You aren’t antiwar if you aren’t anti-Assad’s war

by Anton Mukhamedov

Following the joint US-UK-French strikes at the facilities associated with Syrian government’s chemical weapons programme on April 16, 2018, the international left needs to be in a position to ask tough questions about the steps the global powers are ready to take in order to prevent further civilian suffering in a country devastated by a brutal war, which the West has done nearly nothing to stop.

Unfortunately, deaf to the calls for transnational solidarity with the Syrian civil society, even as Syrian civilians have been fighting against both Assad and Islamist extremists, many figures associated with the anti-war movement have instead been preaching a kind of isolationism reminiscent of the times of the America First Committee.

Against a red-brown alliance

A month ago, a piece published by the Southern Poverty Law Center depicted a political scene ripe for barely hidden collaborations between the far right and a fraction of the Western left, such as the American ANSWER coalition or Party for Socialism and Liberation embracing similar foreign policy talking points as white nationalists. The author described a surprising connection over Syria, mediated by movements such as the Hands Off Syria coalition and think-tanks (inspired by a Russian fascist ideology going by the name of “Eurasianism”), all sharing the same affinity for Russian military intervention in Syria. Soon enough, the piece—written by Portland State University lecturer and fascism expert Alexander Reid Ross—was retracted due to a litigation threat issued by one of the actors mentioned in the article.

It is worth remembering that at the same time as imprisoning and torturing Russian leftists, the Russian state has been issuing calls for a “multipolar world”, a euphemism for a coalition of traditionalist and deeply reactionary “Eurasianist” powers fighting off what Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian National Bolshevik ideologue with ties to the Kremlin, refers to as “Atlanticism”, hence the support for far-right identitarian parties in Europe, white nationalists in the US, but also those anti-war groups who see collaboration with Russia as key to ensuring global peace. While Putin’s vision seems to be that of hegemonic powers left alone in their own sphere of interest, RT and other state outlets have been advancing the threat of a “new Cold War” to urge the political right and the political left to unite behind Russian power.

That is how in 2015, journalist Max Blumenthal ended up appearing on a panel in Moscow alongside the anti-semitic editor of Russia Insider. Several left-wing journalists and activists have also endorsed the Hands Off Syria “Points of Unity” statement which includes a passage legitimating military intervention on behalf of the Syrian government.

Far from being confined to the past, the threat of red-brown convergence is looming large in the wake of Syria strikes, as the recent anti-war protests have reunited self-described leftists and those individuals whose careers revolve around attacking leftists and minorities.

“The former British National Party leader Nick Griffin proclaiming conditional support for Jeremy Corbyn, in case the latter refused to lay the blame for the latest chemical weapons attack in Douma onto Assad, must therefore be a cause for concern. But instead of taking a look at what in Labour leader’s foreign policy outlook might attract British nationalists, some leftists claimed that Griffin simply “saw the light”.”

Even more alarming, the Neo-Nazi blogger Tim Gionet, known as “Baked Alaska”, who previously attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, appeared alongside Los Angeles ANSWER coalition at a march featuring Syrian regime flags. Several Stop the War marches were also inundated with images celebrating Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.

Rather than “seeing the light”, the reactionaries infiltrating left-wing spaces are instead remaining loyal to their positions and attempting to subvert movements deeming themselves progressive in favour of a pseudo anti-imperialist and reactionary approach to geopolitics, which lacks any concern for civilians and promotes, under the guise of secular anti-imperialism, a ruthless and sectarian dictator who has executed thousands and continues to commit crimes against humanity.

It is all the more alarming then that prominent left-wing intellectuals and political figures occasionally echo a discourse originating in conspiracy theories pushed by Russia Today legitimating said dictator. The left can oppose foreign military intervention without telling lies about it.

Despite what some believe, the UN has found the Assad regime guilty of using chemical weapons not just on one, but on at least 23 counts. That is why remarks alleging that the attacks on chemical faciliteis were nothing but a smokescreen to hide the lies about Syrian chemical weapons use and destroy evidence (as suggested by political activist Sam Husseini) are profoundly unhelpful, in addition to being inaccurate—the Syria strikes not having targeted any facility nearby the site of the Douma chemical attack.

This brings us to a necessity to reformulate a radical critique of foreign policy, that remains independent from a reactionary mindset putting state sovereignty above civilian suffering and equating brutal war on terror to legitimate self-defence.

For a left-wing critique of military intervention

It is crucial to identify what does and what does not constitute a sober critique of military intervention.

As countless commentators and Syrian refugees themselves have pointed out, it is sheer hypocrisy to stay silent as several global powers intervene to back one of the region’s most murderous dictatorship clinging to power via all means, even when it means destroying entire regions, and speak out only when a relatively harmless airstrike targets alleged chemical weapons facilities.

This does not mean that we ought embrace interventionist attitudes with open arms. A left truly independent of state-enforced narratives and emancipated from its own neo-Orientalism would place concern for civilians above all else. It would realise that the biggest perpetrators of war crimes in Syria have been the Assad forces, responsible for above 90% of civilian casualties.

The US also has its share of responsibility, notably for the complete destruction of Raqqa, which did not even have to fall into the arms of ISIS, if only the opposition forces holding it until January 2014 were supported against the extremists.

According to journalist Anand Gopal who meticulously documented American war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who appeared on The Irrelevant Arabs podcast in 2017 to discuss Raqqa, the reason for American inaction wasthat the nation was “constitutionally incapable” of dealing with a “popular democratic uprising”. As the revolution came to Syria, “Syrians were discovering everything that had been stamped out and suffocated in thirty or forty years. There were cases in various cities where the government was overthrown and people ran their own revolutionary councils—which had all sorts of mistakes and missteps, but these were people trying to figure out how to democratically run their lives for the first time ever (…) Unfortunately, the Syrians were never given the space to make those mistakes, because they were being bombed by the regime, they were being gassed, they weren’t being given weapons to defend themselves, and they were accused of being terrorists.”

A left-wing worldview would thus further actions of solidarity with civil society flourishing in liberated areas in Syria since the uprising and highlight the role of foreign powers in radicalising the opposition to prevent such experiences from taking place. A truly independent left would remain vigilant to the escalation of brutality happening in Syria ever since the protesters initially rose up to peacefully demand political reforms, only to be shot at and tortured.

Finally, a left empathic with the suffering of civilians abroad would realise that the limited military action against the Syrian regime only serves to preserve the semblance of what once was supposed to be a inviolable red line,—and that ultimately neither the red line itself, nor the feeble attempts at maintaining it will save Syrians from bombing, starvation, arrests and forced conscription.

Not only are the pro-Assad forces still physically capable of recurring to improvised chlorine weapons, they will also continue the same bloody campaign to reconquer the rest of rebel-held territories around Homs and Dera’a, and possibly Idlib, with the help of more conventional means of killing.

That is why in the immediate aftermath of the strikes, Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh argued that “the British-French-American strike [was] the gateway to rehabilitating this regime [which] will probably now start acting in a more responsible manner in front of them”, mostly avoiding the most spectacular kinds of chemical attacks. “The fascist moment of this world is still there and expanding”, he concludes. 

The tragic fall of Ghouta

Even as the Syrian government attempts to paint a rosy picture of refugees returning to a country that will flourish after reconstruction, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced in the 5 past months alone. The latest series of forced departures was linked to the pro-Assad forces reconquering the districts constituting Eastern Ghouta from a handful of rebel groups.

The Ghouta campaign was unparalleled by the disregard for civilian life and made headlines around the world, but the Western left remained divided, some even refused to acknowledge the civilian losses as anything other than a terrible but necessary cost of a counter-insurgency operation.

When British comedian John Cleese took to Twitter to lambast Putin for undermining the UN-voted ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta instead proposing a cynical 5 hour daily break, his humour offered a momentary respite from the inhumanity flooding some Western political spaces. “So Putin is in favour of a ‘Humanitarian Break’ in Syria. Good for him!! When he was head of the KGB, he introduced the idea of a ‘Humanitarian Break’ during their torture sessions. Every three hours they would stop torturing someone, clean up the blood, stretch their legs…”

Unfortunately, there has been no respite for Ghouta civilians. Gassed with sarin and chlorine, burnt with white phosphorus and napalm, barrel-bombed and massacred, they had not seen bombardment cease for one day ever since Assad set his mind on reconquering eliminating the remaining opposition forces in the governorate of Rif Dimashq and until the forced evacuation of remaining fighters and civilians. Ultimately, as the rest of Eastern Ghouta fell, but Douma stood resisting, the latest chemical attack which triggered the Syria strikes ensured that this last stronghold would promptly surrender.

At a time when pundits’ opinions are beyond parody,—neocon Max Boot even issuing a call in The Washington Post to “let Assad win as quickly as possible” in order “to save Syrians” earning him an endorsement from the prominent left-wing columnist Mehdi Hasan,—the comedians’ role becomes that of safeguarding collective conscience.

Speaking of comedy, Dante Alighieri is frequently (mis)quoted about the fact that “the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict,” an adage that nevertheless remains very well-adapted to the current times.

For there is no need to pay overt allegiance to president Bashar al-Assad, tracing false equivalences between opposition’s makeshift mortars and the Syrian and Russian aircraft largely suffices.

As Syrian activist Loubna Mrie argues “the atrocities being committed by the Syrian government in Ghouta should not preclude us from calling for accountability for all human-rights violators,” including rebel factions such as Jaysh al-Islam, but “this does not mean we need to support the air force flattening the area.”

Which is what many left-wing journalists proceeded to do nevertheless. How else to interpret journalist Rania Khalek’s appearance on Russia Today’s “In The Now”, referring to Eastern Ghouta as “one of the last remaining strongholds of the Islamist rebellion that tore through the country these last seven years”, made of a “collection of extremist groups”? Khalek’s discourse a priori legitimated any operation, no matter how deadly as a sort of necessary evil (even when residential areas are deliberately targeted).

Losing empathy

Not all left-leaning journalists currently defending Assad’s campaign started out this way. Today, freelance journalist Max Blumenthal smears anyone he thinks is “zealously championing a unilateral American Air Force regime change war and the arming of jihadist proxies”, but back in 2013, when a chemical attack first hit Ghouta, he claimed that Syrian refugees reluctantly calling for military intervention ought to have their voice hear: “When President Barack Obama announced his intention to launch punitive missile strikes on Syria, (…) a momentary sense of hope began to surge through the [Zaatari refugee] camp. Indeed, there was not one person I spoke to in Zaatari who did not demand US military intervention at the earliest possible moment.”

“Like most Americans,” Max was “staunchly against US strikes, mainly because [he believed] they could exacerbate an already horrific situation without altering the political reality in any meaningful way.” However, “the refugees trapped in Zaatari deserve to be heard. In the geopolitical chess match outside powers are waging over their country, their voices have been virtually ignored. Yet it is they who will have to face the direct consequences of any outcome of outside intervention.”

How the same journalist once advocating for an empathetic stance towards refugees ended up enabling harassment of an eight-year old refugee from Aleppo is a question only he can answer. What is certain is that, before echoing the same discourse he originally reviled, Max Blumenthal encapsulated the dilemma of the anti-war left, reluctant to advocate for US military strikes yet remaining unwilling to compromise with regimes that committed mass atrocities.

“If you’re wondering why many Syrians are inexplicably silent in these dark days, remember that we spent the past 7 years trying to make the argument that no one should have to live under a genocidal war criminal who gases his people and bury them in masses under the rubble,” writes human rights lawyer and MENA director for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Laila Alodaat. “The Syrian people didn’t only offer many lives to the hope of freedom and dignity but also millions and millions of hours of dedicated work, none of which seems to have made any difference, the world still knows very little and civilians still die in every way imaginable. We are now exhausted, traumatised and many of us are speechless and out of options”.

Lessons from Syria

Assad’s military campaigns have been accompanied by authoritarian propaganda engulfing online spaces, comparable to the IDF talking points about civilian casualties in Gaza being attributable solely to Hamas and its “human shields” tactic. This, we will only see more of in the years to come, as Erdogan, Netanyahu and Putin emerge as unchallenged strongmen and attempt to subdue independence movements in spheres they consider to be under their legitimate control. The global left therefore has to remain vigilant of discourse emanating from powers occupying and subjugating the peoples resisting them.

Behind the propaganda reducing the resistance to several fanatics holding civilians hostage are actual civilian structures,—hospitals, schools, civilian councils,—which held tight and fought back against both the external invader and extremists among the opposition, such as the opposition faction Jaysh al-Islam, likely responsible for kidnapping civil rights activists, in particular the Douma Four. Despite the dire conditions, the Ghouta siege has become a case in point of such structures resisting until their very last breath and demonstrating resilience despite the apparent impossibility of a revolution.

So, as some of the left is attempting to rewrite Syrian history in favour of the war’s “winners”, the rest must be keen to learn from the experiences of the Syrian uprising.

  • Anton Mukhamedov is a political science student in France. He tweets @lgnostic199

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