No matter where one stands, one can’t help but agree with those who point out that practical solidarity with the Syrian people suffering under Assad is sorely lacking among progressives in North America.
There are anti-imperialist activists who appear to, but don’t, support the Assad government, and there are advocates of the rebellion who don’t attempt to understand those, inside and outside Syria, who do support the Assad government. Honest activists who have nothing but vitriol for Assad, yet are focusing their energy on anti-war activism, have some justified disappointment towards significant elements of the broad progressive movement who have failed to mobilize for recent anti-war rallies across Canada. Some people have avoided these rallies and have labelled them ‘pro-Assad,’ given that indeed some in the Syrian-Canadian diaspora, and some very marginal organizations have expressed support — sometimes in the form of a T-shirt — for the Assad government.
In response, anti-war organizers make the eminently justifiable claim that — like in all mass movement building — one has to approach people ‘where they’re at,’ build broad united fronts, and thus do not police the garb and manner of those who attend their rallies. So I see two contending tendencies developing among activists, one of whom strongly resents being labelled pro-Assad, the other of whom strongly resents being accused of being soft on war and imperialism. There is a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ — that is to say, talking past each other — between those on the Left who are trying to build an anti-war movement and those on the left that are sitting this one out.
In reality, these are not contending visions. If there are any “first principles” of being on the left, they are to be anti-imperialist and to on the side of the oppressed against their tyrants.
Yet sometimes it appears that there is a discrepancy between these two principles, a “contradiction within a contradiction.” The reality of the debate on Syria is that we have two sets of people arguing that one one contradiction is primary and one is secondary. Yet the contradictions of Syria — imperialism, repression and rebellion — cannot be isolated from one another and all of this should inform our practice. I hope that what I have to offer in this article can do a little bit to inform progressive practice. We need to move beyond the double blackmail that implies that one either supports the Syrian people or one opposes imperialism. Indeed, one can’t take one position without the other.
Syria: What is to be done?
It has been established as a first principle in this situation that Assad’s regime is terrible, and that it is our imperative to actively oppose imperialism and not expect a “politics of purity” either among those who oppose Assad or those who oppose imperialism.
So what next? We must take a guarded skepticism towards any and all reports coming from the United States. On one hand, we can’t put it past Assad to have used chemical weapons, but as Virginia Tilley points out, the raw intelligence data presented for this is flawed if not outright distorted. No one should be surprised by this. Anyway, we don’t need reports of chemical weapons usage to know that Assad is not our ally, having worked right alongside the great powers in the 1991 Gulf War and collaborating with the U.S. after 9/11, even going so far as to being one of the many secret police services to help with the “extraordinary rendition” program.
Richard Seymour, author of some of the best works on the kind of liberal imperialism we are seeing advocated these days, makes a cogent point in shaking up our use of “we” when discussing issues that don’t address us directly. It is one thing when “we” talk about a protest in our city, a strike at our workplace or any other form of direct action surrounding events that we have a direct influence upon. The problem arises when the “we” is used in regards to the military/intelligence apparatuses of the powerful states we live in — “we must do something…” Seymour compares this to the argument that something must be done “for the children.” Once you bring “the children” on board, logic tends to turn off and a wide manner of rapscallions can advocate all sots of things that the general public would otherwise oppose. So the increased police presence and building of new prisons is done in the name of “the children.” This trend achieves its pinnacle in the humanitarian-imperialist “Invisible Children” project, which uses the fact that a thuggish militia uses child soldiers to encourage African dictatorships (which also use child soldiers) to “Stop Kony.” And now we have the disgusting spectacle of former peace activist turned Secretary-of-State John Kerry speaking of “humanity” setting a red line, and invoking the holocaust by tweeting “never again.”
Arming the rebels?
Almost no progressives on either side of this debate support the threatened U.S. bombing of Syria.
One thing that is supported by some — either by implication, or directly — is the U.S. arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Leaving aside the fact that U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are already funding various forces opposed to Assad, this is, to put it bluntly, playing patty-cake with Empire. Those advocating arming the rebels have made the claim that this would be a sign of solidarity with what is termed a “Revolution” in Syria, while others have claimed that U.S. influence would be preferable to Saudi and Qatari influence. Even if some elements in the FSA, in their desperation, are either asking for U.S. arms or bombings, this should give all of us pause. One does not need a great grasp of history to know that the U.S. never arms anyone it doesn’t believe it can control, and it certainly would not fund democratic or revolutionary forces.
It seems surprising, for example, that any left group would bemoan the refusal of the U.S. “to deliver defensive anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to the progressive and democratic components of the opposition.” Even if this is just rhetoric meant to expose the hypocrisies of empire, it discursively gives cover to the idea that this is a situation in which there is a credible democratic and progressive force ready to gain hegemony within the broad array forces in rebellion against Assad.
Then there are others who oppose arming the FSA or others, but still call this the “Syrian revolution.” One should recall that there is a distinction that must be made between revolution, which means the fundamental transformation of social relations, and the replacement of one class with another in terms of who rules and controls the means of production and the political and administrative apparatuses, and rebellion that topples a government, which is what we have seen in Egypt. What has happened in the Arab Spring cannot be called revolutionary except in the most vulgar “stagist” understanding of the term. And even then, can we really call the Syrian rebellion itself a “bourgeois democratic revolution”?
Arms from the U.S. never lead to liberation
What is more, there are countless examples of people in similar circumstances to those under Assad’s jackboot who did not demand weapons from the Americans — and nor did their advocates. Only a few years ago, the Sri Lankan government was on a genocidal campaign against the Tamil people. Tamil Canadians built an extraordinary solidarity movement and embarked upon courageous direct actions from below, such as the occupation of the Gardiner Expressway. One thing they didn’t do is ask western governments to arm the Tamil Tigers or others who may be more “progressive and democratic.”
Likewise, the BDS movement and Palestine solidarity activists may advocate that states sanction Palestine, but they certainly do not even for a moment believe that western arms will help liberate Palestine. The East Timorese resistance to Indonesia had no love for the CIA. The list goes on and on.
Real solidarity with oppressed peoples can never come from demanding that they are armed by imperial powers. If one sees people in a terrible situation asking to be armed by powerful countries, it should be taken with a grain of salt.
This all could have gone differently. The success of the rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia were based primarily on the fact that they were popular movements uniting diverse sectors. Syrian activists attempted this, but the Syrian regime, having more of a support base than either Tunisia or Egypt, reacted with shocking brutality.
Activists of various political stripes took up arms, and as Noaman Ali points out, there was a real opportunity, with the progressive and democratic demands of the opposition confronting the Assad regime, there could have been a negotiated settlement. In an underreported development, Kurdish defence units even created a fledgling autonomous Kurdish territory, bordering Turkey. These Kurdish opponents of the Syrian regime have been attacked by other rebels. On this broader geopolitical point, Ali is worth quoting at length:
Syria’s geopolitical enemies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — all of which are allies of Western imperialists such as the US, Britain, France and Israel — have taken advantage of the disorder to fund and arm some of the groups that are aligned with their interests. Many of these groups are hardline Islamists who seek to make sectarianism worse by targeting religious minorities, including Christians and Alawites. These reactionary groups have engaged in seriously brutal massacres and disappearances of civilians, and have increasingly sidelined the popular and democratic opposition — especially because they have received the bulk of funds and arms from international sponsors.
Islamist armed groups have also attacked the autonomous political unit in Western Kurdistan. Most likely, the Islamists are acting in support of their sponsors in Turkey, who are opposed to any sort of self-determination for the Kurdish people. The largest population of Kurds is currently in Turkey, and they have been fighting for self-determination for over three decades. The Syrian Kurds, in turn, have attempted to prevent Turkey from intervening against the Assad regime — despite opposing it themselves. In Lebanon, Assad regime forces have sought to pressure any anti-regime activity, including through bomb attacks. The Lebanese group Hezbollah, which defeated Israel in 2006, has intervened in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.
So, then, what should we do? The primary contradiction for those of us in the advanced capitalist countries is that of imperialism. We must oppose war and not place any litmus tests upon who else we work with in the movement to stop the U.S. attacks. The sad thing is, this is all we can really do from here.
When we pass motions in our unions and organizations condemning war, we should always of course condemn Assad, but the important thing right now is to stop any war, and to maintain an anti-war consensus.
A few years back, I had the pleasure of hearing Rafeef Ziadah, the renowned Palestinian activist and spoken word artist, speak on what she called “the politics of purity.” It is high time that the broad left dispenses with this politics of purity, and starts to mobilize against a new U.S.-led onslaught in the Middle East.
The only possible options at this point is continued and unending bloodshed or a negotiated settlement. And for those who truly believe that the United States will back progressive forces, if the right pressure is applied, I’ve got a bridge for sale, perhaps you’d like to give me a call.
Jordy Cummings is a writer and PhD candidate at York University, and is active in the labour and social movements in Toronto.
Photo: Common Dreams