The debate surrounding Syria has stooped very low among self-identified leftists and anti-imperialists. It is high time the discussion moves away from personal attacks, and focuses instead on presenting specific arguments and developing clearer political positions. No group has been as pilloried by all sides as much as the one that has come to be labeled “the third way,” composed of those who are simultaneously opposed to foreign intervention (cheered for by major opposition forces) and the Asad regime. Apologists for the Asad regime, or what have become labeled as “first wayers,” will go to great lengths to discredit “third-way” politics. This essay serves as a rebuttal of apologist arguments. In doing so, the hope is not merely to expose the fallacies of first-way rhetoric, but to also elaborate what a third way might actually mean or entail. The latter is something that has yet to be fully expounded in terms of its principles and consequences.
In their attempt to distort and discredit third-way politics, most first wayers identify the essence of the Asad regime as anti-imperialist, when in reality it is ultranationalist with an anti-Zionist silver lining—a thick lining one might still argue. Sometimes, they invoke Lenin’s critique of third-way politics, with little accompanying class analysis. However, a more apt analogy would be the non-aligned movement of the Cold War era. Apologists will confuse the lack of political power (i.e., the power of decision making) with a lack of political position (i.e., a practical political agenda or plan) and draw a caricature of who is a third wayer as a criticism of last resort.
Anti-Imperialism a la Ba’th: The Secret of Succession
Asad apologists will discuss and debate every single aspect of the Syrian crisis with one exception: the phenomenon of cultish family rule and succession. They will invoke the geopolitics of regional and international rivalries, anti-imperialist struggles, resistance to Zionism, fear of sectarianism, outbreak of civil war, and the rise of Islamism. Asad apologists will also play the numbers game, asserting that the majority of Syrians support the regime, and–rightly—bash the unreliable media coverage across the world. They will even go so far as to explicitly defend Asad himself, in a manner similar to how other Arab rulers were defended. In this vein, they will argue that he is well intentioned, surrounded by a clique of corrupt and conspiring aides, and hence either unaware of the political situation on the ground or unable to change it. Then, when the going gets tough and the ruler himself comes out to reinforce the regime’s unrelenting stance, they will argue that his rule remains favorable compared to that of the opposition or the unknown, never suspecting that tackling succession is itself part of fending off foreign-backed aggression and the unknown.
It is no coincidence then, that Asad apologists have so intentionally ignored the issue of succession. Hereditary succession never was and never will be a source of legitimacy, nor a viable long-term strategy to strengthen national unity and cohesion, all of which are necessary requirements for anti-imperialist resistance.
Succession is the identifying marker that separates Asad from his “resistance” allies and lumps him into the same category as other Arab rulers. When cornered about succession, Asad apologists will compare Asad to Gulf monarchs (unaware perhaps that, at one symbolic level, a royal president in Syria is more scandalous than a petty monarch of an oil shaykhdom). That, however, is the wrong and easy comparison to make. Asad fails the test even according to first-way logic when compared to self-identified anti-imperialist leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, or even Asad’s closer allies, Hizbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah and Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinejad. Unlike all of the above, Asad’s ascension to power was no different in form and content from the process governing other Arab states. It is telling that this “anti-imperialist” president had no qualms allowing a Western white journalist like Barbara Walters question him about his coming to power. Such a question by one of his own people would be unthinkable. Some might argue that this is merely a detail, but I say it is a very symbolic one. It goes to the heart of how Arab leaders perceive themselves in relation to their own people vis-à-vis the West.
But even if we grant Asad the benefit of the doubt regarding his ascension to power, what about the actual policies Asad implemented? Are they as socialist and anti-imperialist as Asad apologists would like us to believe? During his first decade of rule, Asad attempted to reverse whatever remained of Ba’thist socialism. He was a much more effective agent of neoliberalism than his father was. Whatever non-neoliberal realities apologists point to, they have nothing to do with the Asad regime. On the contrary, they have managed to survive the regime and were not borne by it. After the eruption of the uprising, Asad apologists—so eager now to fight liberal politics—seem blind to the fact that whatever “reforms” Asad introduced were themselves actually pro-liberal reforms. These include removing the reference to the socialist nature of the regime (a very anti-imperialist move indeed, clearly having everything to do with the fight for Palestine) maintaining the stipulation that the president be a Muslim, and allowing for elections under a multi-party system (i.e., the hallmark of liberal rule).
Furthermore, and early on during his reign, the “nationalist” in Asad seemingly had little qualms implicitly forfeiting the right of Syria to Iskandarun (Alexandretta) in order appease his then-new Turkish ally. In addition, it took Asad eleven years and the eruption of the Syrian uprising to grant thousands of Kurds their rightful Syrian citizenship, proving the move was a ploy to co-opt them out of the uprising and thus reinforcing the notion of the state is subservient to the power of the ruling elite rather than the ruling elite being subservient to the state. This is to say nothing of how the clique of corrupt networks that increasingly took control of the country’s resources grew bolder under his rule. Claiming Asad was ignorant of this clique’s machinations is too naive and false to warrant a response.
By ignoring these “details,” Asad apologists fail to see that the Asad regime’s alliance with anti-US forces in the region has not prevented it from exhibiting the essential features of all the Arab dictatorial regimes: family rule; institutionalized corruption: cultish forms of obedience; and the overexpansion of the police state. All these features undermine the anti-imperialist struggle in subtle but deadly ways.
These issues matter not only in the small (i.e., domestic) picture, but also in the big (i.e., regional) picture. They matter for anyone who keeps invoking geopolitics and long-term resistance as Asad apologists do. According to anti-imperialist logic, structural causes tend to prevail over individual or apparent ones in explaining history. On the basis of such a principle, structures of inequality, oppression, and domination are much more to blame for violence and extremism than are such factors as one’s personal proclivity for violence or extremist ideology (something Asad apologists are so keen to identify among the opposition camp). A comparative analysis of the Asad regime—in relation to its allies in the region—shows that these structures (of inequality, oppression, and domination)—in the case of Syria—are not entirely, even if largely, a product of external imperialist forces. Regimes and groups allied to Asad have arguably suffered a lot more from imperialist pressures but did not endorse the same governance structures adopted by the Ba’th. Since the uprising began, the regime has done nothing to significantly alleviate these problems. In fact, it has taken a more intransigent stance. As such, the destruction of Syria is as much an effect of regime policies as it is of the external forces colluding with internal agents. The silence of first wayers in favor of the regime in the face of the latter’s culpability becomes no better than the raucous of opportunist opposition forces.
Anti-Imperialism and Anti-Colonialism: The Fanon Factor
The regime has not done nearly enough compared to its allies in consolidating its anti-imperialist stance mainly because it is busier consolidating its internal control and dominance. To continue to insist on blanket support for Asad under the pretense of an anti-imperialist stance is to confuse anti-imperialism with blind support for nationalist elites. Furthermore, a refusal to conflate the two is not an invention of “liberal armchair intellectuals” as some first wayers claim. Such a refusal was substantively formulated by one of the pillars of anti-colonial thought, Frantz Fanon, whose name is conspicuously absent from the political lexicon of Asad apologists. Long before neoliberal elites had come to power, Fanon warned against the excesses of nationalist bourgeois elites in using anti-imperialist or anti-colonial discourse to disguise their own comprador role in consolidating imperialist structures of control. Fanon’s analysis might actually help explain why some Arab leftists, who are likely more sensitive to anti-colonial history than international anti-imperialists, are third wayers rather than outright supporters of the regime.
But instead of invoking Fanon, apologists will go so far as to invoke Lenin’s quote about third-party politics, which is really a language trick no different than someone quoting Tony Blair’s own reference to a “third way” in order to undermine third-way politics in Syria. Lenin was at times more than willing to compromise when it came to dealing with imperialist forces (i.e., the Brest Liovsk treaty). In the instance of his critique of third-way politics, the communist leader was actually more concerned with class struggle and contemptuous of those, like liberal socialists, who did not take a firm and uncompromising position in this struggle against the bourgeois class. In fact, a reference that would have better served Asad apologists is Lenin’s disagreement with Rosa Luxemburg over backing the third-world bourgeoisie. Lenin’s critique of third-way politics may thus ironically lend itself more to backing calls for no compromise with Asad, given that the Syrian uprising’s class is largely made up of the countryside peasantry and suburban working class. It is true that the peasantry have a very dubious representation in the intellectual history of Marxism. In the case of Syria, the dominant political expression of their uprising has not only taken on a reactionary form (read “religious” in Marxist terms). It is in fact, contrary to what many pro-uprising folks want us to believe for romantic or more sinister reasons, backed by imperialist and reactionary regional regimes. However, admitting this problematic political expression of the uprising necessitates a third way, not a stance that is apologetic for the Asad regime.
As mentioned above, a much more apt —even if far from perfect—invocation of third-way politics in the Syrian case is the non-aligned movement that spread across the global south during the Cold War. Back then, the Soviet Union was much more anti-imperialist than today’s oligarchy-ruled and market-oriented Russia. Yet, leaders from the global south such as Nasser, Nehru, and Nkrumah recognized the need to chart an independent path of anti-colonial struggle to avoid total dependency on the great powers. A similar—but certainly not identical—logic might well be behind third-way thinking. Syria has turned into a playground for a global power struggle, and the ultimate losers are the Syrian people themselves. One of many crucial differences between the non-aligned movement then and third way politics in Syria today is that the third way in Syria today has remained largely a political position, with little political power to make such a position more concretely visible. Asad apologists fail to make this distinction between the lack of political power and the lack of a political position. To be fair to Asad apologists who complain, one must admit that there is no well-defined articulation of third-way politics. However, such a lacking is a far cry from the caricature portrait of third wayers that apologists have come to draw.
Third Way Thinking: An Elitist Liberal Bunch?
The primary factual misrepresentation of third way politics is of the very makeup of the third way camp. The third way current, we are told, is comprised of intellectuals and activists drawn from academia, non-governmental organizations, and the mainstream media. These are the usual suspects of liberal elitist ideology. It is easy, then, to make all sorts of claims about the privileged and liberal tendencies of this group.
Conveniently excluded in such representations are elements of the Syrian homegrown opposition, the majority of which are non-academic in the classic sense. Some members of this latter group have served years in prison and suffered from torture at the hands of the regime (and for reasons that have nothing to do with liberating Palestine from Zionism or the world from imperialism). Instead of being described as an integral subset of third wayers, Syrian internal opposition elements are portrayed by Asad apologists as a distinct group supported by the third wayers! This makes sure third wayers are seen as merely those engaged in bench politics. It also obscures the possibility that third wayers have an actual political position, possibly similar to the concrete one endorsed and acted upon by the home-grown opposition. In short, what apologists fail to see, or perhaps even hide, is the fact that third wayers are no different from the pro-Asad and dominant opposition camps, with people from all walks of life identifying with one political streak or another.
Throwing in the reference to mainstream media as an outlet of third-way rhetoric is another misleading move. In terms of the media (globally speaking), divisions between third wayers, first wayers, and those problematic elements of the Syrian opposition have little to do with academic backgrounds, NGO affiliations, or other liberal proclivities. This is the case even in an alternative media outlet like Lebanon’s self-identified anti-imperialist paper Al-Akhbar. If anything, the vast majority of mainstream media journalists in the West are uncritical cheerleaders of the rebels and have few qualms with military intervention. As for the Arab media, the bulk of it is Saudi-owned or allied, and parrots Western discourse (at times in even cruder forms). The other (minority) part of Arab media outlets is largely owned or supported by pro-Asad forces or its allies.
Radical third wayers are thus left out to dry when it comes to the media landscape. To demand that third wayers—who are intellectuals, especially leftists—cease being as publically critical as they are is to give them—their egos notwithstanding—more credit in terms of their impact on events while denying them what little role they can play as critical and radical voices in the midst of this crisis. Being critical is not merely done for the sake of being critical, nor is it simply a matter of moral consistency (not that moral consistency is now a crime, is it?) It is equally about a reading of the realities on the ground (both the details and the big picture) and—as argued above—definitely about fighting the anti-imperialism first wayers are so fond of invoking. But a close analysis of first way discourse shows that anti-imperialism is the last thing on the mind of first wayers. In such a discourse, anti-imperialism is a code word for anti-Zionist struggle as crystallized over the last two decades in the form of armed resistance centered in Lebanon, facilitated by Damascus, and backed by Tehran. The two are of course interrelated but not identical. It is best then to name things as they are and agree or disagree over them accordingly.
The Question of Palestine: The Teflon Test
The gist of the arguments advanced by many self-proclaimed, anti-imperialist first wayers is less about the larger questions of anti-imperialism, and ultimately boils down to armed resistance against Israel. To be fair to first wayers, discussion of the Syrian regime’s role in the Palestinian struggle (both by pro and anti-Asad forces) suffers from a total lack of measured and informed analysis wherein the regime comes out as either the be all and end all of resistance or a total sell out. The role of the Syrian regime has changed over the years and to paint it as either an entirely positive or negative one is counterfactual. To invoke what the regime did over thirty years ago, like some leftists do, is polemical and I would argue inaccurate. For the purpose of understanding the current crisis, what counts is its more recent history. Since the Oslo Accords (1993), there is no denial that the Asad regime, for many reasons and regardless of motives, was a pillar of the resistance axis to US and Israeli aggression and imperial/colonial aims in the region. Just as Asad the son was a more effective agent of neoliberal policies compared to his father, one has to admit he was also a bolder supporter of armed resistance in the region.
Consequently, to claim that the Syrian regime is “worthless” to the resistance project is thus another surprising distortion advanced by apologists, as well as some third wayers (i.e., the liberal type). If third wayers did not see any such worth, they would not call for a third way to begin with. In fact, opposing foreign intervention may have a very high cost in terms of human life, given that the regime might be capable of unleashing its full wrath on dissenters in the absence of external restraint. Some third wayers might argue that it is a painful price one has to bear if the issue is indeed about organic revolution, and not either a grand struggle for power or merely saving lives in the short term. A better articulated radical third way stance may help clear out much of these positions. Such a stance means, for example, seeking to overthrow the regime, but not at any cost. It means refusing to engage in “dialogue” with the regime, but accepting negotiations under certain terms that ensure an exit strategy that safeguards the sacrifices of the Syrian people while preventing the usurpation of the uprising by external powers.
Simply stating these general claims is not enough. But neither is burying one’s head in the sand and parroting absolutisms about anti-imperialism like apologists do. Asad apologists are gasping to stop the ebbing tide of a past history. Opposition opportunists are eager to replace that past with a double-faced one masquerading as revolution. The time is ripe for a radical third way to assert itself and engage in a constructive political debate about what has turned out to be the most complex of all the Arab uprisings.