(Commentary written by the editors of Salvage Magazine.)
Assad lost no time in using the crisis to bolster his narrative, tweeting ‘if you are worried about refugees stop arming terrorists’. When many on the Left have effectively taken this as their line, we have passed from the realms of campism, of some un-nuanced and notional ‘anti-imperialism’, to that of bad faith and fantasy.
This bad faith is important not merely with regard to its own truth-claims, but for what it says about the Left’s self-image and concomitant actions. A flawed analysis, narcissism and activist-conservatism are here all mutually reinforcing.
The proximate bad faith lies in the account of the Syrian Revolution. At a deeper level, there’s a gross misrepresentation of reality (including to oneself, perhaps) in the clinging to an image of imperialism from the high point of US unilateralism, circa 2003. This is nostalgia for a time when the Left seemed to be a player, when the Stop the War movement was in a coherent political confrontation with that Bush-era imperialism, rather than an impotent observer of a bloody and widening gyre.
Does the bad analysis or the self-aggrandisement come first? Yes. The bad analysis or the self-aggrandisement comes first.
Anti-anti-Assad-ism has it that the refugees are fleeing Syria because the US and its allies have funded an Islamist counter-insurgency against an anti-imperialist regime. Plans are supposedly afoot for more extensive intervention, for regime change along the lines of Baghdad 2003. Daesh is the weapon deployed (all of the Syrian oppositions being assimilated into it in this account), and it was, in the words of Seamus Milne, ‘incubated by the West’s supporting and arming an opposition they knew to be dominated by extreme sectarian groups’.
Scepticism on any of these points can provoke heavy-handed contempt for ‘gullibility’ about the perfidious US. So let us be clear: that the US would be willing to carry out this (or almost any other) plan is not in doubt. Whether it did, however, in this case, and whether the Syrian revolt was as so depicted, are questions susceptible to logic and evidence. In fact, the popular revolutionary character of the Syrian uprising in its early days has been documented by participants and observers – the Syria Freedom Forever website being an excellent point to start. Partisans of this imperialist conspiracy narrative, however, are somewhat impervious to such data.
There certainly is an imperialist intervention in Syria, one in which the US and UK are participating. It is, though, not aimed at removing the Ba’athist regime but, tacitly, at maintaining it, in such a form as can govern at least part of the country. For a year this coalition has been bombing Syrian targets – or in the UK’s case, British citizens in Syria whom David Cameron has taken it upon himself to assassinate. Not a single Syrian regime target has been struck. It is Daesh which has borne the main brunt of the bombing, but their ideological and military competitors on the armed Takfiri right, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and opposition battalions affiliated with neither party, have also been attacked.
But this anti-Daesh air campaign is in the main a sideshow. The imperialist power busiest in Syria is Russia, working with its local ally Iran. Russian troops are now deployed in near-combat roles in Syria, Russia unleashes ferocious air-strikes occasionally against Daesh, mostly against other Assad opponents (provoking slathering Russophilia in sections of the British press, left and right): the Russian foreign minister has called upon the US military to co-operate with them. The presence of Iranian, Afghan, Iraqi and Hezbollah Shi’a militias shoring up Assad – indeed, giving the regime orders – is old news. It is thisconcatenation of extra- and intra-regional forces that most actively seeks the partition of Syria to advance their interests: in Istanbul in August, representatives of Tehran and Nasrallah met leaders of Ahrar al-Sham (the authoritarian Sunni militia dominant in the Aleppo countryside) to discuss such a plan on a local level. There were no Syrian negotiators on the regime side.
If there is no evidence of direct external intervention against the Syrian regime – to the contrary – then what of the claim that Daesh is a creation of the US? It is obviously true that it would not exist without the occupation of Iraq. That is not the same as claiming the US created Daesh, let alone in a burst of evil genius – and, to be clear again, we need no convincing of the evil, the genius, or the evil genius of the US administration, only that there is, to put it mildly, insufficient evidence for this particular claim.
The Assad regime itself enjoyed a far closer relationship with these Takfiris, providing lines of logistical support to them during the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq and the civil war that ensued from it; releasing them from prison at the outbreak of the Syrian revolution; leaving their positions untouched while flattening opposition civilian areas; buying oil from the fields they have seized. Not only is it not the case that Daesh and the regime are the only protagonists in Syria: they are barely enemies.
The US has, in truth, directly funded and armed a militia in Syria: 54 men, in total. Other prospective members abandoned the programme because it was demanded that they fight Daesh, not Assad. Contrary to the anti-anti-Assadists, then, the armed opposition, in other words, have refused imperialist aid to maintain their strategic autonomy.
The only faction in Syria able to call on significant Western military aid – indeed to call in US airstrikes in their fight against Daesh – are the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Unity Party, an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK) and its militia the YPG (Popular Protection Units). Recently, reports have emerged claiming that US special forces are aiding the YPG on the ground – which is telling, if there is truth to the claims from some other rebel groups (and, unsurprisingly, Ankara) that the PYD has been willing to collaborate with Assad. Rather than being condemned by the global Left, as was – in usually, if not always, unthinking fashion – the Free Syrian Army, for calling for Western intervention, the PYD has been lauded.
For the most part the Left has failed to deal with the complications or implications of such a political dilemma, of embattled progressive forces demanding – and in this case amply receiving – aid from imperialism. This refusal to engage stems from the Left’s allergy to looking complexity and tragedy square on, to situations wherein all options are equally bad, where there is nothing for which a radical Left can meaningfully call. The most common response is simply to ignore the US alliance with the PYD, and to elide all Arab opposition (some of whom actually fought with the YPG against Daesh in Kobane) with Daesh.
The 2003 nostalgia, reading Syria as a continuation of the moment of Bush-Cheney militarism, is a flight from reckoning both with the impotence of today’s Left, and with the shifting realities of geopolitics. In its understanding of the Arab revolutions and their consequences, and of the nature of contemporary imperialism, it is a failure.
We must start from the recognition that the so-called ‘Arab spring’ was revolutionary in character – not excluding Syria – andthat the barely-comprehensible butchery and reaction in the region is a consequence of the defeat of those revolutions.
In the absence of a rooted, at least partially organised, agent of change with some conception of social relations to come after revolutionary confrontation, and with the potential to strive for any political hegemony, this is what revolutions will be like. There is none better to wait for. We must own that contradiction, not flee from it into nostalgic fantasy. There is a politics that demands the masses stay in their place because what’s likely to replace oppression is chaos, but it is that of Edmund Burke and Joseph De Maistre, not Marx or Luxemburg.
The civil wars in Syria, and their inverted image in Yemen where the Sisi counter-revolution has now committed ground troops, is not comprehensible through the lens of US power à la 2003. Those committed to that optic should ask themselves why they are so invested. The geometry of contemporary imperialist rivalry – multi-, uni-, or even a-polar – remains obscure.Salvage will devote future pages to its investigation.
The external Great Powers, Russia and the US, continue to support their clients and pursue their interests, as they always will. And their local clients – and the clients of those clients – pursue their own, in a rubble of fractured counter-revolution, in which it is no surprise they often find themselves at odds with the trajectories of their (former) patron(s), in multiple, sometimes contradictory, directions.
The petro-reactionary state of Saudi Arabia is the main supporters of the Sisi counter-revolution in Egypt: but Sisi is an ardent admirer of Assad, against whom are ranged such forces as Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam, backed by Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis collaborate, then, with the US campaign against Daesh in Syria, which has, if loosely and uncomfortably, brought together the Iranians and Americans, Riyadh pursues an even stronger line against the loosely pro-Iran Houthis in Yemen.
This is not 2003.