Forsaking the Syrian Revolution: An Anti-Imperialist Handbook

From “Storeys” by Tammam Azzam, 2014.
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“The dead, the tortured, the executed – no, neither posthumous rehabilitations, nor national funerals, nor official speeches can overcome them. These are not the kinds of ghosts that one can ward off with a mechanical phrase.”

Césaire’s Ghosts

Aimé Césaire, wrote these words in the opening paragraphs of his letter of resignation to Maurice Thorez, General Secretary of the French Communist Party, dated October 24, 1956. Césaire lambasts the Party for its reluctance to condemn Stalin, de-stalinize its own practices, and endorsing French government policies in its Algerian colony. “In any case,” he writes, “it is clear that our struggle – the struggle of colonial peoples against colonialism, the struggle of peoples of color against racism – is more complex, or better yet, of a completely different nature than the fight of the French worker against French capitalism, and it cannot in any way be considered a part, a fragment of that struggle.” Césaire diagnoses his present as characterized by a double failure: first the evident failure of capitalism and second, “the dreadful failure of that which for too long we took to be socialism, when it was nothing but Stalinism.”

Césaire’s letter raises cardinal issues for the Left that are still salient today. There is a long history within the Leftist tradition of justifying atrocities committed by one’s own camp in the name of the necessary price to pay for X – substitute X with progress, the preservation of the revolution, anti-imperialist struggle, etc. – or at the very least to turn a blind eye on them. Césaire also draws our attention to another fraught theoretical and political relation, which tied Metropolitan Leftists to the anti-colonial militants in the peripheries. Césaire letter declares a double failure and advocates a double divorce, both from the justification of Stalinist crimes committed in the name of socialism and from the subordination of anti-colonial struggles to class struggle in the Metropole.

The contradictions produced by this Cold War World split into a capitalist camp and a socialist one; a colonial North and a colonized South may seem to belong to a long lost world. Having said that, Césaire’s questions regarding the gap between ideology (socialism) and political practice (Stalinism), the theorization of the struggle in the colonies, as well as the fraught politics of internationalist solidarity between Leftists in the Metropoles and revolutionaries in the peripheries are re-emerging today in the wake of the Arab revolutions. Nowhere are they more salient than in the case of the political and moral failure of wide segments of the anti-imperialist Left in the Metropoles who have either bluntly supported Assad for his ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘secularism’ or withheld their solidarity from the Syrian struggle for emancipation from a regime of mass murder.

Debates around the wide-segments of the Metropolitan anti-imperialist Left who are critical of the Syrian struggle for emancipation often get bogged down by the question of whether or not the writers are Assad apologists. I am much less concerned in this piece with the beliefs of particular individuals, and what goes on deep in their hearts. Rather, what I am after is an examination of the political discourses of the Metropolitan Left vis-à-vis Syria, the arguments and logics they draw on, and what they circumvent. I do not seek to erase the differences between propagandists and those who are not, but rather to momentarily bracket it in order to diagnose a deeper set of traits that are shared by Metropolitan, particular US, anti-imperialists.

MacCarthy on Twitter

Fredrik DeBoer, recently wrote a piece decrying what he dubs a McCarthyst witchhunt against those who are against a US military intervention in Syria. At the end of his essay he writes “Assad is a special kind of monster; Syria is a special kind of hell. I hope the regime of Assad falls.” There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of DeBoer’s statement regarding the regime. Having said that, his association of the pro-revolutionary critiques of, and ad hominem attacks on, the likes of Max Blumenthal and Rania Khaleq with red-baiting and MacCarthysm is problematic on several counts. It re-describes divisions internal to the Left regarding Syria by appropriating the language of right wing and systematic state attacks on Leftists in the US during the cold war. In doing so, it reactivates memories of state persecutions and trials of the Left, repositioning those Leftists as victims of an organized campaign and the power of the law. But none of that is happening today. Leftists are not under surveillance, forced to resign from their jobs, testify and snitch on their co-workers. DeBoer’s re-emergent MacCarathysm has different sites, scales, and tools. McCarthy today according to DeBoer is busy doing his work on social media. The specificity of the medium, its horizontality, the speed of circulation of discourses and images on it, as well as the specific practices it enables, such as trolling, are not taken into consideration by the author. The gap between words and the world can hardly get wider in this re-description of McCarthysm.

Raising the specter of McCarthysm, is a call to end the internal debate within the Left about Syria. You don’t argue with MacCarthysm, you fight it. More importantly, it turns those who are calling for solidarity with the Syrians who are being bombed and killed by Assad’s army, its international and regional allies, and with the tacit agreement of Western powers into prosecutors. The Left’s order of the day is not to try and stop Assad’s ongoing carnage in Syria but rather to fight the reemergence of Macarthysm in the US that reared its ugly head again, this time around, on Twitter.

Balanced Objectivity

In her compelling ethnography Back Stories: US News Production and Palestinian Politics (2012) Amahl Bishara coins the concept of balanced objectivity to understand the practice of reporting that seeks to balance between both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Balanced objectivity covers how journalists talk about their work, how they write their texts and structure their bureaus, as well as the ethics of reporting on site. balanced objectivity, Bishara argues, is a problematic practice. First, it overlooks the diversity of positions in both camps. Second, it misrepresents the communicative space between them.  Palestinians and Israelis are presented in articles as if they are in dialogue, while the reality of the matter is that the former are occupied, fenced off by a wall and under siege. Third, and most importantly, balanced objectivity obscures the difference in the scale and the type of violence experienced during the second Intifida between Palestinians and Israelis.

Discussions on Syria by the Left draw on that same practice that they criticize the mainstream and liberal media outlets for in their coverage of Palestine. For instance, during the panel on Syria and the Left organized by Muftah and Verso, Max Blumenthal pointed out that the focus on the plight of Eastern Aleppo is being used to “protect a narrative that erases West Aleppo.” While his co-panelist Zein al-Amine, said that the continuous talk about a no fly zone, despite the unlikeliness of its realization, “is what’s causing both parties to increase, to escalate the massacre of the Syrian people.” The second form balanced objectivity takes is not by balancing both sides but by erasing both. This is done by referring to the Syrian struggle for emancipation as simply “the war,” “the Syrian tragedy,” the Syrian crisis,” “the Syrian disaster,” as if Syria was struck by a natural calamity that destroyed it. Both these forms obscure the differences between the scale and types of violence experienced by both parties, which range from airstrikes and destruction of entire cities by the regime to the subtle structural violence of a state bureaucracy that disenfranchises its opponents by refusing to provide them with official papers and renew their passports.

Deflecting Discourse

Deflecting discourse is another very common rhetorical trope deployed by Metropolitan Leftists that seeks to shift the debate either entirely away from Syria, or to re-direct it away from discussing the regime’s atrocities. During the same Muftah panel Zein al-Amin attempted more than once to steer the conversation towards the plight of Yemen. While Robert Fisk writes an article, as Aleppo is being destroyed, on his visit to Berlin’s Pergamon museum, musing on whether “we Westerners should keep the world’s antiquities,” in the wake of what he dubs “Aleppo’s tragedy.” The tragedy has no author; rather it offers an opportunity to meditate on whether the West is a colonial looter or a savior of humanity’s heritage.

The most common incarnation of deflecting takes the form of shifting the debate from the actual violence the Assad regime has unleashed on its own citizens to a hypothetical Western or US military intervention such as imposing a No Fly Zone.

Resurrecting the Anti-War Movement

In arguing about a hypothetical intervention, the anti-war mobilization against the US invasion of Iraq is often taken as paradigmatic case. A simple comparison reveals that the situation in Syria is not comparable to the one in Iraq in 2003. In addition to the regime’s international and regional allies and Turkish involvement, “It is a fable,” Yassin al-Hajj recently said, “that Western countries did not intervene in Syria. The reality is that they intervened in a very specific way that prevented Assad from falling but guaranteed that the country would be destroyed. The United States pressured Turkey and other countries very early on to prevent them from providing decisive assistance to the Syrian opposition.”

In 2003 The US was marshaling its forces, based on concocted false claims to invade a sovereign country ruled by a tyrant. A global antiwar movement opposed the coming destruction of Iraq without necessarily siding with the Iraqi regime. In Syria, on the other hand, a grassroots movement for emancipation against the brutal post-colonial authoritarian regime emerged in 2011 in the wake of the Arab uprisings. The Syrian revolution shifts the location of political practice from an oppositional movement in the West to an emancipatory movement in Syria itself, reopening in the process the question of internationalist solidarity. The Left’s recasting of the Syrian revolution, despite its entanglements in competing geopolitical agendas, as being defined by potential Western intervention, is a move that re-inscribes politics as the monopoly of imperial centers. It imagines politics only in relation to, and as practiced by, Empire, obliterating in the process the Syrian people’s attempts to make their own history reinstating in the process the West as the main subject and agent of History.

The complementary argument given by the Left is that there are no revolutionary actors in Syria to be in solidarity with, since Assad’s opponents are mostly either ‘Jihadi rebel’s or ‘sectarian Sunnis’. This move not only erases the variety of non-religious actors, but also muddies the distinctions between different actors who draw on a religious language to articulate their political vision. In doing so, critics deploy the same categories as the Syrian regime and imperial government policy advisers, propagating Islamophobic speech at a time when it is one of the main ideological weapons in the hands of racist rightwing populist movements sweeping across the US and Europe.

This past summer, “The Hands Off Syria Coalition” – came into being. A “Points of Unity” statement was drafted and approved by the initiating group. According to the coalition’s website “250 organizations, 500 peace activists and close to 1,500 individuals from around the world have signed the Coalition’s Points of Unity statement.” Amongst the signatories are communist political parties from around the world, US antiwar committees, Veterans for peace chapters, anti-imperialist leagues, etc. Point One states: “The continuation of the war in Syria is the result of a U.S.-orchestrated intervention by the United States, NATO, their regional allies and reactionary forces, the goal of which is regime change in Syria.” The uprising of the Syrian people is retranslated into the regime’s narrative of a war orchestrated by the US and its allies. The substitution of the main agent of political practice by the US empire directly shifts the desired horizon of action. It is no longer revolution against a murderous regime, but becomes a foreign imposed regime change in violation of international law, human rights declaration and the rights of “the Syrian people to independence, national sovereignty and self-determination” (Point 5). It is clear from these two points that the Syrian version of the ‘anti-war’ campaign has adopted wholesale the Assad’s rhetoric, despite its stating that it is not “our business to support it or opposite” him (Point 7).

A Separation

Since the loss of Third Worldist Internationalist solidarity with the eclipse of Leftist politics and the ascendancy of the Islamic Revival in the 1970s and 1980s, the Metropolitan Left adopted an oppositional politics to imperial intervention, albeit one which is devoid of political allies in the region. This anti-imperialism found itself in tension with former Leftists and a new generation of activists in the Arab world who were drawing on the liberal languages of rights to fight the continuous repression of the regimes in their countries. Metropolitan Leftists viewed human rights as an imperial Trojan Horse that sought to undermine the sovereignty of anti-US regimes alongside economic sanctions and military interventions.  The activists on the ground, on the other hand, decried the deafness of their supposed Leftist allies to the violence of these regimes as well as their adoption of a similar rhetoric to the regime’s nationalist anti-imperialism.

The Arab Uprisings transcended the earlier deadlock between liberal human rights activists in the peripheries and Leftists Metropolitan anti-imperialists. The revolutions re-introduced mass popular politics from below– despite the infra-national divisions of the people along ethnic, sectarian and regional lines at times – against the regimes. They also did not align themselves on a political grid that takes the West’s imperialism as its focal point. In this they were unlike the anti-colonial movements for national liberation, and the post-colonial authoritarian regimes that claimed to preserve the nation’s sovereignty against imperialist encroachments.

The Left had no qualms cheering the revolutions when they were targeting US supported regimes such as Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. When it got to Syria though, the support vanished. It was replaced by a blindness to the plight of Syrians and a deafness to their suffering. Syria signaled, a second divorce, analogous to Césaire’s earlier one between Metropolitan Leftist politics and the struggle for emancipation in the peripheries. This time around it is not the divorce of anti-colonial struggles from their subordination to the centrality of class struggle. It is the divorce of struggles against the postcolonial Authoritarian Arab State from their subordination to Metropolitan geo-political considerations.

The Teflon Anti-Imperialist Cult

This divorce signals both the moral and political failure of Metropolitan Leftists who are viscerally attached to a Teflon anti-imperialist fantasy that can’t be scratched by the outside world.  In the real world Russian fighter jets carpetbomb besieged Aleppo. In the fantasy world the US is orchestrating a NATO led campaign for ‘regime change’ in Syria. Indeed, certain variants of the US anti-imperialist Left tread very closely to forms of conservative cults that secrete their own reality characterized by attendant fears of moral pollution. They fashion identities by seeking redemption for the imperial sins the US has committed in the world in their name through announcing a credo that seeks maximal opposition and distance for oneself through a process of ritual purification from these politics. A politics, that is based more on a statement of beliefs, that makes one a member of the elect, rather than a practice that responds to shifting conjunctures and fashions its positions accordingly as the resurrection of the anti-war Iraq war slogans in our present reveals.

Having said that, Metropolitan anti-imperialism, when it comes to Syria, is uncannily haunted by imperial arguments, logics and sensibilities. Both groups cannot imagine political practice that is not bound to, and defined by its relation, to Empire. They both draw from the same Islamophobic pool of concepts, making distinctions between Good Muslims and Bad Muslims. They are both convinced that they know better than the people on the ground, especially if they contest their imperial/anti-imperial politics. They both practice a politics drenched with moralism; possessed by a crusading spirit that seeks to eradicate evil in the world (America is the eradicator of all Evil/America is the source of all Evil). At the level of sensibilities, they are both endowed with a self-complacency and self-assuredness of being on the right side of History.

Assad, recently, declared that Donald Trump could be a “natural ally”. Those Leftists who foreclose the possibility of solidarity with the Syrian struggle for emancipation by excising the revolutionaries from the domain of the political by dubbing all of them ‘Jihadis’ and ‘sectarian’ may well draw from the same conceptual pool of those proposing a ‘Muslim registry’ in the Metropole.

I borrow Césaire’s words one last time to bring this essay to a close.  “That what I want,” Césaire wrote, “is that Marxism and communism be placed in the service of black peoples, and not black peoples in the service of Marxism and communism. That the doctrine and the movement would be made to fit men, not men to fit the doctrine or the movement.”

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Fadi A. Bardawil

Fadi A. Bardawil is an Assistant Professor of Contemporary Arab Cultures at the Department of Asian Studies in UNC-Chapel Hill.

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