In a previous essay, I stated that Russian military help to the Syrian State was a response to a direct threat from the United States to attack Syrian armed forces, that I understood the Syrian uprising since 2011 as an instance of the ongoing program of regime change via jhiadi forces driven by the United States and its allies, and that, as a result, the Syria-Russia alliance was a necessary, legal, and legitimate defense of state sovereignty and independence that averted an impending victory of those foreign-sponsored jihadi forces. I found this interruption of imperialist chaos state destruction to be a net positive for the world, and a result I welcomed as a leftist. I’ll call this the “anti-imperialist” position.
I also said that I recognized there are leftists out there committed to democracy, social justice, and anti-imperialism (excluding here obvious partisans of American exceptionalism, Zionism, and Euro-American capitalist globalism) who can disagree with my position as a matter of political analysis and judgement, but that—as I would explain in a later post—I disagreed vigorously with some of the spurious rhetorical tactics used to attack positions like mine and defend the alternative. Here’s that explanation.
It’s important to note that advocates of either of the opposed positions on Syria are not likely to persuade advocates of the other. Nor are the passionately-argued analyses of Americans on the internet, Twitter, and in in bookstores going to matter a whit to any of the combatants in Syria. The real point of this debate is to encourage people either to support or reject further American military intervention in Syria by their own country. (This creates a problem for the left anti-Assadist position that I’ll discuss below.)
This is of pressing importance again, since, in an announcement that should surprise absolutely no one, President The Donald now says he “"will absolutely do safe zones in Syria," just like Hillary. That didn’t take long.
In doubleplusgood Americanese, of course, “Safe Zones” means American-protected safe havens for jihadi combat forces in Syrian territory, where they can regroup and re-arm, and from which they can launch new offensives to overthrow the Syrian government. Safe Zones for Syrians are those areas not occupied or under attack by jihadi fanatics—i. e., Syria, uninvaded.
As Joint Chiefs’ chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford said back in September: enforcing “safe zones” likely “would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia,” and are, as the Commander of NATO said back in 2013, “quite frankly an act of war.” As Reuters reports, establishing and maintaining them “would require thousands of troops.”
It “also would be expensive, given the need to house, feed, educate and provide medical care to the refugees,” whose welfare is the purported purpose of these humanitarian interventionist zones. Because the Trump administration is so concerned about the welfare of refugees. Or is it about the deep-state neocons tirelessly conjuring up pretexts and stratagems to justify an American military presence in Syria? Everyone can ponder which is more plausible.
I doubt Donald Trump understands much about all this. The NYT is reporting that, as I feared, he put on “a remarkable show of deference to his own subordinate,” Mad Dog Mattis. It’s a good bet that Trump will be captivated by the worst militarists, who will feed his narcissistic, macho, "winner" ideology.
So this the kind of concrete policy that’s at stake in the argument between the anti-imperialist position on Syria and the opposing position—the one favored by some other leftists, incessantly promoted by the political-media complex of the West, and that will now be used to encourage this “safe zone” act of war.
For this position—let’s call it “anti-Assadist”—what’s been transpiring in Syria since 2011 is a revolution of democratic Syrian groups against the authoritarian—“genocidal,” even!—Baathist regime currently led by Assad. Sure, there are some foreign as well as Syrian jihadis involved in it, but that doesn’t change its predominantly Syrian make-up and leadership, its justification as a revolt against tyranny, and its (at least potential) program for a more democratic Syria should it win.
That revolution is being supported by the U.S and its allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel), because a more democratic, or at least less tyrannical, Syria will somehow suit their needs. That revolution was on the verge of success until Russia stepped in to rescue the Syrian government. It has also been betrayed by the Obama administration’s lackluster support, and ultimate refusal of more overt military intervention—a “no-fly zone” at least—that would have turned the tide back toward victory for the revolution. Some in this camp even claim that this refusal shows that Obama administration really never wanted to depose, and has in fact been colluding with, Assad.
Those supporting this position reject any attempt to contextualize the conflict in Syria within the history of jihadi proxy wars sponsored by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia since 9/11 (if not Aghanistan, 1979), or within Zionist schemes, since the Yinon Plan, for promoting “sectarian-based states [as] Israel's satellites and, ironically, its source of moral legitimation.” They denounce such talk as “conspiracy theory” and denial of Syrian agency by foreign and/or American and/or white leftists.
They also dismiss the kind of arguments I made in that previous post about internationally-recognized principles of non-intervention and state sovereignty and independence. When forced to respond to those points, they’ll insist that, bourgeois legal principles notwithstanding, foreign intervention to support what they see as an indigenous revolutionary democratic movement is necessary to counteract foreign intervention and stop the commission of war crimes against civilians by “imperialist” Russia and Iran on behalf of a tyrannical regime.
David Mizner, in a devastating critique that I highly recommend, describes the “ethical apparatus” of the anti-Assadist position, aptly, I think, as “a fictional framework that pits an enormously popular and essentially progressive revolution against a widely loathed ‘fascist’ regime. Forget disobedient facts, forget imperialism, forget the evolution of the war over the last five years, this is their story and their [sic] sticking to it.”
For them, the Syrian government and its allies are in the historically-politically-ethically retrograde camp, while the insurgents and their American, Turk, Gulf, and Israeli allies are in the historically-politically-ethically progressive camp. Though its adherents sometimes avoid saying so directly, the politico-ethical logic of this position is to want the actually-existing insurgent forces to win, to overthrow and replace the Baathist government. In their rhetoric to liberal and leftist audiences, this usually gets sublimated into an imperative that the U.S. and the West, for “humanitarian” reasons only, supply whatever resources and assistance needed to make that happen.
Better that the Syrian state win, or better that the insurgents win. These are the two positions. There aren’t ten of them. War narrows choice. Here, the principal axis of difference is between incompatible assessments of the dominant pollical character of the uprising: democratic civil war or jihadi-proxy imperialism.
In some other conflict, on some other planet, there may be a way to fudge the choice, but in this theater, at this conjuncture, with these players, at this stage of the fight, it’s down to one or the other. That may be the one thing both sides agree on. To be neutral would mean to be uninterested in who wins this fight. Those who are entirely unaware of the world, NGOs, and professed pacifists may claim such neutrality (though most such claims don’t withstand scrutiny), but that’s an improbable attitude for a leftist to take on this issue.
So these are irreconcilable positions, seeking opposite resolutions to an important real-world conflict. Each side considers the other’s political judgement deadly seriously mistaken. So each side has to give the evidence and the arguments, demonstrate that its sources are reliable and the other side’s not so much. Those who resent the fact that the Syria-Russia military alliance has driven the jihadis from Aleppo and prevented the overthrow of the Syrian government, and want to continue claiming there’s a revolution in Syria dominated by indigenous democratic forces can make their case.
But they are not making that case by calling people “Assad (and/or Putin) apologists” and “conspiracy theorists.” That is not making an argument; it’s avoiding one. It’s an attempt to shame and shut up one’s political interlocutors, not respond to them.
I, and, I think, leftists who share my position, can understand the rejection of Baathist authoritarianism that might prompt other leftists to favor an anti-Assadist position, but the charges that we who don’t are in league with Assad or Putin are so blatantly diversionary as to be embarrassing. Left politics doesn’t do comic-book villains, and no leftist should be ashamed of saying about Bashar al-Assad what the “leftist and atheist” rebel supporter (quoted below) is unashamed to say about ISIS: “not that big of a monster.”
We recognize that many Syrians are hungry for greater democracy, and rightfully pissed-off at the Syrian government. Anyone who has any familiarity with the region knows the gnawing indignities suffered by people living under such regimes. We also recognize that Baathist Syria has been a stable, secular polity embodying substantive progressive achievements: tolerance of various deeply-rooted religious communities, widespread social security, educational opportunity, and gender equality, etc. It remains—the mortal sin for the Americans and Israelis—an important ally of the Palestinians (an alliance some seem to think they can pressure Assad to betray). It is, in short, with all the attendant contradictions, the last bastion of post-colonial, secular, quasi-socialist, republican Arab nationalism.
That, we contend, is the fault the jihadi uprising wants to correct. Its objective is not to correct Assad’s authoritarianism with democracy; it’s to change the Syrian “regime”—deconstruct the state, really—in ways favorable to jihadi and foreign interests, ways that are guaranteed to destroy those more progressive elements of Baathist policy.
As for “democracy,” can Saudi Arabia, Israel, or a country where the guy who gets three million fewer votes wins the election pretend to be the arbiter and military enforcer of what that means? Before dismissing Syrian elections, and correcting them with jihadi armies, arrogant regime-changers, left and right, might pause to behold the flourishing of elected autocrats—devotees of torture, and indefinite incarceration and assassination of citizens, authoritarian and popular—in their own midst. Can anyone deny that millions of Syrians support the Assad government? Is it alright for those Syrians to be ignored—really, just disappeared from the narrative—and their “agency” denied?
At this point, I think the evidence for the Syrian conflict as an instance of jihadi-proxy imperialism is overwhelming, and can be found even in mainstream media reports that popped up but were ignored along the way. The façade began to disintegrate the moment the Russian air force got in the act, and showed the world—and began to attack—the miles-long convoys of ISIS oil tankers calmly wending their way into Turkey, which American and Western forces had somehow failed to notice. The fiction that “moderate” rebels could be separated from their al-Qaeda/al-Nusra comrades couldn’t hold. Events since then, including the battle for Aleppo and what’s been revealed since its recapture, and the self-incriminating audio of John Kerry talking to Syrian oppositionists, have confirmed the fundaments of the anti-imperialist analysis.
The battle for Aleppo merits particular attention, as it was the flashpoint of an especially frantic attempt to rescue the jihadi ground war and the jihadi narrative. It also became the occasion for some particularly nasty attacks against anti-interventionist leftists like Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek. Blumenthal was attacked for his articles (here and here) about the sainted White Helmets (a group that has its own Netflix documentary, upcoming George Clooney film, Nobel Prize nomination, and well over $100 million in Western funding), Khalek because she was going to attend a conference in Damascus—but really because she wrote sharp, critical articles about the “rebels” (here, here, here). Because they were effective critics of the approved narrative, they were branded with the Scarlet A (for “Assad”), in an attempt to shame them and label them as voices to be shunned.
As Mizner remarks: “During the final stages of the fighting in Aleppo, Twitter’s care-more-than-thou caucus was out in full force, blasting people who questioned the claims of the opposition parroted by the MSM.”
The attempt by Syrian and Russian forces to recapture the eastern part of that city (consistently called just “Aleppo”) from the jihadi rebels, dominated by al-Qaeda/al-Nusra (aka Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), who had invaded and seized it, was characterized as a uniquely brutal crime against humanity, deliberately targeted against the civilian population, which was therefore in extraordinary need of rescue.
It’s as if fighting brigades of the Westboro Baptist Church and its fundamentalist allies—armed and paid by the Chinese government, which for five years had been demanding the overthrow of the U.S. government—had invaded and occupied Staten Island, started enforcing biblical punishments on gays, loose women, Jews, and Catholics, and launched incessant artillery and rocket attacks on the other four boroughs. It’s as if, then, when the government of the United States fought back to defend the larger and more populous sections of the city, drive the invaders out, and reestablish sovereign control over its own territory, the world’s media and some concerned leftists relentlessly characterized that counteroffensive as the “Siege of New York,” called for humanitarian air support from China for the poor
Ridiculous. Yes, and not a whit more so than the narrative we’ve been inundated with regarding Aleppo.
If someone thinks that’s wrong, make the case! Maybe al-Nusra wasn’t the dominant force in Aleppo, as the Defense Department said it was. Maybe the people of Aleppo rose up and threw out the government, rather than being invaded by foreign jihadi groups and jihadis from rural Syria, as a “rebel commander” told Reuters: “We waited and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn't. We couldn't rely on them to do it for themselves so we had to bring the revolution to them.” Or, as another rebel commander told Maritn Chulov of the Guardian: "Yes it's true. Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way.”
Maybe al Nusra didn’t “clos[e] the schools and put weapons close to hospitals,” as an Aleppo resident, who had been an admirer of ISIS at first, told Robert Fisk. Maybe barrel bombs are not “simply an amateur version of a conventional weapon,” as British ambassador Craig Murray describes them, but “uniquely inhumane” weapons that, as White Helmet spokesmen variously claim, cause damage equivalent to 6.7, or maybe 7.6, or make that 8.0 on the Richter scale. (Fukushima was 6.9. A 7.6 earthquake would release almost 30X more energy than that, and 8.0 would release 30X again more energy. That means arch-fiend Assad has devised a $200 weapon that is 900 times more powerful than the Fukushima earthquake.)
Or, maybe it doesn’t make any difference, because Assad is such a uniquely brutal, genocidal, tyrant that nothing else matters. Well, then, that’s another kind of case you have to make.
In any case, calling people “Assad apologists” doesn’t do it.
Let’s turn it around, and look carefully at what the “ethical apparatus” of the anti-Assad position demands, as expressed by one of its most respected spokespersons: Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Saleh certainly speaks with some authority about Syria. As a young communist activist, he was imprisoned by the regime for 16 years. In 2013 Vijay Prashad called Saleh, “the main secular voice of this uprising in Syria.” At that time, Saleh had just left the country because of the “deplorable” situation. His birthplace, Raqqa, had been taken over by ISIS, “the spectres of horror of our childhood, the ghouls, …strangers [who] oppress it and rule the fates of its people, confiscating public property, destroying a statue of Haroun al-Rashid or desecrating a church, taking people into custody where they disappeared in their prisons.”
In October, 2016, he was interviewed for The Intercept by Marwan Hisham and Murtaza Hussain (who also participated in the Syria and the Left panel at Verso Books in Brooklyn in November), who called him Syria’s “voice of conscience.” In that interview, he again identifies himself as “a secularist and a nonbeliever, an atheist.” His take on the Syrian conflict is centered on his judgement of Bashar al-Assad as a “criminal” who has “politically…enslaved” the Syrian people, and whom Saleh wants “to be hanged now, not tomorrow.” He insists that “the Americans have been supporting Bashar al-Assad,” that they “pressured Turkey and other countries … to prevent them from providing decisive [i.e., enough to guarantee victory] assistance to the Syrian opposition,” and that the U.S. and Turkey “vetoed Assad’s being toppled by the Syrian people by force.” Saleh now says, “ISIS is not that big of a monster,” and he does not hesitate to make a choice, emphatically and repeatedly: “I am a leftist and I am an atheist, but I will not fight against ISIS if…you put your hand in the hand of Bashar al-Assad…If the proposal is, ‘Let’s focus on defeating ISIS and then [Assad] afterward,’ I will not do it…Let me be frank: ISIS is the lesser evil.”
So, for leftist and atheist Saleh, ISIS with all it entails is preferable to Assad’s Baathism and all that entails. I strongly disagree with that. I think Saleh has constructed a specious narrative of the Syrian opposition and of the American role in the conflict that is demonstrably wrong on important facts and based on a dangerously misguided political judgement of the situation. Kerry’s audio tape alone undermines most of it.
What I do not want to say is: “You’re an ISIS apologist.” What I don’t want to do is brand him with the Black I, and accuse him of being ISIS’s “agent,” or of colluding with ISIS’s overall agenda. That would be a diversionary, and therefore weak response that would entirely miss the point. Saleh’s fundamental position is not pro-ISIS but anti-Assad, and pro- almost any opposition that would overthrow “the junta that rules Syria today.” He is also, either shrewdly or mistakenly, making the political judgement that there’s an opposition with progressive, democratic promise ready to emerge from behind “the spectres of horror” that drove him out of the country. Saleh agrees, I guess, with Yasser Munif, who acknowledges that “Most people despise that Syrian [official] opposition,” but real, “unaffiliated” revolutionaries are ready to seize the day once everyone
That’s the judgement one has to contest, and calling him an “ISIS apologist” doesn’t do it, is a way of avoiding doing it.
It’s a judgement that thousands of other professed leftists have made about the Syrian conflict: that it’s possible to “support” ISIS in a real but limited sense—to hope that ISIS defeats Assad in this particular conflict rather than vice-versa—without being an ISIS supporter in a more general sense. And, yes, they must take responsibility for that real but limited “support.” Saleh and his comrades are claiming to maintain a secular, atheist, leftist rejection of ISIS and similar jihadi groups, while asserting that it’s possible, and acceptable, and necessary, to defeat Assad now, and ISIS later.
Well, I, along with thousands of other sincere leftists, am no more an “Assad apologist” for preferring in this particular conflict that the Syrian state defeat ISIS rather than the reverse. There are plenty of good secular, leftist, respectful-of-the-Syrian-people reasons for thinking it acceptable and necessary to defeat ISIS and its jihadi ilk now, and get rid of Baathist authoritarianism later. They are based on a political judgement that the authoritarian Syrian state is under attack by imperialism, Arab reaction, Zionism, and anti-democratic jihadi proxy forces—the latest battle in a long-term project to destroy recalcitrant states and replace them with a kind of regressive horror that must be stopped.
So I do support the Syrian government—just as Yassin al-Haj Saleh supports ISIS—in the real but limited sense that I hope the government defeats, rather than loses to, ISIS, al-Nusra, and allied jihadi “strangers” and “spectres of horror”—whom, I judge, shrewdly or mistakenly, to be the dominant forces on the ground arrayed against the Baathist regime, and not likely, after they overthrow Assad, to be shooed away by unaffiliated leftist revolutionaries. I also, perforce, support the Russian military aid that has prevented the victory of those forces.
“Assad apologist” is a weak response to that. It’s those who find their position the hardest to justify with evidence and arguments who are most likely to revert to moral shaming, the purpose of which is to get their interlocutors to shut up and slink away. Louis Alday nailed this, in a trenchant Monthly Review article: “The policing of acceptable opinion in this way has a simple and practical function: to foster a climate in which people feel too intimidated to speak out, thus allowing the dominant narrative to remain unquestioned.”
This kind of rhetorical tactic only works on people interested in what’s now called “virtue signaling,” or what I describe as the favorite liberal pastime of shedding and assigning guilt. On my map, the road to political clarity, let alone political power (Perish the tainted thought!), isn't a guilt trip (through the land of identity politics).
Guilt-tripping is the opposite of ethical responsibility. Certainly, ethical questions are ultimately paramount—not just embedded in, but the heart of, politics. But this heart is not worn on history’s sleeve. Socially-persistent ethical outcomes will be results of a series of inevitably imperfect political judgements whose long-term effects we can only, and must, surmise in the instant. And “monster” doesn’t help at all in that regard.
Again, the urgent point of this debate is to encourage people to support or oppose American military intervention. For me, that’s not a question of which choice makes one feel less guilty.
Encouraging American military intervention poses a particular problem for “anti-Assadist” leftists, especially now that the savior to whom they’re appealing is no longer the peace-prized Smooth Operator but the left-reviled Shameless Huckster.
To maintain their credibility on the left, they have to acknowledge that the U.S. is imperialist, and will thus often avoid directly calling for American military intervention. They will just support the organizations that do. When asked directly if he would support military intervention to depose Assad, Saleh didn’t say yes, and didn’t say no. He just called for Assad to be hanged, or brought to The Hague—by somebody.
In a more convoluted rhetorical strategy, they also construct a kind of double-reverse narrative that tries to co-opt the charge of American imperialism by turning it into a critique of America’s support of Assad. Yes, America is imperialist—because it supports Assad!
That’s also why, in this narrative, Russia must be an imperialist country. Only if Russia is imperialist can anti-imperialist leftists be expected to denounce Russia for responding to an invitation to help an independent sovereign state being attacked a bunch of counter-revolutionary foreign governments led by Imperialism Central.
War crimes? Civilian casualties? In the Syrian conflict the Western reporting on civilian casualties has been a stream of dubious (super-earthquake barrel bombs) and hypocritical reports laying all the blame on the cold-hearted Syrian and Russian forces. But most reports of government atrocities in rebel-held areas come from rebel sources, since, “for the very good reason.” as Patrick Cockburn points out “that Isis imprisons and beheads foreigners while Jabhat al-Nusra…is only a shade less bloodthirsty.”
When the Syrian army was on the verge of retaking jihadi-occupied eastern Aleppo, “opposition media filled up with references to Srebrenica 1995 and Rwanda 1994, even to the Holocaust,” desperately trying to incite some eleventh-hour American cavalry charge to save the last jihadi enclaves. But even mainstream NGO reporter Aron Lund had to acknowledge “These claims were not backed up by reporting and even overtly pro-rebel media channels had, at the time of writing, produced no evidence of anything remotely similar to these atrocities.“ As Mizner says, “To be sure, many civilians in East Aleppo suffered greatly, but this was no genocide; this was a brutal battle in a brutal war fueled in large measure by counterrevolutionary foreign governments.”
The lack of independent verification didn’t stop for a minute the tsunami of double-standard reporting on the “sieges” of Aleppo and Mosul, where, as Gareth Porter writes: “In the case of Mosul…the defenders are to blame for endangering civilians by using them as human shields and preventing them leaving. In East Aleppo, fortunately, there are no human shields – though the UN says that half the civilian population wants to depart – but simply innocent victims of Russian savagery.”
I make no claim to know who has caused more civilian casualties in Syria, and I doubt we’ll have reliable data for some time. I do think it’s naïve to trust what’s been said so far on this by Western media, repeating sources within the jihadi-controlled areas where independent journalists dare not enter. As with everything else in this situation, one has to consider a variety of sources before deciding what’s trustworthy.
Unfortunately, in situations of all-out, fight-to-the-finish war like this, the choice of which side one wants to win determines one’s attitude to all consequent considerations. Partisans of each side will always frame civilian casualties as unfortunate but unavoidable collateral damage and as the ultimate responsibility of the other side. When has any side in any war stopped fighting because of civilian casualties?
Considerations of civilian casualties and war crimes also founder on questions of authority for which we have no good answer. How many civilians did the Allies kill in the fire-bombings Dresden and Tokyo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the hundreds of other bombing campaigns in German-occupied European territories? Were these war crimes? Whoever has the right to and judge them, it is not fascist Germany or Japan.
The governing principle is that the aggressor has no right to judge the actions of the aggressed. It is the aggressor who bears the principal ethico-political responsibility for tha casualties of the war it starts. Such actions can only be legitimately judged by an internationally-recognized judicial authority, or, absent that, by some tribunal of the aggressed party itself—which only happens if that party wins. It’s always victor’s justice.
I’d be happy to see Bashar al-Assad stand trial for any crimes against humanity he may have committed—alongside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the leaders of al-Nusra and other jihadi groups (including the CIA-supported “moderate” group that beheaded a twelve-year-old boy), and right after the trials of George Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other perpetrators of aggressive war—in a globally-recognized juridical venue. Too bad such a venue doesn’t exist. Too bad the venue that’s supposed to perform that function, the ICC, is completely discredited by the fact that it will never see any Western-favored criminals brought before it. Speaking metaphorically (as I don’t think Saleh was): Hang ‘em high. But all of them, in order.
And whoever has the right to judge them, it’s not the USG, or CNN, or MSNBC.
Unfortunately, nobody’s getting out of this with clean hands. No matter which position you take, or which side you prefer to win, there is no choice that will preserve your innocence. And it’s hard not to make a choice. That’s what war does. Politics is not the art of washing one’s hands.
So I prefer that the Syrian Arab Army and its allies defeat the jihadi imperialist-proxy armies rather than vice-versa. I oppose any American military intervention in the conflict, including that which is already in place. And this, despite my really unfortunate sense that the American imperialist regime is going to keep this bloody war—the same one they started 38 years ago in Afghanistan—going for a very long time.
That’s my position, and I’m sticking to it. Call me what you will.
See preceding post: Syria, Interrupted: Game Change