The Left's anti-imperialist support for Assad is morally untenable

The Left's anti-imperialist support for Assad is morally untenable
Comment: Understanding the conflict in Syria through the narrow lens of regime change fails to capture its complexity, and strips protesters of their subjectivity and grievances, writes Tommaso Segantini.
6 min read
05 Jan, 2017
Syrian pro-government forces watch the evacuation of rebels and civilians from Aleppo, December 2016 [AFP]

The coverage of the conflict in Syria, like that of every other war, has been marked by a constant flow of propaganda, lies, and disinformation from all sides.

The narratives around the conflict have tended to be polarised and binary. On the one hand, western mainstream media uncritically supports and defends opposition groups, whose core is made, to a large extent, of violent religious extremists.

On the other, some sectors of the left are backing the Assad regime and Russian intervention in the region on the grounds of anti-imperialism, whitewashing their crimes.

The voices putting forward a principled opposition to both the reactionary elements of the opposition and the Assad regime, based on moral decency and the protection of civilians, struggle to get heard.

Things could have been different; at the beginning of the conflict, as popular uprisings were harshly repressed by Syrian governmental forces, a collection of combatants, civilians and defectors of the Syrian armed forces, united under the label of Free Syrian Army, organised resistance to the Assad regime.

At the onset of the armed conflict, the extremist religious elements in the opposition to the Syrian government were marginal and in the minority.

During the initial, crucial months of resistance, however, the democratic revolutionary factions of the Free Syrian Army received no support from western governments.

While the Syrian government was jailing and torturing democrats and moderate dissidents, it was also releasing extremist prisoners

Various jihadist groups, however, received substantial financial and material assistance from surrounding Gulf States, and quickly hijacked the Syrian opposition; as they increased in strength, many combatants and ordinary civilians turned to these groups to have access to arms and financial resources.

The lack of support to the democratic elements of the Syrian opposition resulted in their weakening and marginalisation, and is probably the greatest responsibility bearing on the West's shoulders regarding war in Syria.

Read More: What's next for the left's troubled relationship with Syria?

As scholar and anti-war activist Gilbert Achcar has written, "it is... the lack of US support to the mainstream Syrian opposition from the early stage of the civil war that allowed the Syrian situation to end up being caught between the hammer of an increasingly murderous regime... and the anvil of increasingly sectarian and fanatical Sunni-fundamentalist anti-Assad regime forces", the "worst of all possible outcomes" for the Syrian people, according to Achcar.

Since the rise of violent extremist religious groups at the expense of the democratic factions of the Free Syrian Army, the political character of the Syrian conflict radically changed, taking the form of a repressive and powerful regime fighting against counterrevolutionary jihadist groups.

The anti-imperialist view held by parts of the Left tends towards a very simplistic account of the Syrian conflict

The upsurge of extremist groups among the opposition has benefitted Assad, as he has since positioned himself as the lesser evil and the only alternative to extremist groups, including Islamic State (IS).

In fact, Assad actively encouraged the infiltration of the Free Syrian Army by jihadist groups: During the first months of protests against his government in 2011, the Syrian president released a number of radicalised prisoners to justify "its murderous response to overwhelmingly peaceful demands for political reforms", as he "understood that the reactionaries could be used to crowd out popular forces".

Thus, while the Syrian government was jailing and torturing democrats and moderate dissidents, it was also releasing extremist prisoners, many of whom soon joined the ranks of the jihadist factions of the Syrian opposition.

The hijacking of the revolution by reactionary forces has therefore not only resulted in the temporary defeat and dissolution of democratic groups fighting for the construction of a more just society in the region, but has also strengthened Assad's hold on the country, as he used the presence of violent extremists to deploy violence on a massive scale, crushing all opposition.

Analysing the Syrian conflict only through the lens of regime change is profoundly insufficient

Some sectors of the left seem to be blinded, or to ignore the genesis of the spontaneous protests against the Syrian government.

While the West fails to admit the hijacking of the revolution and continues to support opposition groups (including extremists), the Assad regime, backed by some on the left, refuses to acknowledge the genuine and true character of the uprisings against the government, conflating all opposition with western-backed terrorists.

The anti-imperialist view held by parts of the left tends towards a very simplistic account of the Syrian conflict, presenting it as a unilateral effort by the US and its allies to achieve regime change.

The conflict in Syria is represented as an externally introduced plan of imperialist powers to destabilise the regime. The uprisings and opposition to the government are portrayed as fully functional and to a large extent directed to accomplish that goal, modelled according to the "coloured revolutions" that occurred in former Soviet Union states.

While US intentions to topple Bashar al-Assad were well-documented, analysing the Syrian conflict only through the lens of regime change is profoundly insufficient.

The Left has the task of advancing a nuanced, honest, ethical stance

Such an interpretation fails to capture the complex and rapidly changing dynamics of the conflict and in the region, and, above all, strips the pacific protesters of their legitimate grievances and subjectivity in a patronising way, portraying them as ignorant, manipulable objects contributing to US imperialist ambitions.

The position of backing the Syrian government and its allies with blood on their hands as bastions against US imperialism adopted by people on the left is simply morally untenable, and the result of a deeply flawed interpretation of the nature of the Syrian conflict.

Framing the Syrian conflict along ideological and partisan lines is not an option if one wants to hold a morally decent and concerned position on the Syrian conflict. The left has the task of advancing a nuanced, honest, ethical stance, firmly condemning all forms of oppression and indiscriminate violence, and side with democratic groups that are still present on the ground.

Although future prospects of the Syrian conflict are quite grim, there are some positive developments on which to build. In Rojava, for example, the Kurdish-controlled Northern region of Syria, glimpses of a radically alternative model of society based on self-governance, gender equality, and ecology are emerging.

The duty of genuine internationalists abroad is to support the original aspirations of the diverse nonviolent popular and revolutionary forces against the Syrian government fighting for democracy, freedom and social justice, which is what imperialist powers and oppressive regimes in the region are, in the end, both truly really terrified of.

Tommaso Segantini is an independent freelance journalist.

Visit his blog here or Follow him in Twitter:@tomhazo

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.