A Leftist Response to Leftist Delusions on Syria

This excellent piece was written by Shiar in response to Stop the War’s Lindsey German (who can’t even get the Syrian president’s first name right) and was first published at the Syria News Wire.

“Being anti-imperialist yet West-centric,” writes Shiar, “just does not work: it is still Orientalism. This Orientalist (and statist) world view is so dominant within the Western Left that even a mass, popular uprising is reduced to a Western-manufactured conspiracy (which is, incidentally, the same line as that the Syrian regime has been repeating). It not only ignores facts on the ground and the complex political dynamics at play in those countries, but also overlooks those people’s agency and reduces them to either some inferior and stupid stereotype (Islamist terrorists) or some romanticised mythical version that is compatible with the dominant Western values (pro-democracy, peaceful, etc.).”

I have no idea where you get your news about Syria from, but it strikes me that it’s probably mostly from the Guardian, BBC and other establishment mouthpieces (when it comes to foreign policy anyway). For how else can one explain your sudden realisation that Syria is only now “descending into hell”? Really?! All this death and destruction over the past 26 months has not been hellish enough for you? Only now, when your beloved mainstream media start to recycle some state propaganda nonsense about the conflict in Syria taking (yet another) dangerous turn or crossing some ‘red line’, do your alarm bells start to ring?

You see, information sources are not just about information; they also shape your perspective. As a Leftist activist, one would have thought you would mention – at least once, in passing – the popular uprising or the revolution, what Syrians think and want, or anything remotely related to people. Instead, all you obsess about is big politics from a statist perspective: regime change, foreign intervention, regional war, Israel, Iran, bla bla bla.

If you’d argued that, after Tunisia, the prospect of mass, popular uprisings bringing regimes down seemed too frightening for Western and regional powers, so they opted for pushing the revolutions into prolonged armed conflicts or wars (mainly by not intervening when they could), I might have paused and thought a bit about your argument. If you’d said that the prospects of progressive governments emerging from mass uprisings demanding freedom and social justice seemed too frightening for the conservative, neoliberal forces, both regionally and internationally, so they converged to divert the revolutions and paint them as something else, I might have listened to you. But dismissing everything people have been fighting for because of some archaic geo-strategic equations… that’s just too much to swallow.

The only time you seem to remotely allude to people’s agency is when you fall into the trap of Western media’s obsession with Middle Eastern sectarianism, reducing complex political dynamics to a savage ‘civil war’ between religious sects: “Syria, locked into a bitter civil war between the government of Bashir Assad and the various opposition forces…” Here is what a friend posted on Facebook a while ago:

“Dear friends everywhere, We, Syrians, or a vast majority of us, do not accept using the term ‘civil war’ when talking about our revolution. We hope that you can take serious note of that. It is a popular revolution against a mass-murdering dictatorship. Calling it a civil war is unacceptable to us. Thanks.”

Your misinformed, or disinformed, sources of information may also explain your simplistic analysis of the political games unravelling in Syria, such as your talk about the imaginary “alliance of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Jordan and the Western powers.” Had you bothered to look a bit closer, check some more informed and reliable sources, or even talk to some Syrians, you would have realised that this ‘alliance’ is riddled with power struggles, with different regional and international powers supporting different factions fighting in Syria, with very different agendas and strategies. The only thing that seems to unite them is their opposition to the regime.

But even this does not mean that ‘the Syrian people’ are united in their position regarding these factions. Had you bothered to look or ask, you would have discovered that many Syrian Leftists are fighting alongside members of the Muslim Brothers, that there have been numerous protests inside Syria against Jabhat al-Nusra when its members have gone too far in their authoritarian or sectarian practices, and so on and so forth. Instead, you chose to quote Robert Fisk – who has long lost it, as far as I’m concerned – saying: “The rebels so beloved of NATO nations are losing their hold of Damascus… This war – beware – may last another two, three or more years. Nobody will win.”

The same can be said of your eye-opening revelation that the sole aim of the Syrian revolution, as a Western conspiracy, is “a transformation of the Middle East aimed at permanently weakening Iran and its allies.” I do not want to comment on this any further but you might want to commission one of your coalition members to investigate the complex and changing attitudes of Syrians towards Hizbullah and Iran. A cursory look at recent images posted on Facebook of Syrian banners and placards ridiculing Hasan Nasrallah and Hizbullah might be a good start.

My point is that your objections to a military intervention in Syria seem to stem from the same place as the intervention: that ‘we’ (Europeans, Westerners, whatever) know better than Syrians what should be done about Syria. Had you bothered to talk to some Syrians, they might have told you how complex and nuanced the issue of foreign intervention is for most Syrians (I’m obviously not talking about a few sell-outs or parasites who are capitalising on the events for their own advantage). Their angry responses to the Israeli air strike on Damascus last week are just one example.

Did it not cross your mind, for instance, that ‘those people’ have already experienced Western colonialism and have grown up with strong anti-imperialist discourses (Leftist, pan-Arab nationalist and Islamist)? That they too might have learnt something from the Iraq war like you? (even though I would object to equating the invasion of Iraq with the recent popular revolutions in the region, but that’s another discussion.)

I doubt any of this has ever crossed your mind. Because had it done so, you might have paused for a moment and thought: what is that pushes these people to resort to the support of antagonistic regional and Western powers, knowing full well that the conditions of this support or the price they would have to pay is very high? I can tell you what I think the main reason is.

If you and your comrades had shown the Syrians who started the revolution any sort of support from the beginning – I mean serious, material support, not conditional solidarity and empty, confused slogans – they might not have had to resort to the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other powers, and to form coalitions with ‘backward’ forces. Instead, all you and your comrades have been obsessing about is an imaginary peaceful or civil society movement that would mysteriously succeed in bringing down a blood-thirsty regime just like that. Then you turn to slag off those who join the Islamists or whoever is actually fighting the regime. This is not only delusional, allow me to say, it also does not exactly strike a chord with the majority of Syrians at the moment, given the context of extreme violence.

Every time I hear people here talking about a peaceful uprising being hijacked by militant Islamists or great Western powers or whatever, I cannot help thinking that it is not just their ignorant arrogance that is making them so blind to what is actually happening on the ground; it is, rather, an ideologically driven habit of twisting facts so that they conveniently fit into a pre-constructed narrative about ‘those people’ and how they do things. It is, in other words, Orientalism.

Here is another example from your article: “The impact of Western intervention in Syria is becoming more destructive as time goes on. […] Syria… is continuing its descent into hell, aided and abetted by outside powers whose concern is not humanitarian nor democratic, but is about reshaping the region and especially destroying Syria’s ally in Iran.”

To me, the position of Western anti-war activists and politicians vis-a-vis the Arab revolutions can be best descried as ‘schizophrenic delusion’. On the one hand, they stand against ‘the war’; on the other, they find themselves not only supporting repressive regimes but also supporting the wars waged by these regimes against their peoples because they are stuck in an archaic anti-imperialist discourse.

Being anti-imperialist yet West-centric just does not work: it is still Orientalism. This Orientalist (and statist) world view is so dominant within the Western Left that even a mass, popular uprising is reduced to a Western-manufactured conspiracy (which is, incidentally, the same line as that the Syrian regime has been repeating). It not only ignores facts on the ground and the complex political dynamics at play in those countries, but also overlooks those people’s agency and reduces them to either some inferior and stupid stereotype (Islamist terrorists) or some romanticised mythical version that is compatible with the dominant Western values (pro-democracy, peaceful, etc.).

Regional and Western powers will, of course, try to capitalise on the Syrian revolution and attempt to hijack or utilise it for their own ends (they’ve always done so; that’s politics.). But by imposing your own values and political agendas on the revolution, instead of showing real, unconditional solidarity with the people living it, you do exactly the same, dear comrade: you use it to feel better about yourself; to feel you’re still relevant, superior and intelligent.

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