As the world’s imperial powers unify against Syrians, we offer suggestions for how those in the West can demonstrate solidarity with the besieged
by Charles Davis, Loubna Mrie, and Kareem Chehayeb
THE last year has been one of the worst in history for Syrians, whose country continues to be torn apart by dictatorship, the Islamic State, various rebel groups, and both U.S. and Russian imperialism. As the regime has solidified its grip on Aleppo–one of the last urban strongholds of opposition forces–the Islamic State continues to be a significant force in the country, as shown by its recapture of the ancient town of Palmyra.
The rise of Donald Trump and his desire to openly work alongside Russia and the Syrian regime as part of an escalated war on terror demands change with respect to how the Western left engages the issue of Syria. Some have spent years downplaying or even openly denying the well-documented suffering of Syrians, dismissing such reports as part of a ploy by Clintonites and liberal interventionists seeking to sell the world a no-fly zone that hasn’t come. The presidential election has all but settled this policy debate; moving forward, the left now needs to figure out how it can organize on behalf of those whom the world has united against. Rehashing the past while displaced Syrians are bombed and deported would be a historical dereliction.
Refugees need to be supported wherever they are, and imperial designs for the partition of their homeland–as well as the normalization of a hereditary regime that has killed hundreds of thousands–must be opposed. Meaningful solidarity could take a number of forms that the global left should pursue immediately, lest it continues to fail Syrians as it has for the last half decade.
As a longstanding member of Veterans for Peace, I often contributed to internal online VFP discussion groups over the last few years. With Syria the bloodiest war on the planet, and thus a topic that nominally should be high on VFP’s agenda, I often wrote about developments in Syria.
My contributions frequently clashed with the self-identified “anti-imperialists” in VFP who blame the Syria conflict entirely on the United States and either defend or ignore the criminal role of Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Syria.
Among many other endeavours, Ahmad directed the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, collaborated with Algerian revolutionaries, edited the journal Race & Class, wrote a column for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and sat trial for conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger. He was a Third Worldist, an internationalist, and a humanist in the very best sense of those terms.
Eqbal Ahmad was a remarkable human being as well as a seminal progressive political thinker. In this illuminating intellectual biography, Stuart Schaar brings his subject to life, drawing on their long, intimate friendship and shared scholarly engagement with the politics of the Middle East and the Islamic world. Above all, Ahmad grasped the toxic interplay between the maladies of postcolonialism and the persistent imperial ambitions of the West better than any of his contemporaries.
In November I had the pleasure of interviewing Schaar about his book for Middle East Dialogues, a video series produced by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Here it is.
The responses of most leftists to the Syrian uprising and subsequent war (it’s often forgotten that it started as an uprising — indeed a nonviolent and nonsectarian one) have been deeply disappointing. Disappointing to many Syrian activists, and to many of us on the Left who support the Syrian struggle for dignity and justice, which is now a struggle against both Assad’s killing machine and the jihadi counter-revolutionary forces.
The Left’s responses fall into three main categories:
explicit support for the Assad regime
monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
general silence caused by deep confusion
The first camp, while relatively small, represents a truly hideous, morally obscene and, I would argue, deeply reactionary position – siding with a mass murderer and war criminal who presides over a quasi-fascist police state.
The second camp, which encompasses a majority of peace activists and soi-disant anti-imperialists in the West, represents an (ironically) Eurocentric/US-centric stance (it’s all about the West, not the Syrian people) — a total abandonment of internationalism.
The third camp is at least understandable, given the complexity of the Syrian conflict. The book I co-edited on the subject is titled The Syria Dilemma for a reason. Yet this stance remains disconcerting: silence in the face of what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls “the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world” is a cop-out. Complexity is not a gag order.
There is a fourth camp, however: a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp – it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.