Is the Syrian Revolution at its End? Is Third Camp Abstentionism Justified? (Part 3)

On Foreign Powers' Support for Liberation Movements




In fact, history is replete with examples of democratic and national liberation movements’ receiving tacit support from adversaries of the regimes against which those rebels were fighting. German imperialism supported the Irish revolutionaries fighting British occupation during WWI; the British supported the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire; France and the USSR lent support to the Spanish Republic in 1936-39; the Allies supported the Tito partisans and the Chinese nationalist forces during WWII; during the same war Nazis lent support to Arab nationalists like Nasser who opposed British occupation; during the Cold War, the USSR lend support to numerous national liberation movements as did Cuba in Latin America; various African governments supported SWAPO and the ANC; nearly all Arab states supported the PLO, etc.


Let’s also take some more current examples: Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad receive substantial political, financial and military support from Iran, Qatar, Turkey and other states; Kashmiri independence fighters receive support from Pakistan and, vice versa; Baloch nationalists receive support from India. We could go on and on with many similar examples. The decisive question is: Does such support by foreign powers necessarily transform these organizations into agents of theses states (as the Israeli, Indian, Pakistani and other governments have been claiming for years)? Of course not! True, the governments of these states have an (obviously negative) influence on the leaderships of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other movements. But does such support transform these movements into agents of these states? No, and it was only reactionaries who have denounced these movements as "agents" of the adversarial power.


Why are such reactionary claims slanderous? Because all these movements which receive aid and support from regimes adversarial to their oppressor authentically have substantial roots in the struggles of the oppressed classes. Therefore, these movements are primarily an expression of the desire of these classes to free themselves from oppression and occupation, and are not fundamentally an expression of the interests of foreign states.


Naturally, Marxists must draw attention to and emphasize the contradictory character of such movements, which have usually been led by petty-bourgeois forces. Naturally, these leaderships have been much more prone to the pressure exerted by their allies, which means that such support undoubtedly constitutes a conservative and negative influence. Marxists always fight against such influence. But the crucial issue here is that such negative influence does not negate the fundamentally popular and progressive character of these liberation struggles led by such forces.


So the question becomes, when does interference and influence of foreign powers transform a liberation movement into an agent of such powers? In our program – The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto – we stated our approach and gave some actual examples.


"Particularly, where authoritarian regimes or the military openly trample on democratic rights, mass movements rise and fight with determination for their rights. Other states and even great imperialist powers try to exploit such domestic crises and are only too happy to expand their influence. The Bolsheviks-Communists support any real movement of the popular masses against the suppression of democratic rights. We reject any influence of reactionary forces and defend the national sovereignty of semi-colonial countries against imperialism. This can not mean that revolutionaries renounce the support of revolutionary-democratic movement. In reality, the imperialist meddling is no help for the revolutionary-democratic struggle, but threatens to undermine it. That is why we have supported progressive liberation struggles of the masses against dictatorships, but at the same time rejected sharply imperialist interventions. (E.g. the struggle of the Bosnians 1992-95, the Kosovo Albanians in 1999, the uprising against the Gaddafi dictatorship in Libya in 2011). Only when the imperialist intervention is becoming the dominant feature of the political situation, revolutionaries must subordinate the democratic struggle to the fight against such an intervention." [1]


In our essay "Liberation Struggles and Imperialist Interference" we dealt with this issue in more detail and discussed it with a number of historical examples. In conclusion we wrote:


"The key is always to concretely analyze whether a given democratic or national liberation struggle becomes entirely subordinate to the imperialist maneuvers and no longer possesses any significant internal dynamic of a workers and peasant liberation struggle. If this is the case, Marxists must change their position and give up critical support for the given national liberation struggle." [2]


We have to now ask: To what degree does such a situation exist in Syria today. In our opinion, this is most certainly not the case with the Syrian rebels. However, another case is that of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which consist mostly of the Kurdish YPG plus a few Syrian-Arab allies. While the Kurdish militias number about 60,000 fighters, their Syrian-Arab allies account for only a few thousand. The SDF forces as a whole are clearly and massively supported by US imperialism in their fight against Daesh. The US is supporting the Kurdish militias with massive air strikes as well as with up to 1,000 American soldiers on the ground. While, in the past, we supported the defense of the Kurdish minority against attacks by Daesh, the situation has now clearly changed. Currently the SDF/YPG – so beloved by the centrist left! – is serving as a counter-revolutionary spearhead for US (as well as Russian) imperialism in order to pacify the Syrian Revolution and divide Syria under auspices of the Great Powers. [3] The SDF/YPG is even volunteering its services to imperialism and, following the conquest of Raqqa, are offering to take Idlib in order to finish off the encircled Syrian revolutionaries! [4] Since the autumn of 2016, the SDF/YPG has been besieging Raqqa and other Arab-populated areas in the service of US imperialism. In such a situation, revolutionaries must not side with them, the imperialist lackeys (i.e., SDF/YPG) but should rather call for their defeat, even if they are fighting against reactionary Daesh forces. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, we refer reader to the recently published article by our comrade Yossi Schwartz. [5]


A similar situation might exist with the so-called Operation Euphrates Shield led by the Turkish army which includes several Syrian rebel militias (again only a few thousands fighters).


Finally, one can test the "agent theory" by simply comparing the deeds of the Syrian rebels with the interests of the foreign powers. The interest of US imperialism is to destroy Daesh, but not to wage a war against Assad. Yes, some small units of the rebels are joining the Kurdish militias in this effort as part of the SDF. But nearly all Syrian rebels refuse to do so and continue the war of liberation against the Assadist forces. Obviously, they are not acting according to US priorities. Turkey's main interests are to fight the Kurdish militias as well as Daesh. Again, yes, some Syrian militias have joined Operation Euphrates Shield, but the bulk of the rebels have not. In other words, the "agent theory" is nothing but disinformation designed to destroy the legitimacy of the Syrian Revolution!


As a side note, we call the reader’s attention to the fact that the same nonsensical “agent theory” is deployed by some ultra-left sects like the Moreonite FLTI. While the latter organization supports the Syrian Revolution – in clear contrast to the abstentionists – they attack all rebel leaderships not only because of their incorrect policy (which, of course, is correct), but they also denounce them as "agents" of foreign powers. In doing so the FLTI unintentionally only helps the enemies of the Syrian Revolution by espousing such unmaterialistic nonsense.


In summary, until now, after six years since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, the vast majority of the Syrian rebels are not fighting under the command of the US or Turkey, and are most certainly not subordinating the struggle against the Assad regime to the geostrategic interests of these foreign powers (i.e., the struggle against Daesh or against the Kurdish YPG).


Of course, we cannot preclude such a development in the future. It is possible that, with the accumulating defeats of the Syrian Revolution, various leaderships of rebel militias may capitulate to the pressure of foreign powers and become "pragmatic." They might be tempted to start serving as tools for advancing the geostrategic interests of foreign powers, in order to save for themselves at least a small part of the post-war order in Syria. Such a development is quite possible and, if it takes place, revolutionaries will have to adapt their assessments and tactics. But Marxists don’t develop tactics based on speculation about future possibilities, but only on the concrete relation of forces and on the current military situation on the ground. And today, most militias can by no means be characterized as being “agents” of foreign powers.


In conclusion, let us state that, for Marxists, it is vital to correctly understand the relationship between liberation struggles and imperialist interference, not only for the case of the Syrian Revolution, but also to be prepared for future developments.


Some years ago we warned: "Such complications, amalgamations of different and contradictory interests in a given military conflict are likely to increase in the future. Why? Because of the increasing rivalry between imperialist powers. Due to this rivalry, all imperialist powers are more and more motivated to interfere in local conflicts and civil wars and to exploit them so as to advance their influence and increase their profits. Unfortunately, this trend is completely ignored by many sectarians who fail to recognize that in addition to the old imperialist powers – in North America, Western Europe, and Japan – there are also new, emerging imperialist powers, in particular Russia and China." [6]


The case of Syria has affirmed this warning and, in the future, there will be even more similar situations. If revolutionaries fail to analyze such developments concretely and correctly, and if they fail to support liberation struggles because of this or that interference by foreign powers, they cease to be revolutionaries and become traitors.




Lenin and Trotsky on Liberation Struggles and Imperialist Interference




Lenin and Trotsky were, of course, aware that, in the epoch of imperialism, the Great Powers will always try to interfere and utilize national and democratic conflicts for their own ends. However, from this they did not conclude that Marxists should automatically drop their support for such democratic and national liberation struggles. Rather, the position taken by Marxists should depends on which factor becomes dominant – the national, democratic liberation struggle or the imperialist war of conquest.


Britain and France fought the Seven Years’ War for the possession of colonies. In other words, they waged an imperialist war (which is possible on the basis of slavery and primitive capitalism as well as on the basis of modern highly developed capitalism). France suffered defeat and lost some of her colonies. Several years later there began the national liberation war of the North American States against Britain alone. France and Spain, then in possession of some parts of the present United States, concluded a friendship treaty with the States in rebellion against Britain. This they did out of hostility to Britain, i.e., in their own imperialist interests. French troops fought the British on the side of the American forces. What we have here is a national liberation war in which imperialist rivalry is an auxiliary element, one that has no serious importance. This is the very opposite to what we see in the war of 1914-16 (the national element in the Austro-Serbian War is of no serious importance compared with the all-determining element of imperialist rivalry). It would be absurd, therefore, to apply the concept imperialism indiscriminately and conclude that national wars are “impossible”. A national liberation war, waged, for example, by an alliance of Persia, India and China against one or more of the imperialist powers, is both possible and probable, for it would follow from the national liberation movements in these countries. The transformation of such a war into an imperialist war between the present-day imperialist powers would depend upon very many concrete factors, the emergence of which it would be ridiculous to guarantee.[7]


In another article, Lenin compared imperialist interference in national liberation struggles for their own ends with the interference of sections of monopoly capital in democratic struggles within imperialist countries. In both cases, Lenin argued, it would be wrong to deny support for theses struggles because of this interference:


On the other hand, the socialists of the oppressed nations must, in particular, defend and implement the full and unconditional unity, including organisational unity, of the workers of the oppressed nation and those of the oppressor nation. Without this it is impossible to defend the independent policy of the proletariat and their class solidarity with the proletariat of other countries in face of all manner of intrigues, treachery and trickery on the part of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations persistently utilise the slogans of national liberation to deceive the workers; in their internal policy they use these slogans for reactionary agreements with the bourgeoisie of the dominant nation (for example, the Poles in Austria and Russia who come to terms with reactionaries for the oppression of the Jews and Ukrainians); in their foreign policy they strive to come to terms with one of the rival imperialist powers for the sake of implementing their predatory plans (the policy of the small Balkan states, etc.). The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain conditions, be utilised by another “great” power for its own, equally imperialist, aims, is just as unlikely to make the Social-Democrats refuse to recognise the right of nations to self-determination as the numerous cases of bourgeois utilisation of republican slogans for the purpose of political deception and financial plunder (as in the Romance countries, for example) are unlikely to make the Social-Democrats reject their republicanism.” [8]


Therefore, we see that those who propagate an abstentionist or Third Camp position in the Syrian civil war because of Western interference can find no support in the writings of Lenin.




What Did Lenin and Trotsky Say about Getting Support from Imperialists?




Many leftists justify their refusal to support the Syrian rebels by claiming that they receive financial and military support from Western imperialists as well as from Turkey and the Gulf States. As we have already said, whatever support is thereby received is clearly not significant, as it has not altered the military inferiority of the rebels on the ground relative to the forces of Assad.


Irrespective of this, it is important for Marxists to understand that a liberation movement’s receiving such aid from imperialists is, in itself, not illegitimate and therefore provides no justification for discrediting the liberation movement as an "agent of a foreign power." However, Lenin and Trotsky stressed as crucial the refusal of the liberation movement to accept any political conditions for receiving such aid. In other words, liberation movements must not subordinate their struggle to the interests of the imperialists from whom they receive such aid.


Lenin and Trotsky were quiet explicit on this issue, and it would be useful for various pseudo-Marxist muddleheads to take their advice to heart. In February 1918, Lenin defended the right of the Bolshevik government to take economic and military support from the imperialist Allies in order to defend themselves against the German Empire. In a polemic directed against Bukharin and other ultra-left inner-party opponents he wrote:


"What, for example, could be more conclusive and clear than the following truth: a government that gave Soviet power, land, workers’ control and peace to a people tortured by three years of predatory war would be invincible? Peace is the chief thing. If, after conscientious efforts to obtain a general and just peace, it turned out in actual fact that it was impossible to obtain this at the present time, every peasant would understand that one would have to adopt not a general peace, but a separate and unjust peace. Every peasant, even the most ignorant and illiterate, would understand this and appreciate a government that gave him even such a peace.


Bolsheviks must have been stricken by the vile itch of phrase-making to forget this and evoke the peasants’ most legitimate dissatisfaction with them when this itch has led to a new war being launched by predatory Germany against overtired Russia! (…)


If Kerensky, a representative of the ruling class of the bourgeoisie, i.e., the exploiters, makes a deal with the Anglo-French exploiters to get arms and potatoes from them and at the same time conceals from the people the treaties which promise (if successful) to give one robber Armenia, Galicia and Constantinople, and another robber Baghdad, Syria and so forth, is it difficult to understand that this deal is a predatory, swindling, vile deal on the part of Kerensky and his friends? No, this is not difficult to understand. Any peasant, even the most ignorant and illiterate, will understand it.


But if a representative of the exploited, oppressed class, after this class has overthrown the exploiters, and published and annulled all the secret and annexationist treaties, is subjected to a bandit attack by the imperialists of Germany, can he be condemned for making a “deal” with the Anglo-French robbers, for obtaining arms and potatoes from them in return for money or timber, etc.? Can one find such a deal dishonourable, disgraceful, dirty?


No, one cannot. Every sensible man will understand this and will ridicule as silly fools those who with a “lordly” and learned mien undertake to prove that “the masses will not understand” the difference between the robber war of the imperialist Kerensky (and his dishonourable deals with robbers for a division of jointly stolen spoils) and the Kalyayev deal of the Bolshevik Government with the Anglo-French robbers in order to get arms and potatoes to repel the German robber.


Every sensible man will say: to obtain weapons by purchase from a robber for the purpose of robbery is disgusting and villainous, but to buy weapons from the same robber for the purpose of a just war against an aggressor is something quite legitimate. Only mincing young ladies and affected youths who have ’read books‘ and derived nothing but affectation from them can see something ’dirty‘ in it. Apart from people of that category only those who have contracted the itch can fall into such an ’error. ‘ [9]


Similarly, Trotsky stated in 1935 that it was not illegitimate, in itself, for the Stalinist regime in the USSR to try and exploit differences between the imperialist Great Powers and to receive aid from one side. However, dealing with the same example of the Soviet government in 1918 as Lenin did in the quote just cited, Trotsky emphasized that such taking aid must not go hand in hand with political support for such imperialist powers.


It would be absurd, of course, to deny the Soviet government the right to utilize the antagonismus in the camp of the imperialists or, if need be, to make this or that concession to the imperialists. The workers on strike also make use of the competition between capitalist enterprises and make concessions to the capitalists, even capitulate to them, when they are unable to gain victory. But does there follow from this the right of the trade-union leaders to cooperate amicably with the capitalists, to paint them up and to turn into their hirelings? No one will label as traitors the strikers who are forced to surrender: But Jouhaux, who paralyzes the class struggle of the proletariat in the name of peace and amity with the capitalists, we have not only the right but the duty to proclaim as a traitor to the working class. Between the Brest-Litovsk policy of Lenin and the Franco-Soviet policy of Stalin, there is the same different as between the policy of a revolutionary trade unionist, who after a partial defeat is compelled to make concessions to the class enemy, and the policy of the opportunist, who voluntarily becomes of ally an flunkey of the class enemy. Lenin received the reactionary French officer. During those same days, I also received him with the very same object in mind: Lubersac undertook to blow up bridges in the oath of our retreat so that our military supplies would not fall into the hands of Germans. Only some utterly harebrained anarchists will view such a “transaction” as a betrayal. During those same days, the official agents of France paid me visits and offered assistance on a wider scale – artillery and foodstuffs. We very well understood that their aim was to embroil us again in a war with Germany. But the German armies were actually waging an offensive against us, and we were weak. Did we have the right to accept the ’assistance‘ of the French general staff under these conditions? Unconditionally, yes! I introduced precisely such a motion in the Central Executive Committee of the party in February 22, 1918. The text of this motion has been published in the official minutes of the Central Executive Committee, issued in Moscow in 1929. Here is the motion.


’As the party of the socialist proletariat in power an waging war against Germany, we, through the state organs, take all measures in order best to arm and equip our revolutionary army with all the necessary means and, with this in view, to obtain them wherever possible and, consequently, from capitalist governments as well. While so doing (our) party preserves the complete independence of its foreign policy, does not commit itself politically with any capitalist government an in every given instance takes their proposals under consideration from the standpoint of expediency.’


Lenin was not present at this session of the CEC. He sent a note. Here is its authentic text: ’Please add my vote for accepting potatoes and arms from the brigands of Anglo-French imperialism‘ (Minutes, p. 246). This is how the then Bolshevik CEC reacted towards the utilization of capitalist anatagonismus: practical agreements with imperialists (‘accept the potatoes‘) are entirely permissible, but absolutely impermissible is political solidarity with the ’brigands of imperialism/.’” [10]


Trotsky did consider economic and military aid as legitimate, not only in the case of the revolutionary Soviet government and the Stalinist regime, but also in the case of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois-led national liberation movements. In a letter to Australian socialists in 1937, he explained that they should criticize their government for not sufficiently supporting the Chinese national liberation war which was, at that time, led by the reactionary General Chiang Kai-shek.


"We cannot, as stated above, entrust the bourgeoisie with the necessary means for helping China. But our policy would differ in these cases depending on whether Australia intervened in the war on the side of Japan or on the side of China. We would naturally in both cages remain in the sharpest opposition to the government. But at the same time as we boycotted with every means material help to Japan, we would on the contrary accuse the government of not sufficiently supporting China, that is, of betraying her ally, and so on." [11]


In summary, we re-emphasize that that all those leftists who refuse support for the Syrian rebels because of the alleged or real aid they receive from the US or Turkey ignore the lessons of past revolutions, as well as the teachings of the Marxist classics. They use a formally ultra-left position (condemning all those who take aid from imperialists, because it will inevitably corrupt them) in order to justify a thoroughly opportunistic conclusion: desertion of an ongoing, popular revolutionary struggle which is either merely despised by or even actually fought against by the Great Powers.


[1] RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto, pp. 45-46,

[2] Michael Pröbsting: Liberation Struggles and Imperialist Interference. The failure of sectarian “anti-imperialism” in the West: Some general considerations from the Marxist point of view and the example of the democratic revolution in Libya in 2011”, in: RCIT: Revolutionary Communism, No. 5;

[3] On this, see e.g., Tom Perry: Syrian militias get more U.S. support for IS fight, plan new phase, Reuters, Jan 31, 2017,; Al Jazeera: Syrian Kurds say Russia to build base in Afrin. In agreement with Kurds, Russia to operate military base in Afrin and train YPG fighters in 'anti-terror' combat, 20 March 2017,; US Arab Spring policy? Third party counter-revolution, 3.3.2017,; SDF attack on Marea is US policy – and Syria’s attempted end-game, 19.2.2017,; Brief thoughts: Syrians’ rejection of the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” sends a clear message to the US – We define our revolution, not you, 29.2.2017,

[4] Kurdish YPG commander: We will go to Idlib after liberating Raqqa from ISIS",

[5] See Yossi Schwartz: Raqqa: Defeat the US Imperialist Offensive! An assessment of the US/SDF/YPG war against Daesh, April 2017,

[6] Michael Pröbsting: Liberation struggles and imperialist interference. The failure of sectarian “anti-imperialism” in the West: Some general considerations from the Marxist point of view and the example of the democratic revolution in Libya in 2011”, in: RCIT: Revolutionary Communism, No. 5;

[7] V. I. Lenin: The Junius Pamphlet (1916); in: LCW 22, pp. 310-11

[8] V. I. Lenin: The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1916); in: LCW 22, p. 148

[9] V. I. Lenin: The Itch, in: LCW 27, pp. 36-38,

[10] Leon Trotsky: An Open Letter to the Workers of France, in: Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1934-35, pp. 307-309

[11] Leon Trotsky: Letter to Australians (1937), in: Trotsky Writings 1937-38, p. 117