Talking about Syria
Civil wars generate their own momentum. They go through different phases and produce different leaderships and warlords. The Lebanese civil war makes for a good academic comparison with the current Syrian war in that internal and external actors are entangled and weapons and fighters are being poured into the country. The dynamics of war in both countries helped catapult or create new constellations of arms, money, and interests across the frontlines that had little do with the interest of the majority of those living on any side. But the comparison ends there. The ideological orientations of the warring factions in the first phase of the Lebanese civil war (1975-76) are substantially different from today’s Syrian war, particularly in that there are no leftist factions among the major fighting groups. The stakes of the Syrian war are high. Beyond the enormous death toll, the majority of the Syrian population is besieged, displaced, or living under the threat of guns and bombs. It is they who will ultimately have to live in what is left of Syria. There are also high stakes—though very different consequences—for the United States and Russia in their regional and international rivalry. Despite all of this, here in the United States, or even in the Arab world, talk about Syria is severely limited and constrained.
One could affirm without exaggeration that talking about Syria freely is not possible in the mainstream Western or Arab press: a set of rhetorical dogmas are imposed, which greatly constrain the debate. A rigid consensus, established by Western governments and Arab regimes, has set in. The uniformity of mainstream Western media coverage of the Syrian war is shocking in its one-sidedness, allowing little room for disagreements (outside debates about the extent of current or future US intervention) than are allowed in coverage of the Israeli occupation (at least in the European media). Panels and features about Syria recycle the same arguments and the same narratives. Other points of view are rarely, if at all, permitted: they are deemed threatening to US interests or those of the Saudi royal family. The consensus around the evolution of the Syrian war are repeated verbatim across the media divide in the West. There is something disturbing about the lack of debate about Syria when the leftist TV program Democracy Now, the rightwing magazine The Economist, and the establishment New York Times sound almost the same when covering the Syrian war. They even cite the same “experts.” Patrick Cockburn, of the British The Independent, is perhaps the only Western journalist challenging the dominant narrative. He is routinely attacked by the “supporters of the Syrian revolution” as an apologist of the Asad regime.
The imposition of a one-party line in representations about the Syrian war is not new. The United States has always pursued a similar policy on Israel. However, in the latter case, at least the European media allowed (to some degree) a measure of independence from the one-sided war-mongering US stance. On Syria, however, such disagreements are not permitted. Governments and editors are not alone in imposing this one-party line. Many on social media have also joined this effort to impose the dominant narrative—even if for different reasons. It is not easy for some residing in the United States—let alone any Gulf country—to articulate a point of view that is opposed to the Syrian rebels. We should take pause when all Western correspondents in Beirut and all pundits in Washington DC are in total agreement on Syria. Even more concerning is that many Zionist zealots pretend that their concern for the Syrian people is second to none, and are lending their support to the consensus--if not manufacturing it. The only differences of opinion that exist are over the kinds of military support that are to be given to the rebels in Syria, the extent of military intervention, and the scope of US covert-overt operations. Whatever debate exists, it is one that is over how soon or how much the United States should intervene in Syria.
In the Arab world, the near-total monopoly of the Saudi and Qatari regimes over media outlets has ensured that only one point of view is, technically and legally speaking, allowed—just as the Syrian regime and its media allow only one point of view. But the fact is that all Western media (mainstream as well as progressive-alternative outlets like Democracy Now or The Nation) now mirror (and often reproduce verbatim) the rhetoric from media outlets owned by Saudi royalty. Most in the progressive academic community (both in Middle East studies and outside of it) have either been silent about Syria or have basically subscribed to the dominant position on the war. This dynamic reveals much about the consensus: there exists only one side that should be represented in media coverage. To be clear, by “side” we are speaking not so much about sides on the ground in the war, of which there are many, but more so the sides regarding analyzing the war, for which there are also many.
As in all its foreign interventions in the Middle East, the United States frames the situation by resorting to crude (and expensive) propaganda to influence public opinion in the United States and abroad. The United States and United Kingdom hire US and UK PR firms to help coordinate between Arab and Western governments in order to unify the message and to solidify the talking points. The US Media Center in Dubai is one of the least analyzed or studied aspects of US foreign policy in the Middle East: little is known about its inner working. But the synergy between Western media and Arab oil-and-gas media is too obvious to ignore. Furthermore, I know from the former director-general of Al Jazeera that the US government provides a detailed weekly critique—with suggestions—to the Doha offices of Al Jazeera concerning its regionalcoverage. Add to that the role of Western human rights and relief organizations—which, on the Syrian issue, do not deviate from the standards and orientations of the US foreign policy perspective—and the all-encompassing consensus can be fully grasped. An outrageous example is Ken Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, who via his Twitter account blamed Russia for the bombings in both East and West Aleppo! The United States is of course shielded from such criticisms: while Russia can be held responsible for both its war crimes and those of the rebels, the US role in funding, arming, and training some of the rebel groups that have bombed civilians in regime-controlled areas is nowhere to be critiqued.
The views of the Syrian public are more complicated than what is implied in the dominant Western and Arab Gulf media narratives. There are those inside Syria that hold Syrian rebels responsible—or more responsible than the Syrian regime—for the current state of affairs. Such points of view exist among Syrians regardless of whether Western governments or Gulf regimes like it or not. Yet such views are effectively absent from Western media and from public debates about Syria in the West—despite the constant invocation of “the Syrian people.” The only exception has been those US-based Syrian Christian churches, which show more public confidence than other Arab groups (a dynamic that is the result of the sectarian biases of Western foreign policy). Such groups have sided with the regime or have been quite vocal against the Syrian rebels. Thus, one of the few public expressions of opposition to Syrian rebels was organized by Syrian Christian groups in Pennsylvania (and was met with shouts and obscenities by “experts” of Syria in DC).
There is little acceptance or toleration for views that are opposed to all Syrian rebels. But those views exist, even among Syrians in the United States regardless of sect or ethnicity. Such voices have only been registered on the margins of the debate, and have not been given much publicity by the media. And yet, nearly all writings on Syria in Western media coverage of Syria is produced as if it was representative of the entirety of the Syrian people. Beirut-based Washington Post correspondent Liz Sly publicizes her views on Twitter and attributes them to the “Syrian people.” Clearly, there are enough Twitter accounts of ostensible Syrians writing in perfect English from rebel-held areas to prove that all Syrians are supportive of the rebels and welcoming of Western intervention.
What little real debate exists about Syria in the West is being increasingly suppressed in the face of this rigid consensus and its institutional support. More recently, some US-based supporters of Syrian rebels have publicly declared war on prominent champions of the Palestinian cause, falsely accusing them of supporting the Asad regime. Unfortunately, such is the discourse of the supporters of Syrian rebels in the West and the Middle East: any declared hostility, opposition, or criticism of the Syrian rebels is automatically (and in most cases falsely) conflated with support for the Asad regime (just as the Asad regime automatically dismisses and maligns any opposition to its rule as support for imperialist interests). It is ironic that supporters of Syrian rebels (who have not seized power yet) are resorting to the same Asad regime tactics of domination. Some Syrian rebels have in fact resorted to the same torture techniques of the regime (e.g., the Dulab) against their prisoners. They have also shot at demonstrators opposed to their policies or practices. But there is more to the story; indeed, there is much more to the story.
There seems to be a rhetorical connection (regardless of intentionality), and in some cases outright collusion, between the recent campaigns—launched in the name of supporting the Syrian “revolution” —against champions of the Palestinian cause and the vicious continuous Zionist campaign against supporters of Palestine. The dominant and most vocal spokespeople of the Syrian “debate” in the West fall into one of two groups: journalists and pundits who work in Gulf-funded think tanks, centers, and media outlets; or Zionists who are scattered across the Washington DC think tanks, which at a moment’s notice are able to produce instant experts on any country in the Middle East in which Israel has a stake (which basically means the entire Arab world in addition to Turkey and Iran).
The lack of debate on Syria is also assisted by the official propaganda emanating from the US government and the Gulf regimes. In 1990, the US and the Gulf regimes paved the way for the devastating war on Iraq through an avalanche of propaganda. Today, the US and the Gulf regimes are insisting that only one side of the story is allowed. Indeed, there is only one side to the story according to them. Western human rights organizations are assisting this effort, and Syrian-sounding names (or organizations and political shops) are funded and supported by Gulf regimes, the United States, or European countries to pretend that there exists neutral and objective Syrian monitoring groups that can tell the story of the Syrian war without bias and without obfuscation. In recent decades, the United States has become adept at camouflaging its lies and propaganda by recycling its distorted view of the world through local NGOs and various bodies that it creates, funds, and then pretends to rely on for information. Thus, many NGOs have proliferated throughout the Arab world and are dedicated to spreading the message of “peace” (as is defined by United States) and the message of free enterprise.
There are plenty of media shops and Syrian civil society organizations in exile, which are funded by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Turkey. Yet those shops and organizations are considered authentically Syrian—all the while those individuals and groups not allied with US official rhetoric are not even recognized as part of the Syrian people. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is based in London and yet its director issues press releases in which he asserts that he was able (from afar) to document gas attacks by the Syrian regime. Also, Western human rights organizations often provide cover and lend legitimacy to local organizations which parrot Western policies and standards. Thus, Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, always tweets about Syrian regime and Russian bombings of civilians as war crimes, but never uses such tersm to describe the actions of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
There is an urgency to the Syrian issue. Some among the supporters of the Syrian rebels in the West are downplaying the US threat and insist that we focus on the Russian threat. There is indeed a Russian threat in Syria, and much Russian violence. But that does not mean the US complicity in creating the situation and the US threat of making things even worse—no matter how much some cannot imagine it getting worse—is not also real. The United States is already heavily involved in Syria and has been since before the eruption of the uprising in 2011. We are talking about potential US plans for the escalation of the conflict and for the prolongation of the suffering of the Syrian people. Just as Russia is causing the death and injury of civilians in Syria, the United States and its allies are also causing the death and injury of Syrian civilians. Just last week, the Washington Post printed a small story in which it said—rather in passing—that since the beginning of the Mosul battle, US bombing has killed “more than 80 civilians.” As long as the enemies of Israel are distracted and diverted, Israel and the United States are pleased.
Who Is Left and Who is Right In the War in Syria?
The debate about Syria has taken center stage in many leftist organizations in both the West and the Arab world. Both the savagery of the Syrian war and the involvement of so many outside parties have only raised the stakes. For their part, Western and Gulf governments have spent billions in propaganda campaigns—all too visible in their respective media outlets. Some of the statements of Syrian rebel groups read as if they were translated from English, and first drafted by PR firms on K Street in Washington DC. For example, the Nur al-Din al-Zenki rebel group, which received US funds and arms in the past, issued a very carefully crafted and polished statement after it was caught on video beheading a Palestinian child that had all the markings of a US consulting firm. Syrian rebels groups often issue PR statements in both English and Arabic—just to make sure the message reaches its recipients. Similarly, the Iranian-Russian alliance has also been spending money (though miniscule compared to the propogranda budget of the United States and its GCC allies) and working hard to present its campaign in strategic—even apocalyptic—terms. Hizballah, which over the years has been subjected to the bombs of the US-Israeli “war on terror,” has itself been dragged into a “war on terror” in which it is partaking in Syria. It is not clear that Hizballah is aware of the legal and political ramifications of its involvement in fighting which has the banner of “war on terror,” given that it was one of the first groups against which the rhetoric of “the war on terrorism” was directed. But there is no question that the Western-Gulf coalition (which always includes Israel as an unadvertised core member) has regarded Syria as a crucial node in its foreign policy and global strategy. The United States is keen on establishing a closed Arab order in which all regimes fall behind Saudi leadership. There has never been as large or as intense a zone of US-Saudi coordination and activity in the region as there is today. Furthermore, once the US-Gulf regimes install a client regime in Syria, the Camp David trip of Anwar al-Sadat becomes complete.
Given the marginalization of the left both in the broader political field of the West and the Arab world, the focus within the left—as a target—on Syria is curious. It is clear that all arguments were marshaled by supporters of the Syrian rebels in order to discredit groups and individuals who have actual credibility—unlike, say, the media of Saudi princes, or the propagandists of the Syrian regime. Arab public opinion is not of one mind on the issue of Syria: those who are sectarian-minded have taken sides, either on the side of the Syrian regime and its allies or on the side of the Syrian rebels, who are dominated by Islamist ideologies of various strands. Leftist discourse on Syria in the Arab world—unlike liberal discourse advanced almost exclusively by former leftists who conveniently introduce themselves to Western leftist media as leftists in order to attain leftist credentials when those people are active in anti-leftist rhetoric and movements in Arabic—is not tied to Gulf regimes or to Iranian regime. Because it is more independent it attracts more attacks from clients of Gulf regimes.
In order to debate the issue of Syria and leftist arguments about it, one has to treat the various actors in Syria from a leftist standpoint. This includes an attention to the leftist credentials of those actors. Neither the Asad regime nor the Syrian rebel groups are remotely related to the Left. So while the discussion has been focused on “the left and Syria,” there is little to show of leftism among the warring factions (both local and international). In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, there were active leftist currents which were instrumental in the uprising there. That has not been the case in Syria, for a range of reasons—some particular to Syria and some not particular to Syria.
Let us start with the US-dominated coalition. We can easily dismiss any claims about leftist interests or identities of any of its members. The United States never allows leftist or progressive considerations to influence its foreign policy. This is precisely what unites Republicans and Democrats on the foreign policy level. The United States consistently adheres to a right-wing position in its foreign policy. One would be hard pressed to find a case of US intervention in which the US did not side with the conservative, right-wing, and reactionary side within a conflict. From the Lebanese Civil War to the Arab-Israeli conflict, through inter-Arab conflicts, the “natural” sympathies of the US government always fell with the most conservative and reactionary government or party. In the Lebanese Civil War, the United States supported and armed the right-wing death squads of the Phalanges and their allies. Reading newly declassified US documents pertaining to the this civil war, one is struck by the extent to which the US view of the 1975-76 phase of the war was framed in terms of left-versus-right. The US role was underpinned by a commitment to sponsoring and arming the right-wing and pro-Israeli militias to undermine the Lebanese and Palestinian left. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States repeatedly utilized its support for Israel to bolster its global war on the Left. It is also true that in intra-Arab conflicts, the United States preferred the most conservative and the most reactionary side in a conflict. In addition, Gulf regimes closely coordinated with the United States to battle the left not only in the Gulf region, but also in the world at large. The Saudi regime, for example, funneled money to right-wing groups in Europe, Africa, and Latin America at the behest of the US government. For all these reasons, US intervention in the Middle East consistently makes things worse.
What is said about the United States in terms of its reactionary and conservative agenda, also applies to its European allies. They all have sided with the United States and its right-wing partners and proxies around the world. To be sure, some European allies of the United States may not have sympathized with US goals in Latin America. Yet such differences never caused a rift with the United States. European differences with the United States are not so much out of some greater affinity for progressive forces in the Middle East as much as they are about profit and competition. The conflict between Western Europe and the United States in Africa, for example, is one of colonial competition—especially as the United States has been more substantially extending its corporate and military influence in Africa at the expense of Western European interests.
In the Middle East region, European powers and Canada have all sided with US political preferences—and, of course, with Israel. Whatever little differences that existed prior to 11 September 2001 evaporated during the last decade and a half. Canadian foreign policy used to be refreshingly different from US foreign policy. Yet Canadian voting at the United Nations has become quite similar to the US record, and Canada has become more pro-Israel and it is now—under a liberal prime minister—the second largest (in terms of value) exporter of arms to the Middle East. Europe expressed slightly different sentiments in favor of Palestinian independence in the 1970s. Yet it too has fallen increasingly in line with the United States on Arab-Israeli issues and on Middle East more generally. After France criticized the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jacques Chirac moved quickly to mend differences with the United States. Since then, both countries have coordinated their policies in Lebanon and later in Syria.
Some may remark that liberal or socialist parties are ruling some European governments. But liberal and socialist parties of Europe can no longer be counted on the left (assuming that they ever were). This is especially so when it comes to foreign relations and defense policies, not to mention domestic policies. During the 1990s and since, the UK Labor Party adopted Bill Clinton’s recipe of centrism over liberalism. The current socialist government of France is probably one of the most reactionary of Western governments in terms of its Middle East policy. Relatedly, the French-Saudi relationship has reached an unprecedented levels of cooperation during socialist rule in France. What is considered “left” in European governments is little more than centrist (if not right wing). The political center of gravity has shifted markedly toward the right in the last two decades. Simply put, the Arab world is an arena where distinguishing between the left and right in the West is meaningless: imperialist considerations continue to determine Western policies in the Middle East region and further cement their alliance with the Israeli occupation state. British foreign policies change little between a Conservative and a Labor government, just as French policies change little between a conservative and a socialist government.
As for the Arab regimes, they all fall under the reactionary category. With the Saudi regime leading and propping up the existing Arab political order, there is no point in discussing whether Arab intervention in Syria would be a leftist or rightist act, whether it would be in the interests of Syrian population or not, and whether it would usher in anything progressive, democratic, or socially just. Yet Saudi Arabia does not only speak for the existing Arab political order. The kingdom is now basically running what is described in the West as the “moderate” and “secular” (external) Syrian opposition, namely the US-created Syrian National Coalition (SNC). With this, the Saudi regime now tightly controls the official Syrian opposition’s negotiating team in Geneva. The leadership of the SNC not only lacks representative credentials among the Syrian rebels; it is also divided between allies of the Qatari and Saudi regimes, with a segment loyal to the Turkish government. It bears noting that the Turkish government and Qatari regime are key sponsors of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, especially after the other Gulf and Arab regimes belatedly declared war on the organization—despite having hosted, supported, and armed it for decades [Jordan’s King Husayn admitted in the early 1980s that his government supported the Muslim Brotherhood opposition inside Syria; the Israeli-armed Lebanese Phalanges (Kata’ib) also helped the Brotherhood].
When it comes to the Syrian rebels, there is no leftist presence to speak of—a point I will elaborate on below. To rectify this absence of leftist forces, many leftist Western publications have resorted to interviewing “former leftists,” presenting them as current leftists. The irony is that this is an old trick used by the right in the Arab world. When the Saudi-Syrian alliance installed the right-wing billionaire Rafiq al-Hariri as prime minister of Lebanon, he quickly hired or variously supported a bunch of former leftists to push and promote his agenda of privatization and austerity. For example, Hariri hired Muhammad al-Kishli (a man who was active in Lebanese leftist causes in the 1960s) as his point man in the suppression of labor unions in Lebanon. Furthermore, a former leader of the Lebanese communist now sits on the “politburo” on the Hariri Future Movement.
Former leftists are a phenomenon in Arab politics and culture. They tend to be the most reactionary and anti-resistance of all political currents. Former leftists are what I and many others call “Arab liberals.” The term has a very different meaning in the Arab world than it has in the West. For some time, the term “Arab liberals” has basically captured those that serve as tools of Gulf regimes, by working in their media outlets. They tend to be the most vocal in opposing any and all groups resisting Israeli dominance (and they are of course silent about the political economy of the region). Such former leftists have effectively shunned and denounced their leftist past. Yet some of them are still identified as leftists when interviewed in leftist Western media in order to legitimize the Syrian rebels or to bestow on them leftist credentials that are completely undeserved. The Intercept recently interviewed Syrian opposition figure Yasin Hajj Salih and identified him as a leftist when the man himself (in Arabic) identifies himself as a liberal and regularly attacks the left in his writings.
If we look at the diverse landscape of Syrian rebels, we find no organized leftist groups among armed groups of consequence, with the possible exception of the Kurdish PYD forces in the north (which ironically has emerged as one of the most favored rebel groups by the US Congress). There is no unit or battalion among the Syrian rebels named after leftist figures or events (Western or Arab). Even Ibrahim Humaydi, the pro-rebel journalist who covers Syria for Al-Hayat, the mouthpiece of Saudi Prince Khalid bin Sultan, conceded in an interview with Jadaliyya’s Bassam Haddad that the “moderate rebels” are no more than ten to fifteen percent of all Syrian rebels whom he identified as Islamists or “close to al-Qa‘ida.” For Humaydi, the “moderate rebels” is a reference to the various warring factions of the Free Syrian Army. Most of these groups have engaged in various acts of local thuggery and war crimes. They may have engaged in such acts during their services in the Syrian regime army or later during the “liberation” and “revolution” phase. They may be anti-regime now, but their conduct in areas they control do not indicate leftist or progressive credentials. They have had no connection to the organized left or any leftist agenda. Their only connection is that they are variously sponsored by the right-wing regimes of Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States.
The overwhelming majority of the Syrian rebel landscape represents a variety of Islamist—both Salafist and Brotherhood—politics, with a sprinkle of the non-Islamist gangs of the Free Syrian Army. None of these groups have a progressive agenda in terms social or economic issues. They are only united by their anti-regime position, not by their democratic, progressive, or leftist goals or practices. The various established Islamist political groups in the Arab world do not include progressive or leftist elements. To be sure, the Tunisian An-Nahdah has made alliances with progressives after the overthrow of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, but it did so following its Qatari sponsors who seek to accommodate Western economic and foreign policies, in the interest of preserving the old regime if with new faces (and sometimes the old faces themselves were brought back). At any rate this exceptional Tunisian alliance was to the benefit of the Islamist forces and did little to advance leftist or progressive causes or issues. This is not to say that Islamists do not have the right to rebel or to call for the overthrow of oppressive regimes. But that is different than claiming such groups—in opposition or in power—represent leftist principles, interests, or identities.
Let us turn to the other camp. One has to strain to find any evidence of a leftist presence or agenda in the Russian-Iranian-Hizballah alliance with the Syrian regime. The Russian regime of Vladimir Putin is no leftist government. In addition to being neoliberal and corrupt, it is willing to make alliances across the political divide in the Middle East—or elsewhere in the world—with little regard to ideological or practical considerations. Simply put, Putin’s government cannot be counted on the left, despite recent efforts by its supporters in the region and elsewhere to endow Putin with undeserved progressive or leftist credentials.
As for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, it represents a new phase in the Ba`thist transformation of the country. When it first came to power in Syria and Iraq, the Ba`th had a progressive but not a leftist socioeconomic agenda, yet coupled with an authoritarian logic. They enacted a series of half-hearted social and economic reforms. Such policies were certainly progressive compared to what the old order represented. Land reform, mass education, and healthcare helped the rural and urban working poor while advancing the status of women. However, the commitment to and effects of those measures declined over the years and a new business class (i.e., cronies of the ruling families) arose: market capitalism reasserted itself with impunity (to be sure, it was not killed off in the first place). It would be fair to say that the regime of Hafiz al-Asad was less progressive than the predecessor regime of Salah Jadid, and the regime of Bashar al-Asad was less progressive than the regime of his father. Bashar’s highly touted reforms early in his rule were to the benefit of the new business sector (tied to the ruling family and a corrupt class of officials) and impoverished the rural population. Furthermore, in an attempt to appease Gulf regimes and in order to bolster its waning legitimacy, Bashar’s regime became less secular, just as the regime of Hafiz al-Asad had been less secular than the regime of Salah Jadid before him. Regardless of the particular phase, the Syrian regime resorted—and still resorts—to repression and violence to maintain its rule. It should also be stated that the Syrian regime (and that is also true of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq) does not fight Islamists because it is a secular regime. The regime fights whoever stands in its way or challenges its authority and legitimacy, including communists and other leftists. Ba`thist repression has always been non-discriminatory.
The Ba`th party in both Syria and Iraq used and repressed the left. In Syria, Hafiz al-Asad created an official (government-approved) front recognizing and incorporating a select number of parties, including the communists. However, the communists—like others in the front—were free to operate only insofar as they applauded the policies of the regime. Other leftists, like the Communist Action Party, which did not do so, were ruthlessly persecuted by the regime, as was the Muslim Brotherhood.
For their part, neither Hizballah nor the Iranian regime can be said to be leftist in terms of social justice or economic policies, to say nothing of secularism. Hizballah’s record in domestic Lebanese politics is characterized by either silence on matters of social justice or an alliance with the most corrupt capitalist groups, like Hariri’s business empire and that of the Amal Movement. Furthermore, the Iranian regime and Hizballah (in its early phase, prior to the rise of Hasan Nasrallah) had participated in the persecution of leftists in Lebanon. Hizballah still finds it hard to pay tribute to communist fighters who pioneered armed resistance to the Israeli occupation (though Hasan Nasrallah at least once paid tribute to them in a speech).
It is thus baffling that despite the fact that none of the warring factions (domestic or foreign) in Syria have leftist or progressive credentials, many Western advocates of the Syrian rebels speak as if they (i.e., the Western advocates) have the moral high ground. They speak as if Russia represents imperialism, which it does, while backers of the rebels (the United States and Gulf regimes) represent—in their own rhetoric—humanitarianism. This comes on top of the forgotten record of the United States and Gulf regimes, who bear a large responsibility for supporting the crimes of the Syrian regime over the decades. It was the United States and the Gulf states who sponsored the Syrian intervention in Lebanon in 1976 (while the Soviet Union opposed it), and it was they who also sponsored the Syrian intervention in Lebanon in 1991.
Others in the Arab world regard the Syrian regime and Hizballah as leftists due to their being part of what is called the “Mumana‘a Camp” (literally, "refusalness" camp). The term refers to the camp that opposes the Arab regional order’s accommodation with Israel. But the belief is untrue. The Syrian regime, for example, had adopted the Saudi-designed Arab Peace Initiative, which basically accepts the legitimacy of Israel within its 1948 borders in return for a withdrawal from the 1967 territories. In addition, the Syrian regime long abandoned the cause of liberating the occupied Golan Heights. This is not withstanding Bashar al-Asad’s recent talk of “the return of the Golan Heights”—as if they will be returned without any military operations. Here Hizballah’s active resistance against the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and its subsequent liberation is what endows it with an aura of leftism for many Arabs, despite its lack of a social or economic leftist agenda. This has to do with the long history of intersection between the left and anti-colonialism in the Middle East. However, the recent deterioration in its Arab image is not only due to Gulf-regime sectarian agitation—which is quite effective—but also due to its intervention in Syria, which involves propping up the Asad regime through battling the rebels regardless of the huge cost to civilians and to the image of the resistance party in the Arab world.
But economic policies and the question of social justice are not the only criteria to judge leftism. The stance of groups toward imperialist dangers and the threat of Israel (which are derivative) should also be taken into consideration. In this regard, there are confusing or delineating lines of demarcations: the external allies of the Syrian rebels (and some factions of the Syrian rebels) are aligned with the United States or with its clients regimes in the Gulf; others—like the Nusra Front, some elements of the Free Syrian Army, and some lobbying groups for the Syrian opposition in Washington DC—are either aligned with the Israeli government or with the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington DC. On the other side of the front lines, the Russian government is also an ally of the Israeli state. The Putin leadership does not in any way challenge Israeli policies in Palestine or the region. If anything, Putin has solidified the Russian-Israeli alliance. While Hizballah and the Iranian regime adopt a resistance posture against Israel, the Syrian regime wavers in its attitude toward the Israeli threat. As mentioned earlier, it has abandoned—for some time now—the cause of liberating the occupied Golan and accepted the “Arab Peace Initiative.” The Syrian regime has at some points supported (including arming) Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups. Yet it did so according to its own regime calculations, and was willing to turn against those groups as it did in 1976 in Lebanon and again later in the mid- to late-1980s against Hizballah.
Some Principles to Consider in Assessing the Leftist Stance on Syria
- While there are no active leftist organizations and movements of consequence on either side of the divide in the Syrian conflict, leftist arguments and appeals should not be disregarded or forgotten. Poor people are dying on both sides of the divide in Syria, and poor people are among the fighters of the regime and of the rebels. Leftist arguments should still hold for analysis and for activism, even if they are not currently politically salient.
- The invocation of the “Syrian people,” speaking on behalf of the Syrian people, deploying the academically fashionable terminology of “the agency of the Syrian people” is in line with—if not always intentionally—a long Western tradition of occupation and colonization in the name of the natives. There are Syrians who support the rebels, there are Syrians who support the regime, and there are Syrians who support neither. They all do so for a complex set of reasons. The notion that leftists should blindly follow the political choice of “the people” or a segment of people (conveniently selected) is a political exercise intended to support one group of combatants. Masses can make erroneous political choices and leftists—of all people—should not use demagogic arguments.
- Leftists should not necessarily follow blindly one side or the other in the armed conflict. We can all agree Asad and his regime represent a brutal dictatorship. That is not the same as saying those armed groups of consequence among the Syrian opposition should be supported or championed. Leftists should make their own criticisms or suggestions without fear of intimidation, especially the effective and universal intimidation exercised by the US-Gulf alliance.
- There are civilians on both sides of the conflict. All sides of the armed conflict (meaning, the Syrian regime and the rebels as well as all of their sponsors and supporters) have committed war crimes. Despite no reliable data about the killing and destruction, we know that both sides are guilty of war crimes, and that the regime bears a much bigger share of the responsibility. Although, all the studies and analyses of war crimes have come from one side, the side of Western and Gulf media and organizations. The notion that the Syrian regime is justified in its bombing campaign or that rebels are hiding behind civilians (even if true in some cases) is the same argument often used by Zionists to justify the murder of Palestinian civilians. This logic should be categorically rejected. Similarly, the notion that Syrian rebel crimes should be ignored or forgiven because the Syrian regime committed more war crimes is basically a license for Syrian rebels to commit more war crimes.
- Leftists of all people should welcome open debate about Syria and should reject the intimidation tactics of Western supporters and cheerleaders for the Syrian rebels. Leftists more than others should engage in media deconstruction and in pointing out the impact of financial ownership of media in the West and in the Arab world.
- Attacking the anti-imperialist left in the West has a long tradition. Those engaging in the debate about Syria need to be careful to not contribute and reinforce this tradition, all the while stating any differences and critiques they might have of those that identify as the anti-imperialist left. We need to separate those attacks on parts of the left due to purely Syrian considerations from those that are part of the US hegemonic order.
- The attack on the left exaggerates the role of the left, in the West, in the Syrian conflict, and in the Arab world at large.
- Most promoters of the idea that the left is guilty in its stance on the Syrian conflict belong to groups who are sponsored by Gulf regimes or Western governments—hardly parties that possess Leftist credentials. It must be noted in this context that the Western attacks on the left from supporters of Syrian rebels is synchronized with the campaign of attacks against the left across the Saudi-owned media.
- Leftists should be aware of the infiltration by Zionists in the ranks of the debate on Syria, for purposes that are neither related to Syria nor the welfare of the Syrian population.
- Some of the loudest voices feigning concern for the Syrian people are individuals, organizations, and regimes that have never been known for their concern for the Syrian people or for the lives of Arabs more generally.
- Palestine is relevant to every debate, or it should be. But the Palestinian issue is being exploited for political purposes by all sides to the conflict. The Syrian regime and its supporters use it, for example, in their argument that any protest or armed insurrection against the regime is a Zionist conspiracy (although Israel is certainly active in the Syrian conflict and Israel has been active in every internal war or conflict in the contemporary Arab world). The Zionist supporters of the Syrian rebels also exploit the issue when they take advantage of every possible political event to further the interests of Israeli occupation and aggression.
- The left is interested in the welfare of the poor, and neither the Syrian regime nor its enemies among the rebels care for the poor. Furthermore, the Western-Gulf alliance is hardly ever interested in the plight of the poor in their own countries, let alone abroad.
- Leftists have to oppose Russian intervention in Syria at the same time they condemn US, European, and Gulf intervention in Syria. Russia is a hegemonic player, but the United States remains the supreme imperialist global power causing more death, destruction, and conflict than any other country on the planet. There are reasons to distrust Russian motives in Syria, but there are more reasons to distrust US motives in Syria and across the Arab world.
There needs to be an open and free debate on Syria—both in the West and in the Middle East. But such debate is impossible because there is so much at stake for all those external parties intervening in Syria. How could there be a debate free of the propaganda influence of the Syrian rebel lobbies in Western capitals when the absence of debate is part of the political agenda? Furthermore, the public debate in the United States has become more restricted: Washington DC think tanks are now more suspect than ever, given the infusion of Gulf money into their coffers. What passes as dispassionate analysis is often masked Gulf-paid lobbying. The US foreign policy establishment is pushing for heavier US military intervention in Syria, and the Gulf regimes are also pushing for this intervention. Of course, the United States has never stopped intervening militarily in the war in Syria and seeks its prolongation just as it sought the prolongation of various wars and civil conflicts in the region in order to relieve Israel of pressures. As all parties acknowledge, a heavier US military intervention will likely lead to more bloodshed and killing in Syria. US missiles and rockets—all propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding—also kill Syrian civilians just as Russian missiles do. Russia poses a threat to Syria and to Syrians. But the United States has posed and poses a greater threat to Syria, the Syrians, and to the rest of the world (and even to outer space given US plans in the 1960s to detonate a nuclear bomb on the moon).