A version of this essay appeared in the wonderful book Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian revolution, available to purchase here.
Those of us who concern ourselves with the Syrian revolutionary war will be more than familiar with the old line, almost solely repeated by leftists and self-proclaimed anti-imperialists, that they simply just can’t support the Syrian rebels because they’re ‘supported by imperialism’. In its even more crude and directly antagonistic form, the narrative is that the rebels are ‘proxies of imperialism’ or stooges of forces that are deemed to be in the wrong ‘camp’, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. The logic of this is inherently irrational and/or downright perfidious.
Firstly, it’s usually wielded not as any kind of genuinely analytical point, but rather merely as a means to deny support for and even just interest in the Syrian rebels and the revolution in general. It’s a position shaped by counter-revolution, Eurocentrism and isolationism rather than any form of progressivism. In different circumstances, this intercedes with sectarianism, different forms of chauvinisms and Islamophobia, which is apparently rendered acceptable within the remit of this kind of ‘anti-imperialism’ and the context of Syria.
Secondly, it is qualitatively and quantitatively misleading and, in certain circumstances, meaningless as a description of the kind of support the rebel forces have received from countries deemed to be ‘imperialist’ over the course of the Syrian revolutionary war. While it’s completely true that certain rebel brigades have received weaponry from countries like the US, the actual function of the US has been an arbiter of what the rebels can and cannot receive from other countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya.
For example, as has been well established, the US currently enforces an embargo on rebel forces receiving anti-aircraft MANPADS. These weapons could be used to overcome Assad’s air force (as they did with Gaddafi’s in Libya), which apart from being the main means used by the regime to terrorise civilian areas thus creating the massive refugee problem, has consistently given the regime the upper hand on the battlefield. However, in the mind of the US, they could in other circumstances also be turned against its regional allies, namely Israel.
But all of this obscures the fact that the vast majority of Syrian rebels have not been armed by ‘imperialism’ in any way, shape or form. At the moment when Barack Obama began to fully concentrate US attention on the rise of Daesh he was accused by some of indirectly facilitating this by failing to arm ‘moderate’ rebels. The accusations were correct – the US watched as Daesh overran the poorly-equipped rebel positions, doing literally nothing when the rebels launched an offensive against them that wielded successes until the over-stretched rebels were caught out by the Assad regime when its forces, backed by Hezbollah and Iranian-funded ultra-sectarian Shiite militias like Badr and Asayib Ahl al-Haq took Yabroud. Obama, consummately slippery as ever when evading questions of principle and accountability, rebutted the idea that the US hadn’t supported the rebels enough by deriding the idea that the rebels could ever be a legitimate fighting force capable of stopping Daesh, famously dismissing them as ‘farmers and pharmacists’.
In a sense, the president was not wrong. The rebels are mostly comprised of civilian volunteers who took up arms following the regime’s militarised attempts to crush the civil uprising, while the core contains tens of thousands of defected Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers. The vast majority of the weaponry these forces use is that which the defectors managed to bring with them from the SAA and that which has been taken on the battlefield or as a result of raids on military bases.
I remember speaking to a friend who has fought with a Free Syrian Army brigade in and around the Damascus area. We got onto the subject of how the revolution was perceived in the west among ‘my friends’, by which he meant fellow leftists. I told him that many of them were convinced that people like him were proxies of imperialism and were being armed by imperialist forces – inshallah, came the partially sarcastic reply.
And this brings me on to the next point. What exactly would be the problem with Syrian rebels receiving weapons from ‘imperialism’? The only people who find it problematic are people for whom sourcing weaponry will never be a problem. That might sound a cheap point to make, but it is nevertheless a cheap point worth making. For many people, ‘imperialism’ is a word they so often use but rarely ever comprehend its meaning in practice in contexts beyond either hysterical, facile denunciations and sloganeering or often equally as facile academic detachment.
What’s being protested here is not ‘imperialism’ at all, but rather a hyper-simplistic worldview in which everything exists in permanent abstraction related to dogma and the solace from confusion that people take in such dogmas. Along with this is the little industries, opportunities and lucrative peer groups associated with the ‘leftist’ subculture that allows for a very narrow spectrum of disagreement on a range of subjects relating to ‘imperialism’, with Syria only being one that is of relatively minor importance to them (ignorance prevails), but wherein everything from the successful NATO no-fly zone in Libya to less than 500 rebels receiving Colt .45 pistols and binoculars is rolled together with the US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In these circumstances, given the complex nature of global competition and interplay between nation states and different hegemonic actors, the tendency is not for a new era of theorisation on the subject of imperialism based on actual struggles taking place within these contexts, but rather a retreat into either the aforementioned dogmatic conservatism and/or absurd, reactionary conspiracy theories. Russia Today and Press TV are made to look reasonable. Propaganda is served up as an antidote to perceived propaganda (we have Mr Bush and Blair and their non-existent Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction to thank for that).
Within these contexts, the Syrian liberation struggle can only be subordinated to these dastardly deeds. In addition this, bogus historical analogies, usually the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan (an event that the left have steeped in so much confused mythology that it’s one of those areas of history that has just been colonised by fiction), are pulled out of dark, smelly cavernous places to further enunciate the idea that the Syrian opposition’s relations with ‘imperialists’ are part of some grand nefarious plot.
It transforms necessity into a political relation that simply doesn’t exist or make sense in material terms. My argument since the revolutionary war began has been that the rebels would actively require seeking arms from wherever they can. Given that there is no and never has been an anti-imperialist bloc, but rather just competing imperialist and hegemonic regional blocs, this meant that the Syrian opposition was forced to look towards the western states, those who could, if they liked, provide the very best weapons in the highest quantities.
So what does ‘necessity’ mean in this context? There’s a very good example if we can briefly compare the differences in the quality and quantity of aid received by the rebels and the regime. The Syrian rebels, who had to start from scratch — they had an extremely limited amount of heavy weapons, no heavy vehicles, no coherent command structures, a very limited amount of communications equipment — have received approximately $3 billion in aid from Qatar from 2012-2013, with Saudi Arabia providing inconsistent shipments of mostly light weaponry since late 2012.
On the other hand, the Assad regime’s forces, which were already part of a functional state — with massive weapons stockpiles (including chemical and biological ones), thousands of tanks and armoured vehicles, a brutally efficient airforce, clear and well-run command structures and state-of-the-art communication equipment — have received $15 billion worth of financial and military aid from Iran in the year of 2013-2014 alone. This figure which doesn’t even take into account the physical intervention of Iranian forces, whether it’s through it’s own Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia, or its various proxy militias from Iraq and mercenaries from Afghanistan and South Asia, not including Hezbollah, another Iranian-funded outfit that has invaded Syria. It’s important to note here that Iran’s intervention in Syria began in the very first few months of the revolution, before a single arm was raised against regime forces, and has escalated and escalated ever since.
This is the level of the disjuncture here – relatively speaking, there has been a tiny amount of aid from the ‘Friends of Syria’ to the Syrian rebels. We know already what the Gulf states can do when they put their minds to it. We’ve already seen it in the context of the Arab spring, such as the Peninsula Shield Force’s (the joint military force of the GCC) brief counter-revolutionary intervention on behalf of the Bahraini regime, as well as Al-Saud’s current large-scale brutal intervention against Ansar Allah in Yemen. Moreover, in Iraq and Syria, bombs and missiles from Saudi, Qatari and Emirati planes are currently dropping on Daesh positions, sharing the same airspace as Assad’s airforce, which remains untouched, while his ground forces continue with their brutal business safe in the knowledge that there will never be any airstrikes against them.
To tip irony to its breaking point, the GCC involvement in the US-led coalition’s intervention in Syria and Iraq is actually on behalf of one of Assad’s major allies, namely the sectarian Iraqi regime. Not only do Iran-run and funded militias lead the counter-insurgency on the ground, benefitting from Gulf airstrikes, but without the continued rule of the Islamic Dawa Party in Iraq, Iran would never have been able to launch its intervention on behalf of the Assad regime. Friends of Syria? They have a funny way of showing it.
The very minute that GCC and US planes begin to strike Baathist targets, we might be able to talk about Gulf or ‘western’ support for the rebels in the same terms as Iranian support for Assad with a straight face. I think it’s safe to assume that this moment will never come.
The only true upper hand the rebels have had in the war is manpower, which dispels yet another one of the narratives adopted by some of the anti-imperialist left – that the problem in Syria is that the Assad regime actually has a massively popular basis, while the revolution has ran out of steam. This has actually never been true, but even if it were, while it would be an important analytical point, it wouldn’t invalidate the cause of those forces who want to overthrow the criminal Baathist tyranny.
But, to reiterate, the opposite is true. The revolutionaries are not running out of locals willing to fight for the freedom of their communities and country, while Assad’s manpower problem is reaching such a point of crisis that he even took the majorly unprecedented step of recently mentioning it in a public speech, during which, in reference to the increase in Iranian military forces and foreign jihadist militias, he declared that ‘Syria isn’t for those with a Syrian identity or passport, but those who defend it’. As fate would have it, the rebels have an abundance of manpower with extremely scarce resources, while the regime has an abundance of resources with extremely scarce manpower.
It is completely true that the rise of Daesh served to solidify the regime’s base (not in an uncomplicated manner; hence the dissension among Alawites), but given the sectarian structure of the Baathist security state, it was always going to be the case that the crumbling of these things would largely depend on the revolution penetrating the Alawite minority. This has quite obviously failed to occur – it is precisely why a civil war erupted. But to those who make the claim that the majority of Assad’s forces and supporters are Sunni Syrians, completely skates over the obvious sectarian and communitarian basis of the NDF, which does most of the fighting, with the much-reduced SAA, comprising ultra-loyal Alawite-led brigades (often literally commanded by members of the Assad dynasty) taking on the role of a supplementary force.
The true extent of this gulf in manpower can best be discerned in two ways:
1) The fact that Assad has had to demobilise 2/3rds of the Alawite-led but mostly Sunni SAA, instead relying on ultra-loyal divisions often commanded by cousins and cronies, while he’s also employed a tactic first perfected by his father Hafez al-Assad during the last protracted period of state slaughter by the Assad regime, the crushing of the Ikhwan-led insurgency in the 1970s and early 1980s, where ultra-loyal brigades and commanders were attached to regular army forces, largely comprised of Sunnis, supplemented by shabiha death squads. This allowed defections to be kept to a minimum.
However, during a popular revolution involving a ‘counter-insurgency’ strategy that requires ethnic cleansing of Sunnis and the mass killing of civilians, the rot can only be stopped to a certain point – in the early days of the war, when Assad used a larger portion of the SAA, there was a wave of defections (which led to the creation of the Free Syrian Army in 2012), so he has had to demobilise most of it. Instead of merely utilising shabiha forces, Assad was forced to take the unprecedented step of allowing Iran to create and train a super-shabiha known as the National Defence Forces (NDF), which was basically set up as an alternative to the severely impaired SAA, and which was built on an entirely sectarian and communitarian basis. But even now, those few Sunni brigades that were utilised have been racked by defections and desertions, while the pool of conscripts has dried up to the point of non-existence, with widespread draft-dodging. Most worryingly for Assad, this dissension is also becoming commonplace among Alawites, who are his only solid base.
2) In 2014, after the rise of Daesh and the fracturing of the Free Army due to internal divisions caused by lack of resources and factional infighting, the rebels were in complete disarray. The Assad regime was very much on the offensive – Baathist, Iranian regime and Hezbollah mouthpieces all declared the war to be won, while there was celebration among a few pro-Assad leftists that the regime had seemingly triumphed over ‘the terrorists’ (never let these people criticise ‘neocons’ again), as well as celebrating Assad’s ‘election’ triumph. While everybody was focussing on regime victories in places like Homs, they should’ve been looking at the nature of the victories. They were far from total. The limited manpower of the regime and its reliance on foreign fighters meant that these victories were only ever going to be limited to key areas – there was no victory at all. No breakthroughs. Just temporary shifts in stalemates in different theatres of war.
This period of alleged ascendency for the Assad regime should’ve been notable for the fact that when the rebels were at their lowest moment, having to contend with a lesser but still deadly fascism in the form of Daesh as well as the regime, the regime failed to make any major capitalisations. The reason for this is simple – it’s because it did not have the manpower or popular support to do so. For the Assad regime to retake all of Syria, it would most likely involve a massive land invasion of the country by the Iranian Armed Forces and its proxy militias. This, of course, won’t ever happen.
Nowhere can this better be seen in Free Aleppo, where the regime, backed up by the foreign invasion forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, the sectarian head-drillers of Asayib Ahl al-Haq and various mercenary forces, not only failed to capture the jewel in the revolution’s crown, but prompted a successful rebel counter-offensive.
Indeed, immediately following the regime’s self-proclaimed ‘victory’, the rebels began a new tactic of forming joint operations rooms, bringing together often ideologically disparate forces under the sole purpose of overthrowing the regime and chasing out the invasion forces, whether that’s the so-called Islamic State or the Islamic Republic, the self-proclaimed Khilafat or the self-proclaimed Party of God. This the tactic that has allowed them to defend Free Aleppo and make gains against regime positions, leading to the current offensive led by the joint operation room called Fatah Halab (Conquest of Aleppo), which contains a multitude of revolutionary forces, including the proponents of Islamic democracy Liwa al-Tawhid (Unity Brigade) and several secular nationalist FSA brigades.
Far from these forces being ‘supported by imperialism’, they’ve managed to regroup on the basis of self-sufficiency, pooling their resources and prioritising their shared goals over ideological quibbles, with aim of liberating Aleppo from both Daesh and the Assad regime.
In March 2015 in Idlib, we saw a similar phenomenon occurring when the newly created joint operation of Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), led by the hardline Islamist Ahrar ash-Sham (Free Men of the Levant), but also including democratic forces such as Faylaq ash-Sham (Sham Legion), liberated the city of Idlib from the NDF, SAA and Hezbollah.
While most Syrians celebrated this news, most ‘anti-imperialists’ either completely ignored this sign that the revolution was alive and well or, following the Islamophobic western media, lamented the fact that ‘al-Qaeda’ had struck another blow against the Assad regime. I remember watching videos of civilians in Idlib celebrating as Jaish al-Fatah fighters entered the city, tearing down statues of Hafez al-Assad, as well as regime and Hezbollah flags, and releasing prisoners who had been locked up in regime dungeons, then contrasting it with both the grave tone of the western media coverage and with that of the even more hysterical pro-Assad left.
The source of this solemn take on the liberation of Idlib was the fact that Jaish al-Fatah contains brigades affiliated with Jabhat an-Nusra (JaN), al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria. Are people right to be concerned about this group being involved in the liberation of Idlib? Absolutely, but if the western media were to be believed, then you’d imagine that this was something akin to the fall of Mosul to Daesh in 2014 (I would say the fall of Raqqa to Daesh, but it was largely ignored). Almost every article or report in the western media characterised Jaish al-Fatah as ‘al-Qaeda-led rebels’ or ‘rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda’.
As the Assad regime and its allies fled Idlib on the ground, the warplanes were sent in to repeat the brutally common tactic of terrorising civilians in rebel-held areas with barrel bombs and missiles, the de-humanisation was being produced and reproduced with al-Qaeda smear. While the focus should’ve been on the terrorism of the Assad regime against liberated areas (which is the main cause of the refugee problem), it was instead on this constant reduction of the revolution to ‘al-Qaeda’, Islam and Islamism and what this meant for, guess who, the West.
In truth, the fact that JaN played a role in the liberation of Idlib is not something that sits well with many Syrians and those who support the revolutionary war, but it was a necessity. To contrast the reality of the inclusion of JaN in Jaish al-Fatah with the western media’s al-Qaeda obsession and the Assad regime’s propaganda narrative that this is a simple fight between his secular regime and western-funded al-Qaeda Islamists, we can look at the other major joint operation rooms fighting the Assad regime: Fatah Halab was set up by revolutionary groups that did not want to participate in joint operations with JaN, while in the South, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force currently engaged in the ‘Southern Storm’ offensive to liberate Daraa City from the Assad regime, has categorically rejected the idea of fighting with JaN, even to its own detriment, as we seen when its attempted offensive on the Daraa-Damascus highway was stalled by its refusal to cooperate and coordinate with JaN.
There are good reasons for this rejection and suspicion of JaN by other rebel forces. While JaN is not the same as Daesh in terms of its goals and methods, and while it, unlike Daesh, contains a majority of Syrians who were simply radicalised by Assad’s violence, as opposed to foreign jihadists (though it does contain a significant component of them too), its ideology is ultimately counter-revolutionary. It isn’t fighting for a pluralistic or non-sectarian Syria that is shaped by the will of the Syrian people, but rather a Syria dominated by its own brand of ultra-sectarian, authoritarian Salafism. As with all other al-Qaeda affiliates in the world, these principles are ultimately immoveable, but it has shown itself to be a much more pragmatic operator than Daesh, namely because it has to balance its self-interested piety at the top with the fact that most of its cadre are local Syrians who want to overthrow Assad and see that as the group’s primary aim.
On a brief side note, this gulf between JaN and Daesh in terms of method has its roots in the differences between the al-Qaeda leadership and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’, which was the predecessor organisation of Daesh. Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were opposed to Zarqawi’s insistence on ‘purifying’ Iraq of those deemed to be ‘kuffar’ or ‘rafidah’ (i.e. Shia, Yazidis etc.) as opposed to focussing solely on attacking the US-UK invasion forces and the forces of the occupation government. They had no moral qualms about Zarqawi’s sectarian mass murder, but rather they were concerned that it would turn the local population and resistance groups against them, something which they were ultimately right about when the local resistance groups formed the Harakat al-Sahwa (Awakening Movement) to tackle the insurgent jihadists.
So, while the pragmatism of the al-Qaeda leadership might prevail within JaN, it is still fully steeped in the theocratic supremacism that is a fundamental part of Wahhabism. Indeed, one particularly grave incident in Idlib proves these deeper problems associated with JaN. In June 2015 in the village of Qalb Lawzah in the Idlib governorate, held by Jaish al-Fatah, a brigade affiliated to JaN, led by a Tunisian commander, attempted to confiscate the house of a Druze resident who they accused of working with the Assad regime. After the resident rightfully refused to give up his property, the JaN commander then accused the man of blasphemy and attempted to take it by force, prompting a firefight. In the resulting firefight 20 Druze were massacred. Ahrar ash-Sham, the dominant faction within Jaish al-Fatah, immediately intervened to stop it from escalating.
While supporters of Assad seized upon this, the response from the overwhelming majority of rebel factions was unanimously against the actions of JaN. The Southern Front of the FSA immediately condemned what they called a ‘crime against our people … and Syrian diversity’ and announced their ‘readiness to protect Druze villages in Idlib as a step to defend Syrian diversity’.
More critically, Ahrar ash-Sham and several other Islamist groups issued a statement denouncing the massacre. In it they praised the Druze in Idlib for ‘supporting the revolution’, calling for the JaN perpetrators to be independently tried for their crimes, stating very clearly that the killing was a ‘contravention of Islam’ and that ‘spilling the blood of the members of any sect’ was ‘unjust’. Furthermore, they promised to work with all sects in ‘liberated areas’ to prevent these kinds of incidents and that the revolution is a ‘people’s revolution’ and ‘arms are only to be taken up against the regime, its allies and Daesh’. Even the leadership of JaN distanced itself from the actions of the brigade in question and stated that ‘the perpetrators would be ‘held to account for blood proven to be spilt’.
When people think of ‘imperialism’ they constantly fixate on its capacity as an offensive and actively destructive force, such as with the US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq, but they rarely comprehend its other capacity – as a cruel, indifferent force that prioritises its interests in the face of the very worst cases of human suffering, even when it knows and acknowledges that it could have some positive effect. This is not some kind of appeal for ‘humanitarian intervention’, which is a term that implies the use of ‘humanitarianism’ as a mere cover for the ruthless pursuance of imperialist interests, but rather the ultimate proof, if it was still needed, that it does not exist .
Again, if we look at Libya, there’s no doubt about it that the NFZ quite concretely stopped the Gaddafi regime using its airforce to bomb civilians in Benghazi and elsewhere – if we imagine that the Gaddafi regime would have been able to use its airforce to give it the upper hand or at least enforce a brutal stalemate in a civil war, as has occurred in Syria, then we can assume that without the NFZ, there would have been a humanitarian crisis on the same scale as Syria. Does this mean that imperialism is good and that we should all bow to the world order of white men and their large weapons? Absolutely not, but what it does mean is that in certain circumstances, when the interests of imperialist forces converges with the will of progressive forces, then it can have positive political and humanitarian consequences. For today’s breed of ‘anti-imperialists’, faced with these confusing circumstances, they more often than not retreat into positions of either overt or tacit support for reaction and counter-revolution.
So what’s the difference between Libya and Syria? Why did imperialism intervene on behalf of the Libyan rebels not the Syrian ones? There’s a very simple answer: the imperialist forces simply didn’t have any immediate interests that necessitated taking action. They could have taken action right when the Assad regime began to bomb civilians using its airforce, action that would’ve almost certainly saved the lives, homes, limbs and minds of millions of people, action that would’ve almost certainly stopped Daesh from rising in the extraordinary manner that they did. But they chose not to. There was no material interests in Syria prompting a Libyan-style response, no vast oil reserves and major business relationships that needed salvaging. On the other hand, contrast the immediate and massive response of imperialism when Daesh began to threaten the territorial legitimacy of the Iraq regime, capturing the Mosul dam and threatening to push into the oil-rich areas of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The point is that this indifference, this passive aspect of imperialism, in its lack of action, has been as destructive as its ‘active’ capacity. The confusion is one between internationalism and isolationism – there is absolutely nothing progressive or radical about accepting narratives that simply serve to justify dogmatic applications and expressions of ‘imperialism’ or ‘anti-imperialism’, especially when such narratives delegitimise and actively side against existing revolutionary forces.
If the US had’ve enforced a NFZ and armed the Free Syrian Army to the teeth in order for it to overthrow the Assad regime, in what sense would that’ve been a negative development? There’s no case against it. But that isn’t how imperialism works. Imperialism does what’s best for itself – it gives nothing away for free or out of the goodness of its heart. It has no heart, as Syrians who dared to believe in weapons shipments that never came and ‘red lines’ that turned out to be red herrings will tell you with all the bitterness in the world.
When ‘anti-imperialists’ subordinate the real struggle in Syria to their abstract opposition to imperialism, they, rather mind-bendingly, end up converging with imperialism, while tacitly or actively accepting other imperialist and regional hegemonic actors running riot.
The very reason that Jaish al-Fatah contains a force like JaN can be rooted in this imperialistic indifference. It’s not because of too much ‘imperialist interference’ that JaN is a force to be reckoned with, but rather because of the failure of forces to aid the rebels when they most required it. A force like, JaN, rooted, like Daesh, in al-Qaeda in Iraq, had fairly large stockpiles of weaponry, as well as preexisting modes of funding and resource-gathering, and whose leadership, unlike the FSA’s, didn’t rely on material aid that was never going to materialise or aid from forces who often incited devastating factionalism, was able to capitalise when the FSA, absorbing a large amount of manpower, simply couldn’t cope or was forced into stretching itself over two fronts against Assad and Daesh. The same is true of the Islamic Front, who joined the FSA in their necessary offensive against Daesh in January 2014, finding themselves exposed fighting a war on two fronts.
So, in the circumstances of Idlib, where the forces contained within Jaish al-Fatah find themselves up against the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Iranian forces, as well as Daesh, it would’ve been suicidal for them to open up another front with JaN. It would’ve been a major victory for Assad if they had done so. Moreover, given JaN is massively outnumbered by other rebel factions across Syria, and since it is very much a junior partner in Idlib, it was reckoned by most of the rebel forces that it could be constrained and contained as part of the coalition, working with rebel groups who oppose its fundamental ideology. In fairness, this has mostly turned out to be correct. Notwithstanding the incident in Qalb Lawzah, local Druze fighters from surrounding villages fought alongside Jaish al-Fatah, specifically the Sham Legion, in the liberation of Idlib City.
Moreover, while there’s no doubt that JaN want to impose their own ultra-conservative and brutal form of sharia on the whole of Syria, Idlib included, their status as simply one component of Jaish al-Fatah meant that they did not have the capacity to do this. Jaish al-Fatah, from the offset, said it would not impose itself on the running of the city and would allow civil forces to work without interference or coercion. Thus far, this arrangement seems to have held firm, with some complications, but instead of ‘sharia courts’ running Idlib, civil councils have been established to run the city.
The hysteria-mongers and propagandists who, without even attempting to comprehend the balance of forces, predicted that Idlib would become the centre of some kind of JaN ’emirate’, similar to Raqqa as the alleged capital of Daesh’s ‘caliphate’, turned out to be majorly and laughably incorrect, but then it was never a matter of facts. It never is where propaganda and dogma are concerned.
But there’s no doubt that JaN remain a constant threat to the rebels and to the revolution. While pragmatism may reign supreme for now in places like Idlib, it will only be a matter of time before JaN seeks in some way to assert itself and take what it can. This is a reality of the struggle in Syria, one of its contradictions – it is not a reason to discard the struggle or to cave in to the fascistic pro-Assad narratives that would have us believe that all who raise arms against it are al-Qaeda. Indeed, even some of those leftists who have been ostensibly supportive of the Syrian revolution often have exceptionally two-dimensional and vapid views on the role of Islamism within the revolution. This does not simply apply to Syria – it was precisely these hackneyed views, which again have more to do with dogmatic navel-gazing and self-justification than any attempt to engage with reality, that led much of the left to support the counter-revolution in Egypt.
Islamism has a social base in Syria and in whatever follows the Assad regime, Islamism will play some role, but the fact is that the vast majority of the Islamist forces, certainly the largest ones, all concede that a post-Assad Syria is one that should be shaped by the will of the people of Syria, not by any one faction. This has been the trend with Islamism in the region so far, especially with the Islamism endorsed by many Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) affiliated groups. While it’s still conservative and rooted in politics that I fundamentally oppose, the course of Islamism over the past couple of decades has been one of relative moderation. With the AKP in Turkey, a party that is rooted in Islamism but is not itself Islamist, you have the blueprint for the trajectory of Islamism working within and as part of a democracy.
The result is a form of conservative Islamic democracy similar to European Christian democracy. The Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, attempted to follow this model of Islamic democracy, which is precisely why it was overthrown by anti-democratic, counter-revolutionary forces. The same can be seen with Ennahda in Tunisia.
The fundamental point is not that we skate over the parts of the politics of ostensibly Islamist or Islamist-rooted forces that we disagree with, but to recognise that in liberation struggles against secular tyrannies or oppressors, Islamism is a major expression of the opposition to this whether we like it or not, with a popular base rooted in the same demands for liberty that shape these revolutions themselves. This is as true in Syria and Egypt as it is in Palestine.
In fact, one of the great ironies of the reaction of the left to the Syrian revolution is the contrast in the way it relates to the Palestinian struggle. While the fact that the only active resistance groups to Israel are all Islamist, with the largest, Hamas, being Ikhwani Islamists, committed initially to Islamic democracy but forced to suspend democracy after almost immediately being attacked by Fatah, backed by Israel, the US and UK. Then you have the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, originally set up as the Palestinian branch of the Salafist Egyptian Islamic Jihad, but now much more akin to Hamas in terms of ideology – Islamism intertwined with Palestinian nationalism.
Bearing this in mind, it has been at times hilarious to witness those who would chant the slogan ‘We Are All Hamas’ suddenly sound more like Binyamin Netanyahu when it comes to Syria. As bad as the Baathist tyranny is, they say, at least it’s ‘secular’, an argument that could be used to justify Israel’s continued subjugation of Palestine – an argument rooted in the same logic of Israel’s attempts to ‘pinkwash’ its crimes against Palestinians, or advertise the fact that the IDF has thousands of female soldiers, in contrast to the regressive, paternalistic Islamist savagery of Hamas.
In a sense, this argument when applied to Syria is even more absurd, given that in every area of Free Syria, even though the cruel hands of the regime can never be escaped due to its continued air power, freedom of expression and general liberty is practiced in a manner that would’ve been unthinkable in Baathist Syria, where even the slightest criticisms were treated with brute force.
The viciously Islamophobic, racist and imperialistic inferences are exactly the same: they can’t have freedom because they’re Muslims and we all know what giving them freedom means. I’ve even encountered leftists of the pro-Assad variety, those who drape themselves in the Palestinian flag, make the argument that the rebels use human shields and hide in civilian areas; thus you can’t blame Bashar for barrel bombs, for the hundreds of civilians killed per month, for the vast ethnic cleansing and the refugee crisis. Blame the rebels. Blame the victims. Netanyahu must laugh heartily when he hears the opponents of the Israeli occupation reproduce his own arguments in a context involving much more immediately intense human suffering – see how they single out Israel but support Assad, he must say, rubbing his hands together gleefully. The truly sad thing about it is that he has a point.
Not surprisingly, since the rise of Daesh, there have been two figures who have attempted to claim that they are the same as Hamas: Binyamin Netanyahu and Bashar al-Assad – everybody knows why the former does it, but the latter does it because Hamas refused pressure from its former sponsor Iran to support Assad and came out in support of the Syrian revolution. This is something that those leftists who support Assad in one form or the other won’t ever understand – they are de-legitimising everything that they claim to hold dear.
Take, for example, Jacobin magazine. This hip nominally leftist magazine based in the US, which has covered Syria not by sanctioning or approaching the relative abundance of left-leaning authors who have followed the revolution since day one and are capable of assessing it in balanced and realistic terms to write a piece about Syria. Instead, you’ll find a catalogue of articles that epitomise the pro-Assad narrative on the left – ranging from a piece by the Israel-obsessed, Assad-supporting Asa Winstanley concerning some genuinely deranged and dangerous conspiracy theory about how Israel, the old Elders of Zion, secretly support al-Qaeda in Syria, by which the author doesn’t just mean JaN, but rather, like Assad, every rebel force in the country (this conspiracy theory has been excellently refuted here), to a mammoth editorial essentially argues that there is no revolution in Syria, the rebels are Daesh or al-Qaeda, and thus Assad is the only option. These people don’t do irony.
These could easily be Weekly Standard, Frontpage or Tablet articles accusing Hamas of having links with or being Daesh or al-Qaeda. Just swap the players around and you have the same essential racist, ultra-reactionary logic – the justification of collective punishment and mass murder by tyrants and oppressors. It’s supporting the oppressor over the oppressed, but doing so in a necessarily byzantine and squalidly visceral manner, exploiting, as all pro-Assad voices have done since the revolution began, the ignorance and internalised prejudices of readers to rationalise absurdities to the main end of simply supporting Bashar al-Assad come what may, right through the vicious destruction of barrel bombs to the death haze of sarin gas.
The fact that much of the left, including those who are at least not explicit supporters of the Assad regime, don’t even understand the dynamics of this speaks volumes about the nature of the left as a vehicle not for radically changing society and challenging the dominant ideologies, but simply for carrying over the very same logics and ideologies of reaction, but within formally disparate circumstances. The core logics remain unchallenged and often reproduced more sedulously than you’d find with their counterparts on the right.
Indeed, this is not just confined to the fringes, but even the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has styled himself as a friend of the Palestinian cause over the years, has consistently perpetuated this dismal logic over Syria.
In an article for the Stop the War Coalition – an organisation that is truly beyond hope and which is the epitome of the anti-imperialism of both fools and knaves, and of which Corbyn was the ‘national chair’ –Corbyn, when discussing the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria quite unfathomably fails to mention the fact that this catastrophe is caused by the particularities of the Assad regime’s war. Instead, following the US and British governments, he opts for the Daesh-centred view of everything, but goes even further in terms of attributing blame for the crisis.
Corbyn accuses what he calls the ‘western backed’ Free Syrian Army of ‘trying to attack the [Assad] regime’. Just think of that for a moment. Imagine we were discussing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza following Israel’s most recent massacre. Imagine if he were to describe the circumstances as the Iranian-backed (which they’re not anymore, as it happens) Hamas trying to attack Israel? He would be rightfully and hysterically denounced and possibly disowned by the left, as many have done with Bernie Sanders, Corbyn’s US counterpart as the great left hope, who has sought to justify Israel’s attacks on Gaza.
We all know what the function of ‘Iranian-backed’ is when it’s used by Israel apologists about Hamas. It’s usually wielded as little else than a means to abrogate the fact that Hamas is a form of resistance against the conditions of decades-old Israeli oppression and engender the idea that it’s actually a mere pawn of the Iranian regime. It completely denies the agency of Palestinians and reduces their struggle to the alleged machinations of Iran. All of this is part of a propaganda narrative that serves to justify the collective punishment of Palestinians. In the context of the Syrian revolutionary war, ‘western backed’ fulfils exactly the same function, justifying or at least neutralising Assad’s war by conjuring the idea that the Syrian rebels are mere proxies of the West waging an existential war against the embattled Assad regime.
It’s not even that those who perpetuate these narratives do so out of wickedness or due to some direct will to indulge in propagandism, but it’s rather due to the same mechanism by which all ‘ideology’ is absorbed and reproduced. To paraphrase Gramsci, this manner of ideology occurs on the level of ‘common sense’. Among the left, the ideology of ‘common sense’ as it relates to Syria, is precisely what Corbyn reproduces above. The rebels are ‘western backed’ without any nuance as to what this means, but with quite obviously negative connotations. Moreover, instead of being a revolutionary movement forced to take up arms after the Assad regime reacted to peaceful protests with military violence, Corbyn casually refers to them as ‘attacking’ the Assad regime – they’re the antagonists. In the case of supporters of the Israeli government, the ideology of ‘common sense’ would have it that Hamas are the antagonists who attack Israel by firing rockets into Israeli civilian areas.
This ‘commonsensical’ ideology of course obscures far more than it explains and is often, at its roots, simply propaganda of a higher quality, which is precisely why it is it that must be challenged even more vociferously and with nuance than the more obvious forms of propaganda. It’s about challenging entire modes of thought and worldviews that are layered with different social, cultural and overtly political motivations and rooted firmly in history. It sounds and certainly feels like an impossible task, but, as is the essential task of any force that considers itself to be radical, it’s ultimately about challenging conservatism.
Those of us who have attempted to follow and support the Syrian revolution are often accused by these forces of conservatism from within the left of having somehow rescinded our leftist values. The opposite is true. While this certainly isn’t about ‘leftist purism’, it’s about one holding to the broad though essential principles of leftism and navigating them through changing realities in the world around them. This is again what I consider to be the only radical alternative to conservatism. It ought to be organic for anyone who identifies oneself a on the spectrum of left progressivism – the Syrian democratic revolution certainly did become a civil war, but it is also a revolutionary war.
One side, for all their contradictions which cannot and should not be denied, are fighting to overthrow forces that want Syria to remain as a sectarian tyranny, bereft of basic human and civil rights. Bereft of the very chance of, and the necessary conditions for, development and struggle. One side, despite the fact that some of the forces contained within on occasion reflect the same kind of reactionary contradictions as the Assad regime (which can only be expected, given they were birthed in its shadow), are fighting for the smashing of an entity that embodies the static, brutal, ultra-conservative order of the region.
When living in London in the mid-18th century, Karl Marx was often derided by some of his socialist peers for his perceived obsession with the American Civil War, which he followed religiously, deeming it to be a revolutionary war in the purest sense. Marx of course never argued that the war was in any sense a revolutionary socialist war, but for him, one side, namely the Unionists, were fighting against forces of pure conservatism – forces that wanted to preserve the system of chattel slavery and the power of the slave-owning class. Despite all the contradictions on the Unionist side, Marx determined them to be revolutionary through their political and social will to enforce progress against forces that wanted to stunt it.
Even if a Unionist victory led to complications contrary to the simplicity of Marx’s take on it, the Unionist forces were still fighting for the conditions in which further struggle would be possible. The demand for an end to one system of exploitation, the emancipation of the slaves in the South, leads to the mere chance of these forces to develop and assert themselves and the very dimensions of other forms of social struggle to be determined. No utopia, no great instant eruption of progress, but the necessary movement of social forces.
In Syria, the dynamic is very similar. The revolutionaries by their very essence are fighting for the end of one system and the institution of a new arena of struggle and development, while the Assad regime and its allies wish for it all to remain as it is and the triumph, perhaps in a more terrifying form, of their system, with power for the sake of power and the smashing of the forces that challenge such power as their only raison d’etre. They are fighting not simply to smash the active forces that struggle against, but the very idea of struggle. These dynamics apply more broadly to the Arab spring, and it’s of absolutely no surprise that those who so strongly oppose the great movements of progress are drawn from the traditional right and those of the traditional left.
The continuity is pure conservatism. When we observe the reaction of the much of the left and the right to the Syrian revolution and different theatres of conflict in the Arab spring, we see an almost organic convergence in terms of the form, style and essence of the arguments. It’s this that determines this ideology of ‘common sense’ that the left engenders and perpetuates.
In fact, most ironically, given the extent to which Assad’s entire propaganda narrative directly utilises the ‘war on terror’ narrative, and the extent to which this narrative has been boosted and fully accepted in the West by the rise of Daesh, the left’s ideology of common sense when it comes to Syria is almost identical to the ideology of common sense of the right. We’ve seen this as some within the right have advocated the West supporting Assad and Iran – whatever the surface differences, the logic is interchangeable with some of the left’s (including Jeremy Corbyn, as it happens, who revealed in an interview with LBC that his main problem with the UK-US coalition was that it didn’t formally contain Iran).
There are no protests at the fact that US warplanes literally share the same airspace as Assad’s airforce as it barrel bombs and bombards civilians. There are no protests at the fact that the US began a laughable policy of training 60 Syrian rebels to fight solely against Daesh and completely ignore the Assad regime’s much more destructive violence against their communities and country (a dynamic that prompted many of the fighters to withdraw from the programme), violence that is ultimately at the root of Daesh. There are no protests from these ‘anti-imperialists’ against actual imperialist machinations. The left, in its weaving of this synthetic, delusional, self-justifying pseudo-anti-imperialism, actually ends up disregarding and exculpating the very real machinations and dimensions of imperialism as it relates to Syria. The US went from a position of rhetorically supporting Assad’s removal to a policy of rapprochement with Assad’s biggest backer, now arguing that the criminal Iranian regime, the main sponsor of Assad’s terror, ‘should be part of the conversation’.
This has always been perfectly congruent with US policy towards Syria. While many believe that much of its ‘one foot in, one foot out’ stance towards the Syrian opposition was part of a strategy aimed around its negotiations with Iran around its nuclear programme, it’s also perfectly true that the US has never wanted or tried to overthrow the regime, opting instead, in the words of the then US defence secretary Leon Pannetta in 2012, to work towards maintaining as much of the regime as possible, which would thus allow for a ‘stable’ transition. As with the US’s stance to all of the Arab revolutions, the emphasis is on stability, management and transitions, such as with Egypt and Yemen, not with any commitment to some kind of ‘regime change’.
This has always been not some harmless myth, but an active part of Assad’s propaganda – relying on this hollow, conspiratorial ‘anti-imperialist’ narrative of the US’s will for ‘regime change’, or its will to ‘attack Iran’, to justify and whitewash his crimes. As things have slipped further and further out of the US’s control, with the rise of Daesh, and the refusal of the Syrian rebels to be crushed and sue for peace, the US has moved ever closer to a position of tacit support for Assad. This is something that much of the so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ left rarely ever recognise because it doesn’t conform to their predetermined dogmatic models of world order or because they too, following the Assad regime, have to keep up the propaganda narrative.
Indeed, given the fact that US and UK are now bombing Iraq and Syria on behalf of the sectarian Iraqi regime and its fascistic militias, an innocent anti-imperialist might’ve wondered why the Stop the War Coalition and other leftist anti-war forces didn’t mobilise in the way they did following the Assad regime’s gassing to death of more than a thousand civilians in East Ghouta? The answer is that they mobilised primarily because the dominant forces within the Stop the War Coalition simply support Assad, mixed with the delusional opportunism of some of the other political forces within it.
It has also struck as me as highly ironic that some of the so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ left should denounce the Syrian rebels and opposition in the most hysterical terms in imaginable for requesting western aid against Assad/Iran/Russia, yet the same people actively support the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party. The YPG, which is not in any way hostile to the Assad regime, has in its war against Daesh received more aid from the US than the Syrian rebels have received in four years of war against the much more brutally efficient Assad regime, including coordinated airstrikes. This duplicity and incoherence is not accidental.
I’ve often said that Syria is the left’s Israel, as it is, in the final analysis, proof that the left would support events every bit as brutal and regressive as Israel’s subjugation of Palestine if by some irrational switch it was deemed necessary to do so. For many, what matters is not at all the freedom of Palestinians, Syrians or any oppressed peoples, but simply some relation to politics that exchanges principle for the politics of fetish, factionalism and petulance. The left in its relation to the ruling classes and its activities often resembles that of a rebellious teen to its parents – contrary to the extreme, but ultimately a continuation.
Syria proves that for the ‘soul’ of the left, the dismal though dominant counter-revolutionary dynamics of Stalinism and its continued festering existence within the leftist milieu, even within self-proclaimed anti-Stalinist forces, reigns supreme – where internationalism is degraded to obsessive concern with real and imagined geopolitical machinations. Where solidarity with the oppressed is conditional on party lines, subcultural peer pressure and the dichotomy of worthy and unworthy victims. Where Marx’s famous statement about the ideology of the ruling classes being at all times the ruling ideology finds its most ironic, disheartening and ultimate validation.