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Religion/Morality, Syria/Resistance: For Syria, What is "Left?" (Part 2 of 3)

[Image from unknown archive] [Image from unknown archive]

. . . a conversation among friends . . . and not necessarily for everyone.

Exactly three months ago (see Part 1 here), I critiqued part of the left that continued to support the Syrian regime’s brutal repression of protests based on the latter’s anti-imperialist and resistance credentials, whether or not such credentials were exaggerated. Since then, the uprising (and deaths, mostly of civilians) in Syria expanded, army defections increased, and regional/international pressure mounted considerably. Some took these developments—notably the spike in regional and international intervention/“engagement”—as evidence that Syria is being cynically targeted from abroad by both regional Arab and Turkish actors on the one hand and western powers on the other. Interestingly, Israeli officials are at best split—and mostly cautious—about the Syrian regime’s “departure” prospects.

It is true that the regional and international entourage that is tightening the noose on Syria is far from being genuinely interested in the Syrian people or democracy. The record of decades-long US support of the very Arab dictatorships who led the charge and sanctions against Syria says it all. I have consistently argued that these actors (i.e., the United States and nearly all Arab regimes) are unfit to intervene on behalf of democracy anywhere in the region. I have also consistently opposed international intervention at almost any cost, considering the mayhem that such an intervention would cause—which might make Libya look like a picnic. At the same time, even though those of us living outside Syria might have the luxury to pontificate about ideals and broad structures of domination (even if we are “correct”), we might not have the right to tell those who are running the risk of being shot daily how to respond and what to wish for (even if it is “short-sighted” or “naive.”)

Despite the array of problematic motives and reactionary actors that are amassed against the Syrian regime, it is still unjustifiable from a principled leftist (or any other) point of view to ignore the very real structural reasons of oppression and exclusion that ignited the Syrian uprising. This is the case even in the name of shielding Syria (whose “Syria?”) from an “international conspiracy” or from an attempt at undermining the axis of resistance that Syria enables and/or buttresses. What is wrong with condemning both sides (i.e., most external actors involved as well as the Syrian regime) and leaving the increasingly organized, expanding, and militant opposition to its own devices?  

In the previous post, I argued that the recalcitrant pro-status quo leftist position cannot be upheld on principle, especially when the Syrian regime is egregiously violating the same principles on which anti-imperialism and resistance to various forms of structural oppression (e.g., occupation, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, etc.) is based. In such a position, we were—and continued be—left with the more politico-ideological grounding for supporting the status quo in Syria: namely, that despite agreement over the Syrian violation of such principles domestically, in the bigger picture—both in terms of time and space—the removal of the Syrian regime signals a copious defeat for “resistance” and a triumph for the forces of reaction, both regionally and internationally—namely, for Israel, the United States, and conservative Arab dictatorships. 

There are several reasons for rejecting such claims, and precisely for the sake of what is at issue here: continued and successful resistance. I will discuss these reasons briefly in this post. This discussion may seem petty or specious to some/outsiders. However, it is in fact one of the more important bases of political contention in times of war as well as peace in that part of the Arab world. This will continue to be the case so long as the belligerence and apartheid-like expansion of Israel continues to be supported by the United States, and so long as the region’s natural resources and geostrategic depth continue to attract imperial ambition, occupations, and wars. Perhaps a disclaimer was unnecessary after all. 

The following arguments proceed from a rejection of international intervention in Syria as a possible solution, which, as deaths mount, is becoming an increasingly unpopular position inside Syria.

First, there is no conspiracy: it is a continuation of an explicit conflict based on decades-long goals, mostly publicly held. That is not to say that all of the concerns of the said segment of the left are invalid. Surely some are. There has never been a question that the weakening of Syria will not bode well for the current form of “resistance” and/or for Hizballah, for instance. After all, it is not for nothing that Hizballah foolishly gave Asad’s Syria a carte blanche in its brutal response to the protests, knowing full well that this position would damage Hizballah’s own credibility as well as its hard-earned moral high-ground with principled leftists and non-leftists alike in the resistance camp (aakh akh). But whereas opposing this explicit effort to weaken what “resistance” there may be is legitimate, opposing it from the perspective of the Syrian regime is no longer tenable or productive. See below.

Second, had the regime’s raison d’etre been one of “resistance,” it would have been reasonable and worth considering working hard to find a solution for an exit from this dilemma. But if this were the case—meaning, if the Syrian regime’s existence was indeed tied to its resistance function—then its natural course of action would have been to call for a truce early on, engage in power-sharing with the increased Syrian people’s militancy, and prepare to lead the Arab world in a courageous and publicly supported multi-faceted campaign to actively resist and push back Israel’s belligerence and its international patrons. Nearly all Arab (and most non-Arab) souls from Yemen to Mauritania would have thrown their lot behind Mr. Asad—while some would have worshipped him—and would have actually begun to call for a whole-sale downing of the other rotten dictatorships. But, sorry, no dice. Throw us a “resistance” bone in all this, Mr. Asad, so we can say . . . something.

Furthermore, the near-complete loss of legitimacy of the Syrian regime after the bloodbath it engendered and oversaw makes it unfit to push for the protection of, say, Palestinian rights against, say, the IDF’s brutal occupation. If this Syrian regime survives, its continued “resistance” will be stripped naked to become a mere “regime survival strategy,” a form of “resistance” devoid of moral content. It will fail, and in ways that might allow Israel to dust off some of its increasingly tarnished image in a world that took too long to see the structural racism behind Israel’s democratic façade (i.e., a democracy for its Jewish population). Therefore, while the “triumph” of unsavory external actors may indeed signal the triumph of reactionary forces, one wonders what the “triumph” of the Syrian regime would be dubbed after the burial or decimation of thousands of Syrians by the regime’s hand. A triumph of the . . . people? What would it exactly mean for the people on behalf of whom the left (ie., the people-supporters and advocates) struggled? Is it acceptable to destroy thousands of one’s own people’s lives for the sake of rubbing the nose of outsiders in the mud? Who will be left to fight for? What will be left to fight for? Where is the left in all of this?

Precisely. Where is the left in all this? The Syrian regime made a near-full U-turn from 1963 to 2011 in terms of shifting its alliances and allegiances from things, policies, and social forces that are leftist all the way to the other side. The regime has enriched the business sector and allowed creeping neoliberal formulas to enter through the back door since the late 1980s. It has reduced or destroyed various social safety nets and allowed the country-side to fester in favor of propping up a new urban bourgeoisie, and urban centers in general, against those whom the leftist Ba`th Party rose up from to begin with in the 1950s and 1960s (I have argued this more eloquently elsewhere). What progressive forces and processes are some in the left still fighting for within the Syrian status quo? For the most part, that part of the left has actually left the left a while ago and joined the reactionary forces of ultra-nationalism (not that ordinary nationalism is progressive). Even then, whatever nationalist/resistance credentials propped up the Syrian regime until early 2011, allowing the left to excuse its domestic repression, has been shattered once the regime started killing its own people. So, what is it that we are trying to salvage at this very moment in the months of November and December 2011? A Syrian regime that will rise from the ashes of its citizens to support the remaining citizens’ rights—while risking sacrificing its own power—to fight Israel? Why are we assuming that the departure of the Syrian regime is akin to the departure of resistance? Suddenly, the secular left becomes enamored by the sacred: "no Syrian regime, no opposition." This brings to mind the same lack of both imagination and courage that afflicts some in the community of “believers.” That is not good news, certainly not for the progressive left (yes, it seems qualifiers are in order).

Nearly all this is to say that if we still believe the Syrian regime is the fountain of resistance, we are thoroughly mistaken. Syria was not the only (or necessarily best) fountain of resistance, just as religion is not the only (or necessarily best) fountain of morality. In fact, today, the Syrian regime is no longer identified as resisting very much except the will of most of its people. It is time to be able to see beyond the confines of the structural realities that decrepit regimes weaved around our lives and intellects—so much so that they have not only arrested our souls, but worse, suffocated our imagination. There is “resistance” outside the current Syrian regime just like there is morality outside religion, and probably for the better in both cases. At least for the left.

Finally, the free and unfettered voices of the Arab masses is the fountain of resistance (without quotations marks) to both domestic oppression as well as external designs and domination. Judging by the courage of protesters’ bare bodies against rifle and metal, who needs anything else to make oppressors and occupiers tremble? One must be able to imagine anew. One must be able to recognize that the changes befalling the Arab world are not simply the end of an era of dictatorship, but also the albeit protracted beginning of the full and unfettered desire for free expression of an always already existing political will to resist and build. That political will has always included as much anti-colonial and anti-imperialist vehemence as any current axis of resistance, except that that will has been crushed for decades and appropriated by decrepit regimes, the most vociferous of which (i.e., Syria) is primarily vociferous—notwithstanding its resistance-enabling existence. But, for instance, it is one thing to resist Israeli expansionism by enabling non-state actors, and quite another to spearhead resistance armed with the will of a people, domestically and regionally, in an inexorable and principled march towards the inevitable end of structural oppression and racism. This opportunity is upon us, even if we are in the throes of its chaotic beginnings. We ought not expect too much too soon by way of nuanced awareness of international hegemony on part of a pummeled people. Before the dissipation of the yoke of oppression that shattered a people’s—not to mention nearly every individual’s—dignity, we should not expect the prioritization of our “politico-intellectual” desires. Resistance to oppression will be cradled by nobler souls. All in time. Much to be done in the mean time.

[In part 3, I will discuss the structural challenges facing Syria, whomever is in the driver’s seat.] 

4 comments for "Religion/Morality, Syria/Resistance: For Syria, What is "Left?" (Part 2 of 3)"


While I don't doubt what you're saying about morality, I would be interested in hearing what, exactly, are the other fountains? And how are these "non-religious" (though that might not be the best classification) fountains are different in Syria than they are in other countries.

Kevin Chamow wrote on December 04, 2011 at 02:17 PM

dear kevin, I'm not certain i understand the question.

"what exactly are the other fountains?" Other fountains of what? of morality? or of resistance?

if of morality, there certainly are more fountains of morality outside religion(s) than inside. In fact, "religion" itself is an expression of always already existing and possible "fountains of morality" that were then somehow monopolized under some "formal" religious rubric--at least for some/many, depending on context (please note that we can endlessly problematize the conventional notion of "morality"--religious or not--but that's another story altogether).

If you are asking about other fountains of resistance, i.e., other than the Syrian regime, or other than a given state, then i pointed that out in the piece above. Dictatorships in the region appropriated the questions of "resistance," "muqaawama," and/or "mumaana`a" and stuck them in a drawer. In the absence of these regimes, these notions will resurface as the natural expression of these publics, even if in different proportions across countries.

as for the second question, i would need a clarification because i'm not sure i know what you mean.

Bassam Haddad wrote on December 04, 2011 at 03:47 PM

Interesting article but has serious flaws. Nobody is saying that the fall of the regime in Syria is the end of resistance. It's a serious set back in the current regional struggle in favor of reactionary forces that you chose to ignore. It would be best for reform rather than a collapse. If I were a Syrian opposition activist, I would rethink my methods when I see the worlds reactionary and imperialist forces supporting me. When you ignore this, you show unprincipled postions of the end justifies the means. The simplistic view of the "people" vs the "regime" does not quite apply in Syria. The fact is that the Syrians are divided on the approach and you seem to ignore a large segment of people in Syria. I'm not sure what progressive left principle you use for this. Change will happen in Syria and will take some time, the longest would be your approach. I'm talking about a constructive change. Finally, there are lies and propaganda that you don't mention. Your idols are so progressive they're predicting the fall of Hizballa after Assad. Your idialistic view of the "people", where it seems some Syrians to you are not people, prevents you from seeing that there's a division among the Syrians. Same in Lebanon, there's a division and even with all the freedom that's there you'll see that not all are moving towards liberation and resistance... The best approach is an organized reform and a rebuilding of Syrian institutions to be effective and not corrupt with transition away from the single party authoritaian system. You may be a victim of propaganda, like many other well meaning leftists. That's not to say that there were no crimes committed. This was during the first period, and it's unpricipled to portray a false picture to promote a "concept", many more people's lives are at stake...

Zfilistini wrote on December 06, 2011 at 02:06 AM

Dear Zfilistini, I'm afraid we are talking past each other. I'm referring to people do DO see the fall of the Syrian regime almost solely from the perspective of Syria's resistance function to the exclusion of other issues, and happen to talk as though, without the Syrian regime, resistance to Israel and imperialism is doomed.

Your initial statement that "Nobody is saying that the fall of the regime in Syria is the end of resistance" is untrue. I am addressing those who imply it implicitly, or address it explicitly.

I do not disagree with much of the rest of what you say, save the unnecessary jabs based on the erroneous assumption above.

However, a few points: - I never ignored the reactionary forces, and have consistently opposed them by saying both the regime and these forces will not serve most Syrians. See my post today on the SNC and all my previous interviews on this site, and even my statements in the same article you are addressing.

-your point about "if i were a syrian opposition activist" is reasonable to you and me, and many leftists on the outside. somehow, it is less reasonable to those under the gun, even if they hate imperialism more than you or me.

-i do not ignore the syrians that support the regime. i got flack for asserting that here on Jadaliyya early on in March. we are talking about majorities here. if you think the majority of Syrians support the regime, then we just have to disagree and move on.

-"Your idols are so progressive they're predicting the fall of Hizballa after Assad." if you're talking about Ghalyoun, see my article on hi wsj interview today. you are putting words in my mouth. all inaccurate and hasty. no matter.

-your suggestion of real and fundamental "reform" in Syria is akin to wishful thinking. we all prefer it, including many in the internal opposition. but i addressed that in the article above: this will require a truly anti-imperialist regime in Syria my dear . . . a truly anti-imperialist regime that prioritizes resistance, not itself. It's not going to happen. I may be wrong, but i am no victim of propaganda in this case.

Bassam Haddad wrote on December 06, 2011 at 02:48 AM

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