The Left’s hollow anti-imperialism over Syria

Middle East Eye asked me to write an op-ed on what’s become an all-too-familiar theme following some of the (ongoing) exchanges between the folks at The Electronic Intifada and folks active in the Syria solidarity movement. To be quite honest with you, I got tired of writing the same thing. This is the 3rd time I write this and I know people who have written more than I have. It’s frustrating, but here’s one more. I added quotes by Jesse Williams given that so much of the power narrative is being dominated by Americans (as usual, making this even more annoying) in the hope that American comrades would be able to challenge the narrative from within.

It is part of a series of critiques that myself and others have written on the topic of the Left’s multilayered failures on Syria.


Over the last week, some members of the Twitter bubble argued over the left’s response to the ongoing Syrian crisis. I took part in it, if only briefly and hesitantly, knowing in advance that it would most likely not bear any fruit. Here, I will try and explain why I think it’s important that such discussions continue.

The heated exchange was not between anti-imperialists and pro-imperialists but between those who can’t see past one form of imperialism and those who are struggling against all imperialisms (or strive to). Crucially for our purposes, the former typically underestimates, or willingly ignores, Russian and Iranian imperialism in Syria and it does the same with regards to the regime’s daily atrocities. The latter sees it as its mission to remind the former of what countless Syrians have been repeating for nearly four years now, namely that it is utterly meaningless to speak of struggling for equality and justice when a fascist, neoliberal and imperialist-friendly dictatorship is overpowering anyone who wishes to fight against it. As long as this balance of powers remains unchanged, the rest is wishful thinking, with very serious repercussions on the ground.

I call the former “essentialist anti-imperialists” and I’ve even attempted to provide some definition of what it means: “essentialist anti-imperialism is defined solely in relation to one’s own government rather than on the basis of a universal opposition to all forms of imperialism”. This anti-imperialism does not stop imperialism, quite the contrary: it pits imperialist powers against one another and sometimes even cheers on the one that just happens to not be its own. In other words, it prioritises identity politics and can only survive in a grotesquely Western-centric view of the world.

There is a significant portion of the Western Left today that has adopted a nativist framework which started to exclude the voices of Syrians as soon as their revolution became inconvenient. Without naming names, many of us can think of a number of commentators – including so-called “experts” whose credentials revolve around them being white males – who were initially supportive of the revolution but ended up disavowing it or even, in some cases, supporting the fascist and imperialist forces slaughtering their way to victory with the deafening silence of a spineless “international community”. This is made all the worse with the participation of notable figures and parties of the so-called Old Arab Left – that same “Left” which happily colludes with fascist parties under the guise of a tired “anti-imperialist” narrative.

The question at the bottom of this whole debacle is: what does “fighting imperialism” mean if “imperialism” is what might save your life and that of your loved ones? Is it actually fighting imperialism to effectively condemn the countless Syrians who have called for a no-fly zone since at least 2013 (and some as early as 2012)?

Where is the anti-imperialist fighting occuring and who is fighting whom? I’m reminded of Jesse Williams’s powerful recent BET Awards speech which, discussing the struggle of African Americans, can be said to have some universalist principles, namely that “the burden of the brutalised is not to comfort the bystander”. He then formulated a sentence that should be a basic principle whenever human suffering is concerned: “If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.”

I’m not arguing for or against a no-fly zone here. There are legitimate concerns to be had with the idea of a no-fly zone in Syria, concerns which I know for a fact have given Syrian comrades sleepless nights. It does, however, raise the question of who is opposing it, and why? The least that can be said of most of those who support the idea is that it is a reflection of popular – read: desperate – feelings on the ground and that it is proposed in the hope of preventing that which we know is behind most of Syrian suffering: the regime’s aerial bombardment of civilian areas, now worsened by the Russian government.

Beyond Syria, the inability of many to see past outdated narratives has galvanised the rise of right-wing reactionary nativism in the West. Discussions on Syria ignored Syrians for so long that it became easy to dehumanise and demonise them when large numbers reached Fortress Europe’s shores.

With Syrians involved, we understand the context of the crisis. It is devastating but still palpable. It can be rationalised without robbing people already living in difficult conditions of their agency. To our eternal shame however, it wasn’t just the far right that smeared those that took up arms against Assad. In fact, as Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War co-author Robin Yassin-Kassab recently wrote, “it was the left which spread the idea that Syrian revolutionaries were ‘all al-Qaida’ before the right applied the slur to Syrian refugees.”

For this is what the death of internationalism looks like. “When progress is not universal, reactionarism progresses,” wrote the radical Syrian intellectual Yassin Al-Haj Saleh. Al-Haj Saleh’s recent article on the anniversary of the Ghouta chemical massacre is an indictment against that left, and an urgent call for thorough self-criticism.

Syrians will not forget how progressives have failed them. For just as progressives have failed Palestinians for much of Palestine’s post-1948 history and have only recently started accepting the radical notion that Palestinians are human beings struggling against settler-colonial savagery – so much so that we call them PEPs: Progressives Except for Palestine – they have repeated the same mistake with Syria.

We’re left to wonder when we’ll see the end of PES: Progressives Except for Syria.


El hueco antiimperialismo de la izquierda sobre Siria

Traducción al castellano: Sergio Pérez

Durante la última semana, algunos miembros de la burbuja de Twitter discutieron sobre la respuesta de la izquierda a la actual crisis siria. Yo mismo tomé parte en ello, aunque lo hice brevemente y con muchas reservas, sabiendo de antemano y casi con total certeza que no serviría de nada. Aquí trataré de explicar por qué considero importante que este debate continúe.

El encendido intercambio no fue entre antiimperialistas y proimperialistas, sino entre aquellos que no ven más que una forma de imperialismo y aquellos que luchan contra todos los imperialismos (o lo intentan). Los primeros suelen subestimar o ignorar de forma voluntaria el imperialismo ruso e iraní en Siria, igual que hacen con las atrocidades diarias del régimen. Los segundos, en cambio, entienden que es su deber recordar a los primeros lo que innumerables sirios han venido repitiendo durante casi cuatro años, a saber, que carece de cualquier sentido hablar de luchar por la igualdad y la justicia mientras una dictadura fascista, neoliberal y filoimperialista aplasta a cualquiera que se proponga combatirla. En tanto que este equilibrio de poderes permanezca inalterado, lo demás es pura ilusión, con graves consecuencias sobre el terreno.

A los primeros los denomino “antiimperialistas esencialistas”, e incluso he tratado de pergeñar una definición: “el antiimperialismo esencialista solo se determina en relación a los gobiernos propios, no sobre la universal oposición a toda forma de imperialismo”. Este antiimperialismo no frena al imperialismo, sino todo lo contrario: arroja a los poderes imperialistas el uno contra el otro, e incluso a veces jalea al que no es el suyo. En otras palabras, prioriza las políticas de identidad y solo puede sobrevivir en una visión del mundo grotescamente occidentalista.

Hoy en día, una parte significativa de la izquierda occidental ha adoptado un marco nativista [Wikipedia: el nativismo es una posición política que apuesta por privilegiar a los habitantes nativos de un país por encima de los recién llegados o inmigrantes (…) El nativismo se ha convertido en sinónimo de “oposición a la inmigración” y se basa en el temor a que los inmigrantes distorsionen o echen a perder los valores culturales existentes – Nota del traductor] que empezó a excluir las voces de los sirios tan pronto como su revolución se volvió inconveniente. Sin dar nombres, a muchos de nosotros nos vienen a la cabeza diferentes comentaristas –incluidos ciertos “expertos” cuyas credenciales consisten en ser varones blancos– que abrazaron la revolución en un principio pero terminaron abjurando de ella, o incluso, en algunos casos, dando su apoyo a las fuerzas fascistas e imperialistas que jalonan con masacres su camino hacia la victoria ante el atronador silencio de una pacata “comunidad internacional”. Todo ello empeorado por la implicación de notables figuras y partidos de la llamada “vieja izquierda árabe”, esa misma “izquierda” que compadrea alegremente con partidos fascistas mientras se envuelve en su gastada narrativa “antiimperialista”.

La cuestión de fondo de esta absoluta debacle es: ¿qué significa “luchar contra el imperialismo” si el “imperialismo” puede salvar tu vida y la de tus seres queridos? ¿Luchar contra el imperialismo significa de hecho una condena de los innumerables sirios que han pedido una zona de exclusión aérea desde al menos 2013 (y algunos en 2012)?

¿Dónde está teniendo lugar esta lucha antiimperialista, y quién está combatiendo contra quién? Traigo a colación la reciente y poderosa intervención de Jesse Williams sobre la lucha de los afroamericanos, en cuyo discurso resonaron también principios universales: “La carga de los maltratados no consiste en reconfortar a aquellos que se limitan a observar”. Después, Williams formuló una frase que debería ser un principio básico siempre que enfrentemos el sufrimiento humano: “Si quieres criticar la resistencia, nuestra resistencia, entonces procura haber criticado ampliamente nuestra opresión”.

Aquí no me propongo apoyar ni rechazar la zona de exclusión aérea. Existen legítimos recelos con la idea de una zona de exclusión aérea en Siria, y sé de primera mano que les quitan el sueño a mis camaradas sirios. En cualquier caso, se postula el interrogante de quién se opone a ella, y por qué. Lo mínimo que se puede decir de la mayoría de quienes apoyan la zona de exclusión es que es un reflejo del sentir popular –léase desesperación– sobre el terreno y que se propone con la esperanza de impedir lo que sabemos que hay detrás de la mayor parte del sufrimiento sirio: el bombardeo aéreo de zonas civiles por parte del régimen, agravado ahora por el gobierno ruso.

Fuera de Siria, la incapacidad de muchos para ver más allá de sus narrativas obsoletas ha galvanizado el auge en Occidente de un nativismo derechista y reaccionario. Los debates sobre Siria excluyeron a los sirios durante tanto tiempo que resultó sencillo deshumanizarlos y demonizarlos cuando alcanzaron en gran número las costas de la Fortaleza Europa.

Cuando hay sirios en el debate entendemos el contexto de la crisis. Es devastador, y sin embargo palpable. Se puede hablar de ello sin reducir a objetos pasivos a personas que ya pasan por grandes dificultades. No obstante, y para nuestra vergüenza, no solo fue la extrema derecha la que difamó a quienes tomaron las armas contra Assad. De hecho, tal como escribió hace poco Robin Yassin-Kassab, coautor del libro Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, “fue la izquierda la que extendió la idea de que los revolucionarios sirios eran ‘todos de Al-Qaeda’ antes de que la derecha aplicara esta misma infamia a los refugiados sirios”.

Este aspecto tiene la muerte del internacionalismo. “Cuando el progreso no es universal, el reaccionarismo progresa”, escribió el intelectual radical sirio Yassin Al-Haj Saleh. Su reciente artículo sobre el aniversario de la masacre química de Ghouta es una acusación contra la izquierda, y también un urgente llamamiento a una profunda autocrítica.

Los sirios no olvidarán que los progresistas les fallaron. Igual que los progresistas fallaron a los palestinos durante buena parte de su historia después de 1948, y solo recientemente empezaron a aceptar la idea radical de que los palestinos son seres humanos luchando contra el salvajismo colonial –hasta el punto de que los llamamos PEPs: Progresistas Excepto en Palestina–, de igual modo han repetido el mismo error en Siria.

Solo queda preguntarnos cuándo veremos el final de los PES: Progresistas Excepto en Siria.

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  1. The ‘imperialism’ debate is indeed tiresome and ultimately it’s a useless exercise because no matter how many times the ‘essentialists’ have their arguments ripped to shreds, their positions never shift one iota and the terrain of the debate never changes.

    What I find disturbing is the degree to which the thinking and political method underpinning the positions of the essentialists is replicated or shared on the side of ‘anti-imperialist’ pro-revolution leftist activists (few as they are) when discussing issues like a no-fly zone. A no-fly/no-go zone now exists in Jarablus thanks to the Turkish government-backed rebel/FSA operation there and comrades who claim to be equally against all imperialisms are going to be in greater and greater trouble politically the more Turkey and the U.S. (under president Clinton) get involved in the war. It’s quite likely that many of them will end up marching in the streets and joining hands literally with the essentialists, the pro-Assad forces, and the fascists in the West again just like they did in late 2013 after Assad crossed Obama’s red line and gassed 1,400 civilians.

    Genuine internationalists who support the Syrian freedom struggle ought to be counter-mobilizing against and in opposition to so-called ‘anti-war’ demonstrations led by UNAC/Stop the War Coalition even if doing so puts us on the same side as our governments (or Turkey’s government) or makes us look ‘pro imperialist’/pro-interventionist. That prospect/orientation is what we should be debating now although I think the very notion of imperialism needs a major a complete overhaul from the fundamental assumptions on upward since it has clearly become a counter-revolutionary concept and the single greatest stumbling block for the development of genuine internationalism among self-identified leftists which in turn has pretty much killed the possibility of a new left emerging out of the Arab Spring in the foreseeable future.

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