Who bears the primary responsibility for the continuing violence: “the government, realising there would be no consequences if it returned to an overt military campaign, reverted to using heavy weapons on towns. ...  “A first move by the government is vital, as its intransigence and refusal to implement the six-point peace plan has been the greatest obstacle to any peaceful political process, ensuring the distrust of the opposition in proposals for a negotiated transition. “
2. on the basis for a political settlement:” It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office” . Certainly the thrust of these remarks is against the Russian side of the argument .
I reject your suggestion that there is some sort of moral equivalence between the Regime and the Opposition . First in their objectives: fighting to end oppression vs fighting to perpetuate oppression; secondly in their actions: sure the militarisation of the conflict has led the FSA to do some nasty things: but the balance of the criminality is overwhelmingly on the side of the regime: hard to put a figure on something like this, but I’d plump for c.98%.
Yes, I am dismissive of measures that would have no effect in an increasingly desparate situation (they make rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic look like deeply purposeful activity). Syria has been subject to “diplomatic pressure” for 18 months - and all that has happened is that killing of civilians by small arms fire has been replaced by killing with shells and bombs.
You say that I make “little argument” - but you just pass over the arguments I do make.
As I said previously: a regime that is prepared to bomb and shell its own cities (including its capital) is not a strong candidate for susceptibility to “diplomatic pressure” ; an “arms embargo” is not going to have any effect on a state that is already abundantly armed and has a complete monopoly on heavy weapons (unless you are going to apply the embargo to the rebels, in which case you will simply be underwriting the victory of the regime.)

By James Arnold, on 27 September 2012 - 00:18 |


This will be my last response on here, as you persist in misrepresenting what I have said, what Steele says, what the resolutions say, and more, and I see no point in continually correcting your misrepresentations. If you want me to read or engage any further, please email me.

“You are completely wrong to suggest that Steele’s views reflect any sort of consensus among western commentators.”

I did not make this claim, rather I stated that “the preponderence of newspaper reports” support one of Steele’s points, namely, that the 4 February resolution does straightforwardly imply a requirement for Assad to step down (as it “fully endorses” the Arab League proposals for a political transition, which includes Assad stepping down). Furthermore, the US and UK have independently stated that a political solution requires Assad to leave. Again, I will reiterate that this stance is counter

“…the resolution ... explicitly provides only for a response under article 41, so there could be no automatic progress from non-military to military measures…”

Another misrepresentation. I did not say there would be an “automatic progress”, but endorsed Jonathan Steele’s claim that the resolution makes a veiled threat of escalation. And that is true. Because of the clause saying that if the measures under Article 41 are considered inadequate, Article 42 can be invoked, that creates a de facto basis for the West to intervene militarily whilst claiming that they are respecting international law. They wouldn’t actually be in accordance with international law, of course, but when has that ever stopped them before? Indeed, the US, UK and France went well beyond the remit of UNSCR 1973 in their intervention in Libya, but managed to convince people that their actions were legally authorised.

In fact, I think that even now, when there is absolutely no legal basis for it, we could possibly see a Libya-style intervention led by America after the US Presidential elections if Assad is still in power. This is perhaps less likely following the attack on the US consulate in Libya recently, but it is still a possibility. Most importantly, the cause of the hawks would certainly only be aided by a resolution that brought the conflict under Chapter 7 (which, to repeat, does not straightforwardly authorise military intervention, but because of the clause I mentioned could be used by the West to fabricate a legal basis for intervention).

“And as I’ve pointed out (and you don’t respond to) any form of material action in response to Syrian non-compliance - including your “arms embargo” would have to come under Chapter 7.”

I cited, and will endorse, Steele’s call for an arms embargo, which would require the conflict being brought under Chapter 7. However, I would support this ONLY under the circumstances outlined by Steele:

“The priority is an arms embargo. Russia should urge Assad to withdraw his heavy weaponry from cities and release detainees if the opposition also halts its attacks. Moscow must make it clear that Russian military supplies will cease if he does not comply. Iran should make similar commitments. In order to press the rebels to compromise, the west should publicly rule out military intervention under any circumstance and urge Qatar and Saudi Arabia to stop funding the arms race.” (

Hence the worry about Chapter 7 Article 42 that I have at present would not apply, as military intervention would be explicitly ruled out. And so the supposed inconsistency is a fabrication of yours, which you would know if you had read the Steele article carefully.

“Steele is also disingenuous in another respect: he characterises the 19 July resolution as a rejection of the the Geneva agreement with “no word of pressure on the opposition”.”

Steele is not being disingenuous, you are. Although the text does declare that the rebels refrain from violence, it is entirely one-sided in that it includes NO measures to secure compliance from the rebels. In fact, the only statement under the section COMPLIANCE is precisely the major difference from the Geneva text: “[The UNSC] [d]ecides that, if the Syrian authorities have not fully complied with paragraph 4 above within ten days, then it shall impose immediately measures under Article 41 of the UN Charter”. This is not a small difference, it makes the proposal entirely different in nature, as it is the only measure to enforce compliance, it is directly entirely at the regime with no measures applicable to the rebels, and (as I argued above) it could possibly be distorted by Western states to construct a legal basis for military intervention.

“Where exactly do you find anything in Steele to suggest that Annan might also have had a complaint or two against the Russians?”

Notice the striking difference from your last statement, the one that I was challenging: “Steele… just assert[ed], without argumentation, that it [the Annan plan] was directed against the West [which] is just plain dishonest.” I pointed out that this statement was false – Steele did not claim this – so you switched to the question of whether Steele highlighted the complaints against the Russians. I could argue that Steele is right to focus on Annan’s complaints against the West (just as a Russian journalist would be right to focus on Annan’s complaints against the Russian government), but I don’t want to get sidetracked into that. It is sufficient to point out that to try and evade my criticism you had to substantially change your claim.

I don’t want to spend lots of time dwelling over the Annan statement in the FT: obviously as a diplomat his language was indirect and balanced. As I read it, it is fairly even-handed in its criticism both of Russia and China, and of the major Western powers. He explicitly calls for a political dialogue rather than continued military conflict, which is more in line with the Russian-Chinese position than the Western one, which is to support the civil war as a means to overthrow Assad. His reference to “finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council” is also probably directed at the West. He rightly criticises Russia and China for not being more critical of the Syrian regime, but I think you’re definitely wrong to say that the “overwhelming thrust” is directed against them.

Lastly: “I reject your suggestion that there is some sort of moral equivalence between the Regime and the Opposition.”

The concept of “moral equivalence” (popularised by war criminal Jean Kirkpatrick) is the invention of propagandists, usually deployed to deter criticism of their favoured state, group, etc. There is no such thing as moral equivalence in international affairs. But it should be pointed out that the opposition are not exactly virtuous democrats. As Human Rights Watch have documented, the opposition fighters have been responsible for war crimes, including torture, summary execution, kidnapping and illegal detention, not just of members of the government forces and authorities, but also of civilians. They have also been responsible for sectarian attacks on Shiites and Alawites. See here: and here: .
That’s not to mention the growing members of al-Qaeda and other foreign Islamist groups who have joined, who are, according to the UN, radicalising the rebels, and committing war crimes such as using prisoners to detonate vehicle-borne explosives (

As you say, the Syrian regime is responsible for the large majority of the violence according to, e.g., the International Independent Commission on Syria, and this is consistent with the balance of forces (though I don’t know how you came to your 98% figure – it seems to have been plucked out of the air). But the point isn’t about some crude equivalency, whether moral or numerical. Rather, the point is about de-escalating and de-militarising the conflict. The Syrian regime will only quell their violence when they feel that they are not fighting for their life, and so the rebels must also be made to forego violence in order to reach a situation where serious efforts at negotiations can be made. By materially supporting and arming the rebels, and taking a generally one-sided approach diplomatically, by calling for the Assad regime’s “rule by murder and fear [to] come to an end” (Hillary Clinton), and so on, the West and the Gulf States are exacerbating and prolonging the conflict, not helping to end it. Again, in my view you underestimate the role that diplomatic pressure and threats of terminating relations and applying an arms embargo might have. If Russia and China were to agree to an international arms embargo against the Syrian regime AND the rebels, that would certainly create a better context for negotiations than we have seen so far. Of course the regime still has enough arms to prosecute the conflict in the meanwhile, but it won’t be able to protect itself against potential future disturbances (domestic or international) if it cannot arm itself, so the issue is still crucially important. Severe forms of coercion are not always necessary to put an end to conflict: the US did not need to bomb Jakarta or apply economic sanctions to end the occupation of East Timor, it simply announced that the game was up and that Indonesia wouldn’t receive US support any longer, and the Indonesians withdrew almost immediately. Thus I do not think your dismissive approach to these suggestions is warranted.

As I said, that’s it from me on this forum. If you want me to read or engage any further, please email me.


By James Arnold, on 27 September 2012 - 11:39 |

* This sentence:
“Again, I will reiterate that this stance is counter”
should read:
“Again, I will reiterate that this stance is counterproductive, for the reasons I’ve outlined.”

By Brian S., on 27 September 2012 - 17:03 |

You’re getting very tetchy. Jamie, and I don’t know what on earth Jean Kirkpatrick has to do with this discussion. Part of the problem here is that this medium requires considerable condensation of arguments, which you seem to regard as “misrepresentation” on my part. It wouldn’t be fair of me to respond to your arguments in any detail, as you have indicated that you don’t want to continue the discussion here.
Let me say again, that I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

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