The Syrian War and the Western Left’s Myopia

Deluge © Imranovi. “My main message was spreading the news. But now after this amount of time, everybody knows what’s happening. So now the purpose of my art is to say this is us, whatever you can do, think just about these people.”

Deluge © Imranovi. “My main message was spreading the news. But now after this amount of time, everybody knows what’s happening. So now the purpose of my art is to say this is us, whatever you can do, think just about these people.”

By Richard Wood


The stunning destruction and disintegration of Syria since 2012 has captured the attention of the world, with a death toll now approaching 400,000 and the displacement of nearly half of its people, five million having fled as refugees.

The Western Left, particularly as represented by leading contributors to The Monthly ReviewCounterpunch and The Jacobin, has offered an analysis on Syria that I think is profoundly erroneous, based on a mistaken, ideologically-driven understanding of the origins, as well as the depths of the conflict, and a reflexive assumption that US actions there have been nearly as calamitous as its invasion of Iraq (i.e. blatantly imperialist). These factors have led many to the conclusion that any resistance to the US is deserving of support.  As in the 20th Century, the Left sometimes veers into dishonorable apologetics. In addition, the cursory knowledge of many on the Left, of the history of Islamic opposition to colonialism, combined with an ingrained secular suspicion of most Islamic movements, further muddies the water.

Syria's brutal repression of mass demonstrations across Syria in 2011 marked a decisive model of how authoritarian Arab regimes could avoid the fate of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt (and later, Gaddafi in Libya), who were seemingly swept away by popular revolutions, led by a coalition of leftist youth, liberal, constitutionalist reformers, and moderate, democratic Islamists, such as Ennadha and the Muslim Brothers. Bashar al-Assad and his 'Alawi generals and security officials were determined to eradicate the possibility of mass popular participation in political life, which would have made Baathist and 'Alawi control of the Syrian state and economy impossible.

Syria's Ba'thist 'Alawi elite underestimated the extent to which an armed struggle could foster mass popular support in Syria, and was eventually forced to bombard rebellious districts or suburbs in all the major cities and towns, and by the summer of 2015, had lost control of Idlib Province, just to the east of the 'Alawi homelands, (in northwest Syria, east of Latakia), making this mountainous bastion vulnerable to rebel offensives as well (although tens of thousands of 'Alawi migrated to Damascus and Syria's other major cities from 1970-2011). Without massive Iranian support the regime would have fallen, and despite this infusion of Shi'i sectarianism, Russian bombing was required to prevent further collapse. By the summer of 2013, al-Sisi and the Egyptian military and financial elites had learned their lesson and decided to crush the democratically elected Morsi Government, kill thousands of Muslims, and destroy the Muslim Brothers organization and assets, manipulating leftist and liberal aversion to Islamist social conservatism as a useful tool, to consolidate power, jailing most of its leftist “partners” soon after (see Esam al-Amin; The Arab Awakening Unveiled, 2013). On October 16, 2016, Syrian General Ali Mamluk, confidante of Assad, and head of Syria's security services visited Cairo to “strengthen their coordination on fighting the terrorism faced by both countries”; https:// www.middleeasteye.net/news/syria-security-chief-first-public-foreign-visit-egypt-1557599662)     

The Arab Spring expired in the cauldron of state repression so often utilized by Ba'thists and the Egyptian SCAF, marinated in the chaos of the US invasion of Iraq, spawning the pretensions of Khalifah al-Baghdadi, another casualty of Ba'thist fascism and faux-Islamism, and US prisons in occupied Iraq.

Since 2011, Syria under Bashar al-Assad has devolved from a repressive, 'Alawi-dominated Ba'thist (but avowedly "secular") state, having implemented a neo-liberal economic reform agenda, into a ruthless war machine, willing to completely destroy its major urban centers, along with hundreds of thousands of civilians, to avoid sharing power with its constitutionalist opponents or the majority Sunni population. The atrocities in Aleppo are only the most recent, despite being overshadowed for two years by the horrors perpetrated by the Islamic State. The Sunni majority--the urban and rural poor of Syria saw their nationwide demonstrations for reform met from the outset by brutal repression: beatings, severe torture, and nonviolent demonstrators gunned down in the streets.

Sunni officers/defectors with Western contacts, militant Muslim Brothers, secular nationalists (the early components of the Free Syrian Army/Syrian National Council) and defiant 'ulama (religious scholars) managed to patch together a fledgling uprising by 2012. The rebellious Sunni urban working classes and rural migrants are now led by the following major rebel groups: the (Sunni) Kaitab Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Syria) and Jabhat Fath al-Sham/Jabhat al Nusra (Conquest of Syria/Support Front) the two largest formations; and Salafi-affiliated Islamists, the (Sunni) Liwa al-Tawhid(Unity of God Brigade) of eastern Aleppo affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the (Sunni) Jaysh al-Islam, (formerly Liiwa al-Islam, (Army of Islam/Brigade of Islam) in Douma (a suburb of Damascus), and the Southern Front and New Syrian Army, affiliated with the US, Jordan and the FSA, in the Dar'a region. These groups often work in larger coalitions with each other and alongside Free Syrian Army battalions. The Kurdish population (12% of Syrians), is led by ethnic separatist militants who have seized most of Hasakah Province in Syria's northeast and whose main rebel group is the leftist KDP/YPG; Kurdish Democratic Party/Peoples Protection Units) affiliated with the Marxist PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) of Turkey. The US has paradoxically allied itself with these Kurdish militia (reminiscent of its 1990s Iraq policy), as well as vetted factions of the FSA in Syria, the Iraqi Army and independent Shi'i formations to fight against the Islamic State (see Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad, Hurst, 2015, and Thomas Pierret, Religion and State in Syria; The Sunni 'Ulama From Coup to Revolution, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).  

The (Sunni) Islamic State, having originated in Iraq, captured extensive territories in Syria in Dayr al-Zour Province in the east and from Raqa'a, across the Euphrates River. The Islamic State is at war with all other rebel factions, the Assad Regime, as well as the Kurds, the US, and Iraqis moving toward their capital in Mosul, Iraq. The Syrian State of Bashar al-Assad now controls only a fraction of its former territory and is in no position to reclaim the east or northeast, nor to reclaim the loyalty of its Sunni majority, despite the fact that most Sunnis remain inside regime-held cities and towns. His dissolute army is marginally maintained by forced conscription of Sunnis, with dissent or failure to follow orders punishable by execution, as well as threats to family members and their property.

The already stumbling Syrian economy (in decline since the late 1990s) has been completely wrecked by the war, and state institutions have been shattered, as the embattled landscape has become a "patchwork of fiefdoms" (according to recent analyses by Tobias Schneider and Emile Hokayem in War On the Rocks and Mona Alami in Middle East Eye). Some areas are controlled by factions of Assad's Syrian Arab Army (e.g. formations such as the National Defense Forces, the 'Alawi shabiha, the Tiger Forces, led by Suheil al-Hasan, and the Desert Hawks, the private militia of the Mahklouf brothers, cousins of Bashar, and former oil smugglers); Other areas are controlled by outside fighters, like the 7000 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, 7000 Hizb'ullah fighters, and Russian forces backing Alawi militias near its bases in Latakia and Tartus governorates. (Former Hizb'ullah Secy-Genl., Shaykh Subhi al-Tufayli, in 2013, condemned Hizb'ullah's 'aggression.')

Rebel-held Sunni areas are also administered by distinct, but coordinated Islamist and Free Syrian Army-affiliated militias, as well as by Kurds in the north and northeast (Syrian Kurds call it Rojava) and by the Islamic State in Raqa'a and a contiguous territory across the north and much of Dayr al-Zour province. Both the regime and its Sunni opponents are propped up by foreign powers. Turkey, Jordan, Gulf States, and the West are backing various Sunni forces (alongside ongoing US support for Kurds), while Iran, Russia and Lebanese Shi'i forces have intervened on behalf of the Syrian Army. The Assad regime threatens the rebellious population with the ominous slogan "Assad or We Burn the Country!" as well as with the 2013 campaign named "Starvation Until Submission.” That these are not idle threats has been demonstrated by his slaughter in Dara'a, Homs, Hama, Douma, Qalamoun, Daraya, a chemical attack in Ghouta and the air wars and chlorine attacks in Idlib and eastern Aleppo, and in northern Syria.

The US and Western Left stands opposed to American intervention and often engages in bizarre political acrobatics in defense of Assad's and the Russians' escalation of the war (perhaps only now wavering, in view of the recent horrific destruction in Aleppo; see the UK Labor Party reps' call to Jeremy Corbyn;(https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/various/dear-jeremy-it's-time-to-speak-out-on-syria ). Many US leftists appear nostalgic about Russian opposition to US imperialism. While they have justifiably opposed the provocative American expansion of NATO to Russia's borders, many are conveniently forgetting the history of Soviet repression in eastern Europe (Hungary in 1956 and Prague, 1968) and Central Asia (including Afghanistan, Chechnya and Dagestan), and see Putin's new assertiveness as an understandable and necessary response (perhaps, a lesser evil?) to US and NATO recklessness in eastern Europe, Afghanistan, and Iraq following the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Leftist writers have repeatedly defended the Assad regime, accusing the US of masterminding the overthrow of Assad, in a conspiracy with Turkey and the Gulf States and legions of foreign mujahideen, as in Afghanistan. Gary Leupp has defended Syria, after a year of the Russian air war, as a precious "secular, constitutional republic" that features "religious tolerance.” This reasoning is quite similar to the exaggerated claims in defense of Gaddafi's regime mounted by these same writers.  

Despite the unreliable nature of reporting on US and other covert and public support for Syrian rebels, both in mainstream sources and from leftist and other critical writers such as Garreth Porter, available information points to lethal and non-lethal aid amounting to at least $5 billion since early 2012, most of it beginning in October, 2012. Simultaneously, Saudi and Qatari shipments of weapons began in October 2012 and continue to this day and cannot be estimated, but surely reach multiple billions. The US training and arming of vetted FSA battalions, some of whom were reportedly sworn to attack Jabhat al-Nusra, rather than the Assad regime, could have conceivably amounted to $2 billion, between the spring of 2013, until June of 2015, when the program was cut by 20%. Much of the money probably flowed to the salaried officers and military infrastructure in Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq from the US, European powers, Jordan, and the Gulf States, responsible for their training, rather than the rebels, if prior patterns in such programs is any indication. This project proved remarkably unsuccessful when the miniscule, US-trained Hakamat Hazm (Movement of Steadfastness) forces were almost immediately killed, captured, and wounded and their two TOW anti-tank missiles were confiscated by Jabhat al-Nusra. Other operations in the Dar'a region since 2015 have also failed to influence the course of the war in any meaningful sense. The Obama Administration has requested approximately $500 million for 2017. U.N. and other estimates of Iranian aid are at least three times as much. Putin has estimated Russian military aid since 2015 at nearly $1 billion annually, while others have suggested a figure 50% higher (Congressional Research Service; Armed Conflict in Syria; Overview and US Responsewww.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33487.pdfRussian Parliament Thinks Syria Expenses Aren't ExtremeThe Moscow Times, Oct. 27, 2016; https://themoscowtimes.com/news/russian-parliament-thinks-syria-expenses-arent-extreme-55897).

Presumably billions have been spent on the air war against the Islamic State and the Special Operations Force embedded with the Kurds in Hasakah, in preparation for the current drive on Mosul, but this hardly impacts Assad, unless the Kurds miraculously turn against Damascus, once Mosul falls. Iranian, Hizb'ullah, and Russian intervention has dwarfed US efforts, although not necessarily those of the Gulf States, and has bolstered the Assad regime immeasurably. That efficacious intervention has stymied and embarrassed the Obama Administration, and its allies. To conclude from these sketchy estimates from US reporters dependent on Pentagon leaks, that the war, its destructive effects, and the loss of life can be blamed primarily on the US is incredulous. The role of the Saudis, Qataris, Iranians, Russians, Assad, and the Islamic State are another matter. Calling attention to these covert programs of US military operations is invaluable; blaming most of the Syrian carnage on them is ludicrous.

The Western Left has lost much of its credibility for minimizing the disastrous Soviet and Maoist policies, as well as those of many of their clients across the global South since the 1960s. Now we risk even more by our ignorance of the social conditions in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and by our failure to mount any serious resistance (with a few notable exceptions) to constant warfare, torture at Guantanamo and Bagram, drone strikes, JSOC operations from the Sahara and Somalia to the Sulu Archipelago, and raging Islamophobia inside the US and Europe. The Left seems content to blame the US for decades-long tensions within Arab and West Asian societies, particularly the opposition to the Ba'thist regimes inside Iraq and Syria, long before the US invasion of Iraq, the enduring Kurdish conflicts with Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, or the opposition within Iran and Turkey, or between Iran and the ascendant oil-rich Gulf States. The US does not control Saudi, Turkish, or Qatari policy, despite its alliances with them. The US signed a very significant agreement with Iran, in January 2016 (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action/JPCOA), which infuriated Israel, and the Gulf States, despite its apparent antagonism with Iran's regional aspirations and its support for Assad and Hizb'ullah. The Left needs a far more complex understanding of the region.

George Mason University Professor Bassam Haddad, founder of Jadaliyya (in The Nation, Oct. 18, 2016), and Phyllis Bennis (CommonDreams, Nov. 1, 2016) have punctured the myths of Assad's progressivism and have written thoughtful critiques of the apparent leftist consensus, but Haddad curiously pronounces the debate on Syria exhausted as the US and Turkey press their interventions. In contrast to Western leftist warnings about US power and its web of conspiracy to overthrow Assad, most other commentators have been struck by the odd reluctance of the US to counter Assad with any meaningful support for the rebels, aside from the Kurds, or to confront Russia's massive bombing. Western leftists were alarmed about another Libya (having lost another fallen icon to popular revolt), due to the hawkish inclinations of Hillary Clinton and her tentative suggestions about a possible no-fly zone to “protect” Aleppo. Now, with Trump elected, they can relax. To be sure, US intervention in Syria would not be intended to secure social justice for the people who live there, regardless of the results.

Obama clearly avoided serious involvement in Syria, and was harshly criticized by national security types for his passivity in the face of Russian boldness. Meanwhile, many leftist bloggers insisted that the US was trying to overthrow Assad and was responsible for the carnage of the Syrian War. Despite its hesitance and fruitless efforts in Syria, the US increased aid to Israel, attacked Yemen alongside the Saudis' merciless bombardment of civilians and even Sana'a, and US drones and special forces continued their hunt for any Islamist group with an anti-imperialist ideology. These imperialist policies and intentions do not, however, entail responsibility for Assad's predicament, nor do they justify his indefensible war crimes.  

Many North American leftists have come to view not just Russian adventurism in a forgiving light, but now also regard Iran and Hizb'ullah favorably, as an anti-Zionist vanguard. Both have backed Hamas' resistance to Israel and jointly and heroically defended southern Lebanon and Beirut (most recently in 2006), while Iran has refused to submit or normalize relations with Israel and has resisted decades of US imperialism in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Over the past two years, Iran has expanded its influence dramatically to support Iraq's sectarian Da'wa (Shi'i) Party, the (Shi'i) Popular Mobilization Forces amassing to retake Mosul, the Houthis (Zaydi Shi'i movement) in Yemen who seized power in 2014 and provoked the equally mindless Saudi/US attacks and atrocities there, but has also supported the Shi'i social justice movements in Bahrain and Qatif, in eastern Saudi Arabia.

The expansion of Iranian influence has spurred an aggressive counteroffensive by the Saudis to promote Sunni political power in all of these contested zones. This sectarian rivalry between the Islamic Republic and the royal family has been simmering since the Iranian revolution, but the Iraq invasion and the events of 2011 have made it a dangerous drama indeed. Of course, the US is more responsible for this renewed Sunni-Shi'i conflict in Iraq and its environs than Iran, by overthrowing the Ba'th Party, dismantling the Iraqi Army, and empowering a decade of sectarian rule in Baghdad, under al-Maliki and al-Abadi. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qa'ida in Iraq and its successor, the Islamic State have added explosive force to the conflict with their repulsive hatred of Shi'i, as part of its takfiri Salafist ideology. It is important to note the difference of opinion and ultimate antagonism between AQ Iraq and AQ’s central leadership.

Iran has nevertheless exploited the renewed Sunni-Shi'i conflicts to expand its influence and the region is now awash in this madness, including Syria. Meanwhile, most of the Left is still adrift in a Cold War hangover and cheers on Putin, despite his despicable onslaught in Chechnya, and it is his intervention in Syria that now threatens a wider war. The US is now far less likely to respond, but it has never seemed more paralyzed by its failure of imagination regarding an effective policy or more impotent in carrying it out. Despite fifteen years of war, the US seems far weaker in the Arab and Muslim worlds than ever. Israel and the Gulf States are alienated by the nuclear agreement with Iran and by US confusion in Syria, while Iran presses its advantage, still relishing its triumphant dominance in Iraq (due to US strategic ineptitude and decades-long Iraqi Shi'i ties to Iran). Egypt is furious that the US refuses to embrace its bloody coup in 2013, and Turkey is suspicious that the US backed the July, 2016 debacle in Istanbul (the failed coup), while utterly failing to adequately respond to Syria's demise, the refugee crisis, or Russian intervention. We must also remember, although in a context historically far different than today, that the US intervened against Israeli, British and French designs on 'Abdul Nasr's Egypt in 1956. Trump is more likely to pursue a Russian-friendly policy, but may raise tensions with Iran to appease Israel.

Despite its serious setbacks and the ongoing siege of Mosul, the Islamic State is still viable, and al-Qa'ida can finally claim a popular, effective guerilla army (Jabhat Fath al-Sham/Jabhat al-Nusra) in the heart of the Arab World. The Western Left seems unable to perceive that the US no longer calls the shots in the Middle East and that the Syrian bloodbath is hardly the handiwork of Americans, even if the invasion of Iraq made it all possible. Syrians, Kurds, Turks, Iranians, and other Arabs are making their own history in a land where highly decentralized armed groups are re-drawing European-imposed boundaries every day. The Left also cannot seem to acknowledge that the Syrian Sunni peasantry and urban poor now see the mujahideen as their defenders, as Muslims have for five centuries against Western colonialism, not the Syrian Ba'thists who rein death down upon them without mercy. Aleppo is now the third major city to be destroyed by its own state. The mainstream/Leftist myth that the Aleppo (or Syrian) mujahideen are foreigners, or secret US agents, intent on imposing their will on local Syrians is dissolving before our eyes. Syria (or the Levant, or Bilad al-Sham) is more than a nation-state and has long been the crossroads of empires. West Asia, unlike North America has never been geographically isolated from other ambitious polities.

Bashar al-Assad allowed jailed and tortured Islamists to flee to Iraq to join al-Qa'ida, Zarqawi, and Iraqi Ba'thist resistance to the US occupation, but was driven out of Lebanon after having facilitated the murder of wealthy Saudi-backed, liberal leader Rafik Hariri in 2005, facing an enraged Lebanese population mobilized to demand that Syrian troops and officials return home. Bashar walked a tightrope of conflicting pressures, agreeing to torture US-rendered Islamists and those innocents caught up in the frenzy (such as Canadian Maher Arar), while backing Hizb'ullah's stubborn and increasingly effective resistance to Israel's designs on southern Lebanon (2006). His father, Hafez al-Assad had also intervened in Lebanon in 1976 to end the civil and complex sectarian war there, but had infuriated PLO/Fatah's Palestinians by trying to dominate their national movement and punishing them for their failure to submit to his will. He backed several Palestinian factions, such as the notorious al-Sa'iqa (storm troops) splinter group from the PLO, that besieged Tel al-Zataar Camp in Beirut, the PFLP-GC, led by Ahmad Jabril, and Abu Nidal's nihilists, all of whom sought to undermine Arafat for decades, on behalf of Syria's control of the Palestinian national movement. The Assad regime and the Islamic State jointly destroyed the Palestinian refugee camp/suburb in Yarmuk, outside Damascus, hoping to enlist the remnants of the population there for their respective machinations. Hamas left its Damascus office soon after the repression began in early 2012.

The impoverished 'Alawi Arab community (12% of Syria's pre-war population) maintained a presence in its mountainous and coastal enclave in northwestern Syria for a millennium and some resisted both Ottoman and French incursions there, until France recruited them into its colonial army after its League of Nations Mandate was secured in 1920, following the British defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI. French officials believed that the Druze and 'Alawi (Shi'i sects) were the most warlike peoples in the Levant and hoped they would be the foot soldiers for their project of a commercial and political presence in the eastern Mediterranean, against the will of the Sunni majority who sought independence. France's most important clients were the Maronite Christians, a community that often traced its origins, perhaps wishfully, to the Crusaders. France forcibly established a Christian mini-state in Mount Lebanon (the core of modern Lebanon) and created separate autonomous states/regions for the Druze and 'Alawi. 'Alawi leaders were divided over whether the autonomous 'Alawi region should join an independent Syria state in 1936, in the midst of a national uprising. Some openly collaborated with the colonizers most Syrians loathed. The 'Alawi, through their cooperation with the French were able to develop the military and political skills necessary to rise to the higher echelon of the Ba'th Party and eventually take control of Syria by force, in collaboration with key Sunni cohorts (Peter Shambrook, French Imperialism in Syria; 1927-1936; Ithaca Press, 1998).     

By the time Bashar's father, Hafez was an adult, he had been swept up in the Arab nationalism of his non-Alawi peers across West Asia and joined the Ba'th Party, a moderate, socialist organization situated between the Syrian Communist Party to the left, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (proto-fascist) on the right, and the Islamists, who sought an undivided and independent Arab Muslim homeland (Bilad al-Sham; Land to the Left) that would encompass Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Hafez al-Asad was an Air Force officer and pilot and his service as Minister of Defense in the 1967 War against Israel helped him seize power in Syria in 1970. Perhaps his most significant accomplishment in foreign policy was the effective offensive he launched across the Golan to attack Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli/Yom Kippur War. Anwar Sadat declined to reinforce this effort, refused to enter the fray and soon after, capitulated to the US and Israel in the Camp David Accords. Syria and the Palestinians had been utterly betrayed. Assad had invited Soviet military and economic aid to continue to challenge Israel and the West, and he lifted his 'Alawi brethren and all rural Syrians into a far more prosperous life in a socialist command economy that stressed the secular, multi-confessional society the Ba'thists had long imagined. There was little democracy and very little political participation in that one-party state, but Hafez was nonetheless for a time, a popular champion of Arab nationalism and a stubborn foe for Western and Zionist imperialists (Patrick Seale; Asad of Syria; The Struggle for the Middle East, UC Press, 1990).

Those remarkable accomplishments began to recede as the USSR declined, and like other state-socialist states and much of the global South, Syria suffered a serious economic contraction and political paralysis in the 1990s. The Sunni majority began to long for the affluence and power they had enjoyed for ages, even under the Ottomans' four centuries of rule. The Muslim Brothers/ Fighting Vanguard incited them to revolt from 1979-82 and Hafez al-Asad razed their base in Hama to the ground, killing untold thousands in the city (10-25,000). In 1990-91, Syria joined the US-led coalition that attacked Iraq in the Gulf War, partly to punish their Iraqi Ba'th rivals, and also to curry favor with the Saudis for financial assistance, when Russian aid was no longer possible. By the mid-1990s, as the Ba'th Party and the Alawi elite (that ran the country's institutions with considerable Sunni participation) lost its credibility, Hafez prepared himself and the 'Alawi communities to face the possibility of a widespread sectarian revolt, fueled by economic grievances and the resurgence of Islam across the region. Efforts were made to make the 'Alawi sect more integrated into Shi'i theological sanctity (facilitated by Musa al-Sadr's and Shaykh Muhammad Fadlallah's normalization of the 'Alawi as proper Shi'i) as the USSR faded and Iran flexed its muscle with ties to Hizb'ullah in Lebanon (Bernard Rougier; The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East; Princeton Univ. Press, 2015).

Leftists and secular Arab nationalists often used Assad's inclusion of Sunnis, Christians, (Shi'i) Isma'ilis and Druze as evidence of his commitment to multiethnic diversity and disavowal of any trace of 'Alawi sectarianism. The fact remains that Alawi leaders, and members of the Assad clan were carefully chosen for positions of authority throughout the Syrian Arab Army, state bureaucracies, and every institution, because Assad astutely apprehended the weak ethnic base upon which his regime relied. Despite the fact that the Syrian state did for many decades achieve multi-ethnic and multi-confessional allegiance, because the state-socialist economy and Soviet economic assistance allowed considerable development in rural and urban areas and wealth was shared across social classes, this loyalty collapsed amid the crises of the 2000s (Shambrook; Seale, Pierret, Rougier).

Sensing a tipping point, Bashar tried to legitimate the regime with influential Sunnis, having married a U.K. Sunni professional, building Salafi mosques, and reinforcing already significant ties to Sunni commercial interests and religious figures. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, frantic efforts were made to cement 'Alawi and Assad familial networks. In 2005, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the Saudi-backed liberal Sunni who helped rebuild Beirut and Lebanese democracy, Bashar was forced to withdraw Syrian forces and give up his father's dream to rule a unified Levant. Millions of Lebanese - particularly northern Lebanese Sunnis - demanded that withdrawal, exhausted by Assad’s assassinations and sectarian manipulation there (Rougier). Today, as the state fractures, the 'Alawi are the only reliable political base for the regime internally, while Shi'i combatants have flooded into the country from Lebabon, Iran, and even Iraq and Afghanistan. Many 'Alawi are also furious that Bashar and his 'Alawi generals have allowed the manageable political crisis of 2011 (see Patrick Seale's comments on the crisis in 2011) to lead to the catastrophe that has resulted. To refer to this precipitous decline of the Ba'th/'Alawi State project as a secular, multi-confessional republic is absurd (Nicholas Van Dam; The Struggle for Power in Syria; Politics and Society Under Asad and the Ba'th Party; I.B. Tauris).

Naturally, the US Left prefers its West Asian politics as clear cut as the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Israeli occupation and dispossession of Palestine. Those crimes of imperialist war were without question watershed events, that destroyed Iraqi and Palestinian societies, and shaped the region's future incalculably. Those responsible certainly deserve to be held accountable, the results reversed or transformed through concerted action there and in the US and Europe. Both conflicts have contributed immeasurably to the events that have erupted since 2011, and were certainly provoked in part by those horrendous invasions and occupations that reverberate across the landscape today. However, recent political developments in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Turkey have transcended those dynamics in significant ways. The Syrian conflagration, however, is not the result of US imperialism, but will still shake the political bedrock for a generation or more, just as much as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Nakba in Palestine, the Iranian Revolution, and the 1991 and 2003 US invasions of Iraq.

Much of the Left unfortunately views the Assad Regime as an enemy of Israel and the US and the last bastion of the now defunct Arab nationalist cause. This is a disturbingly outdated analysis. The aforementioned writers also implicitly cheer Putin's noxious militarism as the only practical antidote to US imperialism. Naturally, the Left opposes the Saudi war on Yemen's Houthis, because the US backs the Saudis and Iran backs the Houthis while the entire nation burns and starves. That conflict doesn't disturb our current ideological alignments, so we all condemn the Saudi butchery, but ignore the Houthis' role in the debacle. Similarly, the Left mourns the Islamist ascendency in Libya and the resulting power struggle as the fault of Western intervention, without a historically nuanced perception of the pervasive disgust among Libyans with Gaddafi's lunacy, greed, and injustice. The shadow of the Iraq invasion in 2003 will haunt US ambitions for some time to come, both in West Asia and domestically. Opposition in the UK prevented Obama and Cameron from attacking Assad after the chemical attack on Ghouta rebels.

Iran has, to its credit, backed Hizb'ullah and Hamas in their struggle against Israel, and assisted Iraqis who helped dislodge the US, but its more recent gambits in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq overshadow these once admirable alliances. Bashar's father once courageously stood up to Israel, and backed Hizb'ullah's determined rejection of Israeli designs on southern Lebanon. But the Assads were busy with other matters too, such as advancing a quasi-neoliberal economic transition, thereby impoverishing the Sunni countryside, maintaining control over Lebanon's fledgling recovery through intimidation and assassination, unsuccessfully seeking a separate peace with Israel over the return of the Golan, and torturing US-rendered Islamists or those resembling them (e.g. Canadian Maher Arar). Russia, Syria and Iran have packed their prisons with dissidents and would quickly confine any of us, were we unfortunate enough to be engaged in our politics under their rule. Hizb'ullah has now forfeited its hard-won popularity across the Arab and Muslim world by fighting Sunnis in Syria to ensure its flow of resources and arms from Assad and Iran. Its struggle against Israel has now been sidelined by a war against other Muslims, on behalf of a secular autarch.

The slight efforts that the US and its western European allies (and Jordan) have made in arming and training a few thousand Free Syrian Army recruits have failed miserably and have been quickly marginalized and supplanted by the far more serious effort by Syrian, Iraqi, and some foreign mujahideen, evidently financed by sympathizers in Qatar, Saudia, Kuwait, and Turkey. The vast majority of fighters are ordinary Syrian Sunni Muslims, unwilling to abandon their homeland to fascists intent on destroying everyone they cannot force into submission.

Islamists are uniformly condemned by the Left as fundamentalist fanatics, jihadi misogynists, or cynical thugs protecting feudal landlords' reactionary opposition to modernity (except, remarkably, for those in Hizb'ullah and Iran!). These simplistic formulae were the dominant theme of the propaganda of the European colonialists and imperialists who fought Muslim resistance to empire for more than five hundred years. Certainly the Islamic State (sic) has unfortunately reinforced these tropes. American leftists have scant knowledge of colonial history or anti-colonial resistance in the Islamic world, and their Islamophobic tendencies closely parallel the attitudes and epithets routinely launched against Muslims by European imperialist diplomats, generals, and propagandists. Few American or European leftists meet or engage with practicing Muslim activists (not just secular Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, etc.) in Islamic countries (or even in the US) and have a very limited understanding of their ideas or sensibilities. It is my contention that Islamic politics is a continuum that includes the entire spectrum of political options: revolutionaries, progressives, conservatives, liberals, fascists, nationalists, regionalists, and internationalists. It is high time that the Left accept the relevance and dynamism of Islamic discourse and politics, and not dismiss it as merely a creature of Western conspiracies against its enemies. Islamic radicalism and revolutionary movements would have arisen regardless of Western support, due to ubiquitous dictatorships, economic despair, and the failure of Arab nationalism to solve the region's crises, during the colonial era or in this “post-colonial” extension of it. Islamic resistance to Western imperialism predates nationalist or Leftist opposition by hundreds of years.

What Ahrar al-Sham and Fath al-Sham (Nusra), or the Misrata and Tripoli militias in Libya, or the Muslim Brothers in Egypt do to earn the respect and support of their respective popular bases in those countries should not be minimized; nor should Iran's and Hafez al-Assad's struggle against Western imperialism be forgotten. The diverse Islamist organizations' visions of future social organization may not be that of Western leftists, but to defend or applaud regimes like Russia (with its imperialist history vis a vis Muslims) that intervenes to crush them is shortsighted indeed.

Syrian and Libyan societies have been wrecked amid a political and military effort by diverse forces to replace elites that dominated these societies for their own narrow interests. For leftists to decry these political and armed struggles for social justice and power sharing is the height of hypocrisy. Most leftists routinely express solidarity with their enemies in a knee-jerk aversion to “religion” or Islam.

Muslims across the world are engaged in movements to preserve their way of life (al-din), within which culture, land, religion, family and politics are often envisioned as an integrated whole, exactly the same lessons many of us have learned from indigenous peoples here in the Americas and elsewhere. Western Islamophobia has its modern roots in colonial history, in which Christian/secularist armies, journalists, economic advisors, and missionaries were determined to paint Islam as a dangerous throwback to the 7th Century, or the Medieval Era and depict its adherents as fanatical enemies of modernity and the advanced techno-scientific culture of the West. That same opprobrium is routinely invoked in leftist journals and websites, albeit with a leftist patina, to impugn Muslims fighting for their way of life as puppets of the hegemonic imperialist power of the US, all the while being bombed and hunted from the deserts of West Africa to the southern Philippines.

The vast majority of Syrians long ago gave up any allegiance to the Assad regime. Some 'Alawi, Druze, Christian, Shi'i, and prosperous Sunnis who benefit from Assad's rule may still remain loyal, while others too terrified to resist or flee the urban zones under regime control wait out the war, hoping to survive. Millions of ordinary Sunni Syrians are fighting Assad, or are feeding and caring for those who can fight, or are running for their lives. They are outraged that the world sits silently watching their abjection and suffering (see Omar Shabaan, We Live in Aleppo. Here's How we SurviveWashington Post, Oct. 21, 2016).

Richard Wood is a sociologist/political organizer, originally from Appalachia, who lives on the Left Coast of the U.S., travels whenever possible to Muslim lands, and is writing a history of Muslim resistance to Western imperialism. Tom Wright and Tanzeen Doha provided essential editing. All have been active in anti-war, anti-racist, and Palestinian solidarity movements for years. Errors are Wood's responsibility.

Postscript

This piece was completed by Richard Wood on November 30, 2016. Between then and now the Assad regime forces with the help of Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah have evacuated, cleansed, and taken over Aleppo. It is important to recognize that much of what took place in the last month or so has to do with certain geopolitical shifts, especially, conspiracies against the Turkish administration forcing it to alter its earlier position on Syria.

 

Recent Articles