Wretched of the Earth: solidarity letters between Syria and Gaza
Given its relevance, I am re-posting Mohammed Suleiman’s Wretched of the Earth: Thoughts on Syria, Palestine and Discourse. Originally published October 18th, 2016.
What happens in Syria is of a great concern to all of us, albeit for different reasons. My concern for Syria is the loss of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives and, no less important, the way my identity as a Palestinian is constantly dragged into it to justify this bloodbath and undermine the struggle of Syrians.
The conversation on Syria can go in many a direction. I’m interested in where I, as a Palestinian, should be standing. And I choose the side of the Syrian people.
This is a quite problematic start.
‘Which Syrian people do you mean?’ the skeptic will ask.
I am simply referring to the people of Syria who either actively chose to protest against the Assad dictatorship and found themselves being bombarded and massacred by him and his allies since 2011. I’m referring to the Syrian refugees escaping Assad regime and Russian bombardment. I’m referring to the Syrian children, men and women whom I hear, time and again, in the aftermath of every strike, cursing him and the soul of his father.
I’m trying to make it clear that it is the life of the Syrian people that I am interested in when I talk about Syria. However, I have to admit what is now happening in Syria is more than just the struggle of the Syrian people. Besides Syrian civilians and Syrian rebels, there is a miscellany of foreign fighters in Syria which include sectarian jihadis fighting against Assad and everyone who is not them as well as the no-less sectarian militias fighting for the Assad regime. In Syria, there are regional and global interests which involve diverse powers fighting for Assad and others trying to bring him down. And we all know their names.
This, for me, is where the conversation starts to take a different direction. That there is more happening in Syria than just the Syrian people does not make the Syria question less about Syrians. This is decidedly where you either remain a supporter of the Syrian people or simply abandon them. It is a choice between renewing one’s commitment to the Syrian people or betraying them by deciding that this no longer is about them.
Therefore, I will bring my conversation back to the Syrian people.
The question I’d like to pose: does the presence of all these militias, external influence and regional power negate the presence of the Syrian people?
Simple as it is, this question can be (mis)construed in many ways, and hence my emphasis on the existence of the Syrian people. The answer is no. The Syrian people exist and this is all about them. There are Syrian people on the ground, for sure.
But the different question some would insist on, again, is ‘which Syrian people?’
I made it clear it is concern for the loss of life of the Syrian people that drives me to write this. So it is the more than 400,000 Syrian lives. This can be a quite murky thing to say, since Assadists can come up with their own numbers and dispute every other statistic or image as fabricated or an American-sponsored falsehood. Therefore, let us simply say it is the lives of those Syrian people who were killed by the Assad regime and its allies that I am referring to. They number hundreds of thousands and unless you’re an actual bozo— as Robert De Niro would say— of the kind that denies that Assad has killed the majority of the victims of Syria, you’ll have to accept that this man is a war criminal, a mass murderer and, as I like to say, a butcher.
Many accept that Assad is indeed a butcher and is killing his people but that this turned into a ‘proxy war’ and one has to be careful which side they stand on. If you’re one of those, let’s move on. If you think Assad is not massacring his people and letting the Russians and others do it for him and that he is but an absolute anti-imperialist icon, then (honestly, mate) fuck off.
However, while I maintained a distinction between the two, rarely do I come across the first type of people (those who say Assad is killing people, but it is not as simple as this) and who do not somehow end up calling this a complete conspiracy and that Assad is not really the main perpetrator of violence in Syria. Again, statistics, video footage, and hard evidence aside.
As a Palestinian, Assad means nothing to me. I was raised in Gaza. I lived there most of my life, and there is nowhere else on earth that I can call home but Gaza. I was born during the first intifada, grew up through the second, lived one Israeli onslaught after another, did high school exams while Hamas and Fatah were shooting at one another outside my exam hall. I’m trying to make two points here.
First, Assad means nothing to me and us as Palestinians. The whole saga of him being a champion of Palestinian rights is one only ideological bozos believe, not Palestinians. For us, he is only one thing: a butcher of his own people. Clearly, I’m not in the business in proving to anyone that he is not a champion of Palestinian rights by citing the last time he shot a bullet towards Israel. There is so much written on this, go read it. Here, I am stating with native authority that he is not, so come on, do practice some of your cultural imperialism and force this fake image of his on me. Tell Palestinians that you know about them more than they know about themselves. Isn’t this what the anti-imperialist leftist bozos criticize pro-interventionists of anyway: of speaking for Syrians?
Second, I know what violence is. So, and here I’m addressing white leftist Assadists in particular, if you think you know shit about life, I suggest you think hard again. Reading a few books about Marxism and philosophy to find meaning in your own life, and then engaging in some armchair discussions about world politics and visiting a few ‘conflict zones’ may teach you something, and there is nothing wrong with doing this. Nonetheless, it does not make you more knowledgeable about life than a high-school teenager with a direct experience of war, loss and injustice, so do know what your limits are. Anti-imperialism is precisely this: checking your privileges, your whiteness, understanding the operations of power, the insidious forms of imperialism, i.e. cultural imperialism, which do not come in the form of American wars and interventions in the Middle East and Latin American, or European and IMF neo-colonialism. There is more you may want to learn.
However, I digress. Back to the Syrian people. Assad is the main perpetrator of violence on Syria. Where do we go from here? Simple. Get rid of him to stop the violence. But is it really simple, given the presence of foreign influence, regional powers’ greed and— how can one ignore the elephant in the room? — extremists. That is a dilemma. To get rid of Assad or not? Let us for now talk to Assad, to Russia, to everyone: ‘Please have mercy on the Syrian people until we figure out what to do with this.’ Fast forward five years, and the world is still convincing Assad to stop the butchery.
As a Palestinian, there is a phrase I picked up from TV news bulletins when I was a little child: haqqu taqrir al-masir (the right to self-determination). Sure, let Syrians decide. For why you non-Syrians decide for Syrians how to deal with their crisis? This must prove to be good for all consenting parities. Hold on, this is nonsense. Setting aside all the procedural issues required to be in place for Syrians to be able to decide in a democratic fashion whether to get rid of Assad or not, which Syrians are you talking about here, again? The point made by skeptics is that there are Syrians who do want Bashar Al-Assad as well. Therefore, not all Syrians want him removed from power. Let us look into this pseudo-problem.
I have made it clear I am concerned about Syrians who are victims of this butcher, so the presence of Assadist Syrians does not really undermine the right of the rest of Syrians to get rid of him. This is similar to saying that there are Palestinians who support the Palestinian Authority (which is complicit with the Israeli occupation but has not killed hundreds of thousands of its own people); therefore, Palestinians should not get rid of the PA. I believe they should remove the PA, regardless of what PA loyalists think. And there is almost consensus amongst Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists— not that the latter matters—that Palestinians are going nowhere near liberation as far as the PA is in place.
A lot of us support BDS, one-state solution and full Palestinian rights. However, if you haven’t been to Palestine, you’re absolutely mistaken to think this in any way represents the Palestinian people in their entirety. But wait, which Palestinian people? Does this include the Palestinian refugees in Syrian and Lebanon, or the third-generation diaspora refugees in the US and Europe as well? Like Syria, it is no less complicated, no?
Only that it is not. We still know which Palestinian people. We do not care what Abbas and PA buffoons have to say. We do not give much attention to what Hamas thinks is the best way to deal with the occupation, or even what the ordinary people in Gaza and the West Bank think is the best way to solve the conflict. We agree Palestinians have decided they want BDS through the endorsement of the largest civil society organisations of BDS. That said, in no way does BDS speak for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, who have been living directly under Israeli occupation and who experience its violence first-hand. In no way does it represents Hamas or Fatah, or Palestinian NGOs in Gaza and the West Bank, for, after all, they’re products of Oslo. Take my native word for it: most Palestinians in Gaza haven’t heard of BDS (probably known only to those who speak English) and if they have, they think it is nonsense.
However, this is not a case against BDS at all. BDS is the right thing to do and we should all continue to endorse it. I am not interested in contesting the BDS as a discourse representative of Palestinian demands. Its goals are just. Even if not all Palestinians agree with it, we shall continue to hegemonize it, stabilize it, and take it to be representative of Palestinians, all Palestinians. Only when it becomes hegemonic— and it has, at least outside of Palestine— we are in a position to say that BDS represents Palestinian demands, and we take this to mean all of them (including those who haven’t heard or consented to it). Therefore, other Palestinian discourses such as the PA and Hamas do not really undermine the case for BDS, as some Zionists suggest. That a lot of Palestinians do not know of it, it remains representative of Palestinian demands, for we, Palestinians and those concerned with Palestinian justice in general, gave it its status as such.
How is this relevant to Syria? Simple. I do not deny the presence of pro-Assad Syrians. For me, as I have repeatedly mentioned, it is not them that I see as deserving of my concern, but the freedom-loving Syrians and those who are victims of the regime and its allies. If you are concerned with justice, with rights, you should side with this discourse against Assad and pro-Assad Syrians. If you recognise Assad as the main butcher—if not, what the fuck are you still doing here? — instead of contesting it and destabilizing its power as representative of Syrians, you should bring about the closure of the discourse on Syria as one sutured around one centre, i.e. anti-Assad opposition.
Where does this leave us from foreign influence, which is a concern for all of us? First, our concern about what will happen should not be reason to prevent us from doing the right thing, and, in all honesty, I can’t conceive how what will happen is going to be worse from what has happened, especially if we share that Syrian life is our driving concern here. Most importantly, I cannot see any reason for not trusting Syrians with their future unless you’re a right-wing Islamophobe who can’t dissociate between a post-Assad free Syria and Islamist extremists. If you can see only bearded (not really angry) head-chopping guys and no Syrian civilians, you should also see only rocket-launching Hamas militants and no civilians. Also if you see both, I’m sure we agree (unless you’re a right-winger again) that Hamas violence did not occur in a vacuum and is a consequence of the larger context in which the main issue is Israel’s occupation and structural injustices. Similarly, you cannot talk about Islamist extremists by simply resorting to categories such as Wahhabism, and, in orientalist fashion, textual reading, while ignoring the material conditions which led to the emergence of extremism. Again, acknowledging their heavy presence does not make Syria less about Syrians. There are still civilians, and there are Syrian rebels. It is neither the foreign mercenaries nor those who are fighting not for rights but for domination and on sectarian grounds that I am interested in. It is the Syrians who fight for their life, freedom and dignity. Only for an armchair leftist are these empty words; for the rest of us, they do mean something worth fighting for. Syrians— and we’re not going to discuss which ones this time— do have the right to self-determination, and we should support their right to usher in their own future.
Before I bring this outburst to an end, we do have a say in what is happening. Call me a pro-interventionist if you like. I worked for several years in Gaza with a local human rights organization, and every press statement we issued, we, almost habitually, concluded with a ‘call on the international community to intervene’. That is precisely what the Syrians are doing. What form this should take is not what I’m up to here, but intervening to protect Syrians because they call for intervention is just and is the right thing to do. Now, if you have reservations about the motives of those intervening, so do I. For Hamas after enforcing the blockade on Gaza 2006/07, the regional agendas and motives of Iran were not reason to reject their military and financial aid, or the motives of the United State government are no reason for the population to reject their support through USAID or for NGOs to not accept funds from the EU. The fact that Israel will polish its image by treating the very children it bombs and mutilates is no reason for Palestinians to refuse to be treated at Israeli hospitals, although we certainly knew this was what Israel would do. Syrian rebels have a right to defend themselves against the fascist regime of Assad and only tipsy, white (and white-masked), leftist ideological bozos sitting in the comfort of New York, London and Sydney will slander the Syrians for being armed by the US, Turkey or Saudi. But only us, Palestinians with direct experience of occupation and oppression, those of us who lived under war and blockade, know this. Syrians deserve our support. And they have it.