Sunday, December 11, 2016

Syria and the left split

by: Jesse M. Zimmerman

“Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, it’s society, it’s regime, it’s people, it’s political economy, it’s contemporary information…They do not see us; it is not about us at all.” 

–Yassin Al Haj Saleh

The Rise of Assad Apologists

The multi-faceted war in Syria, apart from dividing much of the world, has specifically split the larger worldwide political left.  It is difficult to make in-depth analysis on a conflict this complex and, with horrendous massacres committed by different actors across the ‘sides’, it is even harder to support a ‘side’ fully.  There are numerous stances taken by leftists worldwide, but support for President Assad from many leftists, including anti-war activist elements, cannot be overlooked.

Why would anyone who considers themselves ‘left-wing’ support President Bashar al-Assad of Syria?  What is it about this dictator that sets him aside from Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, or the monarchy of Saudi Arabia?  Why would anyone who considers themselves socialist, or social democrat, give any support to a regime that was, at the time of the uprising, instigating massive neoliberal policies that led to exacerbated inequalities?  Why would a left-winger support a regime that has western fascists fighting alongside it’s forces?

When it comes to Syria, the major reason why so many leftists support him is because Assad is not a pro-American dictator.

The Syrian conflict has revealed a grave hypocrisy.  How strange it is when those who scoff at Israeli military representatives claiming that a bombed hospital or school in Gaza was being used by terrorists, yet accept without question when the Assad regime or Russia bomb the same kinds of facilities with the same kind of claims.

“Essentialist anti-imperialism is defined solely in relation to one’s own government rather than the basis of a universal opposition to all forms of imperialism,” writes Joey Ayoub in a recent analysis.

One of the most common tropes when it comes to Syria and global, particularly western, leftist apologists for the Assad regime is the idea of this crisis being primarily the fault of the Obama Administration.  Like all self-interested state powers involved in Syria, one can easily argue that the United States has a role in the current crisis, but to many of these apologists, the United States is entirely behind the conflict.  Some even go as far as to say that the peaceful protest at the beginning of the crisis was engineered by the United States.  The conflict began in the town of Deraa where children (not CIA agents) were arrested and tortured for spray-painting anti-regime slogans.  Protests began small, limited in their scope, calling for reform rather than a direct change in regime leadership.  The response from the regime was violence.

The supposition that this was all orchestrated in Washington robs Syrians of their agency, exemplified by the words of author, Robin Yassin-Kassab:

This habit of thought – whereby the real torments of far away people are dwarfed in significance and impact by the imaginary machinations of the only state that matters, the American one – is depressingly common…Strange and part-way racist, as if white people’s words enter the cosmic fabric so inevitably to determine brown people’s history for years to come.  The writings, protests and battles of Syrians means nothing in comparison.

Contrary to this line of thought, the United States, while having armed some of the Syrian rebels, has actually played a far smaller role overall.  As much as some leftists like to advance these theories, and assert them commonly without evidence that groups like ISIS (Daesh) operate at the direct behest of Washington and/or Tel Aviv, if one traces the actual American response to the Syrian crisis, one would find a tepid and overall hesitant response.  In actuality this lack of a strong response led to a major rift between Obama and more eager officials within the administration.

It seems that to many Western leftists, having seen the United States intervene disastrously in previous misadventures, it logically follows that the United States is the only power that can be blameworthy for any tragedy.  A far more nuanced analysis is needed rather than a knee-jerk anti-imperialist slogan.

Cold Spring

One Syrian defector told the United Nation's fact finding mission early on in the peaceful protest phase of the revolution:

Our commanding officer told us there were armed conspirators and terrorists attacking civilians and burning Government buildings.  We went into Telbisa on that day.  We did not see any armed group.  The protesters called for freedom.  They carried olive branches and marched with children…We opened fire; I was there.  We used machine guns and other weapons.
For many analysts and activists at the beginning, the Arab Spring, the democracy movements that started in 2011 were a wonderful development worth supporting.  People having lived under authoritarian governments, some of which had western backing, were now organizing en masse for a democratic system.  My university, and the streets of my home city, Toronto were filled with solidarity demonstrations with the protesters.  The old ways of U.S. dominance and meddling in the Middle-East, and support for brutal dictatorships, seemed to be genuinely falling apart, and the western left seemed largely pleased with this.  With the Tunisian and the Egyptian dictators resigning, and elections being called, things seemed to be turning for the better.  For various people concerned generally with human rights, it was a sign that accountable governments might be formed instead of stagnant dictatorships.  Then came Libya, where there was much criticism of the NATO intervention, making this situation a mixed bag for the global left.  There was also Bahrain and Yemen, the former having their revolution effectively crushed by Saudi Arabia with the blessings of the United States due to geopolitical strategy.  By now the Arab Spring’s initial optimism had begun to fade.

Finally came Syria. Many solidarity activists who had enthusiastically embraced the democratic movements, began to drop off.  Some were oddly silent when the regime of President Bashar Assad responded to the initial peaceful protests with brutality far surpassing anything that had occurred elsewhere.  I was surprised to find, as early as 2011, many leftist activists in Canada and elsewhere openly supporting the regime.  This was strange, witnessing those same voices who showed solidarity with protesters elsewhere, suddenly start parroting talking points from the dictatorship of Syria.  Over time, when the conflict became militarized and an armed opposition appeared, I began to question responsibility for the Syrian crisis, and when news came that the U.S. supported the opposition, more voices from the Western left came out to support Assad and demonize the opposition.  What I had heard often at demonstrations and activist meetings was that the West was purposely destabilizing Syria for imperialist objectives.  It lined up neatly with the worldview of the Americans being responsible for conducting disastrous forced regime change in the Middle-East.

As much as American imperialism is responsible for many problems in the world and has led to many humanitarian catastrophes, this knee-jerk assumption that all problems derive from Yankee imperialism is simply flawed analysis.

None of the state actors involved in Syria, be they the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, or Iran, have the best interests of Syrians in mind, and yet, neither does the Assad regime.  Assad’s refusal to step down is what started this conflict.

How can anyone on the left of the political spectrum find any respectability with a man who sacrifices lives to his pride?

Ali Mustafa, a Canadian journalist, made these observations on his first trip to Syria:

li Mustafa in Egypt during revolution, 2011.  Mustafa was killed by government forces in Syria in March, 2014.
Itwas the Assad regime that decided to militarize the uprising, turning it into a bloody civil war.  The Assad regime forced the crisis to a point of no return.  Once the level of brutality escalated, many ordinary civilians felt that they were forced to take up arms in defense.  I feel this is exactly what the Assad regime wanted all along: they would much rather deal with so-called terrorists in the battlefield than mass protests in the street.  This kind of strategy is important for the Assad regime, not only internally but for international optics as well.  It has allowed Assad to frame his brutal crackdown on the revolution as some sort of fight against terrorism, adopting the exact same language as the West’s so-called war on terror; the rationale is strikingly similar, actually.

"War Does Not End Terror, It Feeds It"

Back in the early 2000’s, during the Bush Administration’s war on Iraq, I can recall seeing the above phrase on a poster in downtown Toronto.  This was when I was beginning to inform myself politically, getting active in general left-wing politics and the anti-war movement. It made sense.

There are numerous factors that have led to the creation of widespread Islamic extremist organizations and their brutal methods, and one cannot overlook the ideology behind it emanating from places like Saudi Arabia, and yet many leftists in the West and elsewhere have come to the conclusion that the American-led ‘war on terror’ has contributed immensely to worldwide increases in global terrorism.  While the factors that led to the ascension of advanced terrorist organizations are complex, many observers, including the political left, have largely blamed the consequences of war and occupation as a major catalyst for these developments.

At the start of the ‘war on terror’ launched after September 11, 2001 extremist jihadism was confined largely to the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, with some groups in parts of eastern Africa.  There were tactics that used terrorism elsewhere in political struggles, as there has been historically, but the reach of global jihadists was minimal before the ‘war on terror’ commenced.  A striking example of this trend is the nucleas of the founding of Daesh (ISIS) in the U.S.-run prison of Abu Garaib in Iraq.  Overall, the anti-war movements in the West and elsewhere were correct in their hypothesis that the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure would lead to worse terrorism and violence.

There is no doubt that George W. Bush’s war and subsequent occupation led to this, and indeed led to the rise of the most vile and extreme jihadist groups.

And yet, there is another major factor in the rise of Daesh, one that much of the Western left has largely ignored.  Many leftists will continue to blame the West, the United States first, for the funding and support of rebels, as well as regional players like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, for the rise of ISIS and Al-Nusra in Syria.  While there is truth to this, there is also more nuance.  The actions of the regime of Assad, like the actions of Bush in Iraq, played an enormous role in the forming of these jihadi groups.  The brutal response of the regime to the democracy movement, like the brutality of the Iraq War, has directly led to the conditions that such groups thrive in.

Syria had been a meeting place for radical jihadists during the early to mid 2000s.  At the height of the Iraq occupation the Assad regime allowed global jihadists to enter Syria en mass and pass through the border into Iraq to fight the American troops stationed there.  As the years passed on and the occupation began to wind down, Assad eventually stopped turning a blind eye and imprisoned hordes of them within Syria’s borders.  Early on during the protests in 2011, Assad purposely emptied Syria’s prisons of Jihadi fighters, in part to fill with legitimate revolutionaries.  This move, releasing dangerous jihadis onto the streets, brought credence to the dichotomy that the regime has used for propaganda purposes; the idea that the choice in Syria is strictly between Assad or the militant jihadis.  Sadly, so many left-wingers around the world have taken this binary view seriously, falling for the regime’s line.  In fact, contrary to what is being claimed by the regime, both Assad and Russia have largely refrained from targeting ISIS and have been largely targeting the other rebel groups, many of whom are fighting ISIS on the ground, instead.

What can the Left do?

A question often posed to those of us who reject the Assad regime’s line is; What is your solution?  At times this question is met with outright accusations of ‘support for imperialism’, oftentimes by voices that whitewash the crimes of the Assad regime.  The truth is, there simply are no easy answers.  I, as a writer and a distant observer living in Canada, do not have the overall solution for the humanitarian horror taking place in Syria.

All I have are some suggestions of what can be done in solidarity.

For starters, anyone who considers themselves ‘left’ or progressive needs to stop echoing Assad regime talking points.  Progressives should cease, for instance, sharing on social media and elsewhere articles on Syria from very questionable sources that shall not be specifically named here.  The knee-jerk, reactionary assumption that because something is not Western media that it must automatically be accurate is highly problematic.  There are agendas in the world that stem from elsewhere than the West, and uncritical acceptance of talking points emanating from another government is just as toxic to the pursuit of the truth as accepting Western mainstream media talking points.

Secondly, progressives and those who consider themselves ‘anti-war’ need to cease fetishizing the Assad regime, as has occurred in some circles around the world.  Adding to this, some leftists have foolishly smeared grassroots humanitarian organizations that have emerged from the Syrian revolution, the Syrian Defense Network, better known as the White Helmets taking some of the strongest of these attacks.  This nonsense needs to stop.

Finally, and it may largely be too late for this, progressives need to show legitimate solidarity towards Syrians in their struggle and revolution.

As Yassin Al Haj Saleh has stated: “I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle…The problem is that their narrow anti-imperialist worldview only sees Obama, Putin, Holland, Edrogen, Khamenei, Qatar Emir Hamad, Saudi King Abdullah, Hassan Nasrallah, and Bashar al-Assad…We rank-and-file Syrians, refugees, women, students, intellectuals, human rights activists, political prisoners…do not exist.”

Is it too late then to show this solidarity?  The lack of solidarity already shown has not gone unnoticed.  There needs to be a much more rigorous and complex discussion among worldwide progressives and leftists, more than there has been, and analyses that goes beyond cliched anti-imperialist tropes.  The erasure of Syrian agency, and lack of understanding of the Syrian context, is one of the gravest mistakes many on the left have made, hopefully something that can be rectified in the future that may lead to a more legitimate mode of solidarity.

In the meantime, how much more humanity will be sacrificed at the altar of ideology?

Jesse Zimmerman is one of the main bloggers at -- on which this post first appeared -- a blog dedicated to examining the contemporary state of Canada's Left.  Zimmerman, a writer of fiction by trade, grew up in Toronto. Check out his fiction website, Junction Landlord. 

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See also: ISIS is not Nazi Germany and the "appeasement" argument is ludicrous


  1. I don't know how to respond to an article which refers to "some leftists" and "some circles." I attended a panel at Beit Zatoun and the panelists were all anti-Assad. One heckler didn't think they were anti-Assad enough, and a panelist responded with all the solidarity work he had done with the rebels, the peace movements, the unions to oppose that oppressive regime. To which specific leftists are you referring? Which specific books or articles are in your opinion off base?

  2. All states and regimes do what they must to survive. Why should Assad have resigned just because the USA and its allies wanted him to? The USA doesn't give a crap about the people of Syria.History shows that clearly.The USA/Saudi/Turkey cabal want a US client state in Syria. That is their end game but Russia's entry has likely prevented it.

  3. "Zimmerman, a writer of fiction by trade,.....". That about sums up his article above.

  4. You had me until you attacked people who legitimately criticize the White Helmets as a propaganda outfit, Jesse.