Tikkun Editor’s Note: Tikkun does not have a position on the issues raised by the Syrian revolution, except to say that we oppose all violence and know that the forces seeking to replace Syrian dictator Assad were committed to non-violence until Assad starting torturing and killing them. We welcome critiques of the perspective put forward by Andrew Heintz below.
Homage to the Syrian Revolution
The American Left has had an ongoing war of words about what to do about Syria. The result has illuminated the consequences of groupthink and dogmatic anti-imperial absolutism. It has been heartbreaking to witness so-called leftists refuse to recognize the sadistic brutality of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Not only is this regime responsible for an overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in Syria, but it also seems to live by the saying cruelty is strength. Assad’s crimes against humanity include chemical weapons attacks, barrel bombs, cluster bombs, indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, and the horrors of the Saydnaya prison.
According to Amnesty International, “Every week, between 20 and 50 people are taken to be hanged in middle of the night. As many as 13,000 people have been killed in Saydnaya since 2011, in utmost secrecy. Many other people at Saydnaya have been killed after being tortured and systematically deprived of food and medical care.” Amnesty goes on to mention that “it is inconceivable these large-scale and systematic practices have not been authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government.”
Despite Amnesty’s reports, many leftists have joined the far right in making three assumptions that are incorrect or unprovable: a.) the Assad regime is the only thing standing in the way of Syria being taken over by violent jihadists, and therefore must be allowed to stay in power, b.) the modest support the CIA was providing the Free Syrian army before the Trump administration ended the program is the main reason for the violence, and, c.) the rebel groups are the ones guilty of chemical weapons’ attacks. Indeed, who was guilty of chemical weapons attacks in Syria has become the all-important question for many on the left and far fight. This wouldn’t make sense if the plight of the Syrian people were the prime concerns of these groups, but it starts to make sense if direct evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime is the only thing capable of getting the United States, France and Britain more enmeshed in the conflict. Indeed, the most plausible reason for the bombing of Syrian sites by these three powers was to send a message to other governments that the use of chemical weapons wasn’t going to be allowed (at least not by regimes without friendly relationships with powerful Western countries).
For Syrians, however, chemical weapons have killed less civilians than barrel bombs, according to the official website of the heroic civilian rescue group the White Helmets. So even if all Assad’s chemical weapons were destroyed, this wouldn’t have a huge impact on the civil war in Syria. There is nothing wrong with leftists wanting to make sure the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical weapons’ attacks, given the false intelligence that led to an illegal war in Iraq that left at least half a million Iraqi civilian casualties. I was one of those who didn’t see anything wrong with people reading Theodore Postol and Scott Ritter’s critiques of American intelligence agencies conclusions about chemical weapons’ attacks. But I assumed this controversy would be put to rest in 2016 when United Nations-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons joint investigative mechanism concluded Syrian government forces used chlorine as a chemical weapon in three cases and the Islamic State used sulfur mustard on one occasion. The joint investigative mechanism also blamed the Syrian government for sarin attacks on the opposition-held Shan Shakhoun area of northern Syria in 2017. In response to these findings, the Russian government has vetoed numerous U.S.-drafted Security Council resolutions extending the investigation of who is behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
These misconceptions certainly deserve to be debunked to prevent widespread, and ugly generalizations about the Syrian people, and to prevent propagandistic efforts to paint Assad as a secular socialist defending Syrian sovereignty. In an interview with the International Socialist Review, the brilliant Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh said, “The Assads’ turned the entire country’s resources into national monopolies. They then used crony capitalist privatization to transform these into private monopolies owned by themselves, their relatives, and their friends. They amassed vast fortunes in the process.” Clearly, Assad is no adherent to democratic or libertarian socialism. But the worst sin made by those who have voluntarily or involuntarily shackled their minds to a worldview that the great writer Meredith Tax has correctly termed imperial narcissism, is that their depiction of the Syrian conflict has erased the local heroes in Syria: the White Helmets, the Local Coordination Committees, the local democratic councils that sprung up after the Syrian Spring, the defectors who left the Syrian army to fight for a democratic Syria after the Assad regime brutally put down peaceful protests, and the courageous undercover journalists that formed Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.
Before the intervention of Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and armed violent Shiite and Sunni domestic and transnational groups, including the barbaric Islamic State, the Local Coordination Committees and local councils were set up by Syrians to self-govern themselves during the protests against the Assad regime. Leila al-Shami, co-author of the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, told In These Times:
These councils are made up of democratically elected representatives of people chosen by popular consensus. They’re made up of professionals that have specific technical abilities, so people who have agricultural expertise, water and sanitation expertise. They’re made up of activists often from the local coordination committees, people that were very active in the revolutionary movement.
She went on to explain that the councils were based on a paper written by Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz’s vision, who argued people “[H]ad to find ways of organization that were challenging these authoritarian structures of organization that were imposed by the state. He said that local councils could be a forum for people to collaborate effectively, manage their lives independently of the state and also initiate a social revolution, at the local level, and also at the regional and national levels through linking of the councils.”
It was this democratic spirit that the Assad regime, backed by its Russian and Iranian allies, has been trying to crush.
“The Regime knew it was in the fight for its life,” Yassin al-Haj Saleh said. “Its strong point was its realization of this and its determination to concede absolutely nothing. I knew it was incapable of retaining power and admitting even minor reforms. It was that fragile, and therefore had to be absolutely brutal in its response.”
But, critics may ask, if the Syrian Spring wasn’t tinged with reactionary Islamism, then why has sectarianism increased in the country? They often fall back on the Orientalist and historically ignorant explanation: Because sectarianism can be explained by ancient primordial hatreds that go back thousands of years between the Shiites and the Sunnis. This argument has failed to follow the changing dynamics in Syria since Syrians first took to the streets to protest the Assad regime. In the first year, Arabs, Kurds, Alawis, Muslims, Christians and Sunnis all participated in the revolution, but according to Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the violence meted out to the protesters was especially harsh to the Sunnis. Yassin theorizes that this discriminatory punishment was meant to radicalize the Sunnis, so the regime could be seen by the international community as a bulwark against radical jihadism. To achieve this goal, Assad also released radical Salafi jihadi prisoners from its jails. Yassin told ISR:
In the first year of the Revolution, we did move toward overcoming the sectarian divisions. But the militarization of the Revolution and the discriminatory violence against the Sunnis led to deepening of sectarianization. The Sunnis became more Sunni and so did all the other religious groupings.
The left has often been able to dissect U.S. propaganda and dispel racist and Orientalist myths of developing countries propagated by right-wing figures and organizations. But the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the Syrian conflict has shown many leftists also are quick to embrace reductionist and Orientalist explanations when those explanations align with their ideological predispositions. This doesn’t mean everyone who opposes U.S. intervention in Syria, or arming elements of the Syrian opposition should be labeled appeasers or people with blood on their hands. In their outrage against the portions of the left who have taken what can genuinely be viewed as a pro-Assad or pro-Putin stance on the Syrian civil war, some of the most rational and humane voices on the left have at times both conflated the influence of these leftists in American political discourse – the left remains a marginalized group in American politics with little influence on U.S. foreign policy – while unfairly labeling people pro-Assad who have made it clear they oppose both the Assad regime and greater U.S. involvement in Syria. By labeling all anti-intervention leftists as pro-Assad or appeasers, these well-intentioned leftists and liberals are limiting the space for constructive dialogue over this issue. While many of my Syrian friends and their allies would disagree with me, I don’t think it’s accurate to label voices like Glenn Greenwald, George Stephen Zunes and Noam Chomsky as pro-Assad because they oppose arming the opposition. Healthy, constructive debate between pro-intervention voices and anti-intervention voices as to what to do about Syria is crucial, and it would be a mistake to mirror the tactics of certain leftists, realists, and far rightists by adopting a position that sees all anti-interventionists as one and the same.
I don’t have any solutions for Syria at this point. I really wish this wasn’t the case, but one has to deal with the world as it is, not the world as one wants it to be. There was a time I think U.S. aid to the Free Syrian Army was the moral and correct thing to do. When the Assad regime had lost most of its land to an opposition comprising both democratic nationalists fighting for democracy and violent extremist groups, including the then Al Qaeda-affiliate Jahbat Al-Nusra (the group has since cut ties with Al renamed itself Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham) there was a strong case the Obama administration should have made a more concerted effort to arm democratic nationalists with anti-aircraft weaponry to defend their cities and villages for indiscriminate air bombardments by the Syrian regime. The weaponry should have been provided in a centralized fashion to the Free Syrian Army – a loose conglomeration of armed brigades operating under one umbrella. Since the FSA is fighting for its existence against a sadistically brutal and relentlessly cruel regime, it is likely that some of the brigades affiliated with the umbrella group would have made short-term alliances with Salafi or Sunni jihadist groups to fight Assad. This probable outcome shouldn’t have prevented the FSA and other moderate groups from being armed. The United States alliance with the Soviet Union in World War II wasn’t because the U.S. Congress was controlled by secret Stalinists, it’s because the United States correctly saw the abominable Soviet Union as a lesser evil than Nazi German and Imperial Japan at the time. We in the Western world are not the only ones capable of making short-term alliances for pragmatic reasons.
Of course, when one makes an argument for arming a rebel faction with anti-aircraft weapons, one is obligated to consider the worst possible outcomes to such a strategy. It has been reported in the mainstream press that the Salafi fighters and violent jihadist groups are some of the most fierce and effective opposition fighters in Syria. If the American government was going to arm the moderates to help topple Assad, it would be obligated to help the Syrians put together a government that included all elements of the opposition. This would have to involve the international community because America’s imperial history makes it ill-suited to assist Syria on its own. It would also involve closely working with the local democratic councils, the Local Coordination Committees and other activist groups on the ground along with the FSA, the Islamist groups, all minority groups, and what remained of the local Assadists to put together a post-war peace and reconciliation process that could provide a bulwark against revenge killings. It would be up to the international community, Syrian civil society, and the warring parties to negotiate a peaceful transition to an elected coalition government. One of the keys to a peaceful transition would have been concrete laws outlawing revenging killing, and the government making it clear that a prerequisite for joining it would be severing ties to terrorist groups and foreign governments hostile to peace in the country. There is a chance this strategy would have failed and then people like myself would have had to take responsibility for the carnage that ensued because of our well-intentioned, but flawed attempts to aid Syrian civil society.
The same is true today. If one is going to criticize those opposed to more U.S. intervention in Syria, one must offer detailed and feasible long-term strategy that could lead to a long-term peace and democracy in the country. Those favoring intervention also need to provide the worst-case scenario of what would happen if their strategy backfires, so people can weigh the pros and cons of intervention. I desperately want to see Assad overthrown so the Syrian people can start on a much-deserved path to democracy. Unfortunately, I just haven’t heard any compelling long-term strategies from those calling for intervention.
Syrian intellectuals and activists have a right to be annoyed by my request. Those of us cautious of more intervention in Syria should empathize instead of being angry if someone in the Syrian opposition would tell us to go to hell for suggesting they have to explain to us why our government should give them more help. I would likely have the same response if I had witnessed people tortured, murdered, raped, gassed and bombed in the most insidious way while the world either sat by and watched, or nation-states intervened in a way that was strictly in their own self-interests. While it may not satisfy all Syrian activists, those who care about the Syrian people but oppose further intervention can still do things to help the Syrians such as ensuring humanitarian aid gets to the local population, increasing aid to countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan who are accepting Syrian refugees, pressuring the international communities to include Syrian civil society in peace negotiations and demanding the United States government accept more Syrian refugees.
When the Assad regime one day mercifully comes to an end, I hope history doesn’t just focus on the barrel bombs, torture, chemical weapons attacks, starvation tactics and other acts that proved the Assad regime had turned Syria into hell on earth. That would be a tragedy. At the end of the day, Assad and Putin are just mediocre thugs who achieved power through their lack of a conscience and humanity. They are failures as human beings and should be remembered as such.
When historians write about Syria, they should reserve chapters for the Local Coordination Committees, the White Helmets, the local democratic councils, and the creators of a free media, including the brave investigation journalists involved in Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently. Although many people were too narcissistic or stuck in their own insulated echo chambers to research these heroic groups, the least tomorrow’s historians can do is accurately record their roles in history.
During a time when illiberal democracy and religious and traditional fascism are threatening Europe, the United States, India and beyond in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1930s, these Syrian groups provided a glimpse of what democracy should really look like. They were examples of heroism and selflessness in the face of harsh repression during a period when people are increasingly becoming desensitized to the plight of their fellow human beings. May we look to these groups as role models as we seek to fix a world wracked with a global refugee crisis, environmental destruction, gender inequality and senseless violence promoted by incomplete human beings determined to make people not see the commonality that exists between us all.
Andy Heintz is a freelance journalist who has been published in Tikkun, Secularism is a Women’s Issue, Common Dreams, New Arab, Muftah, CounterVortex, Balkan Witness, Culture Project, The Wire and New Internationalist. His book Dissidents of the International Left will be available in the spring of 2019.
Massey, E. (2016, May 3). The Most Important Thing Missing from Coverage of Syria:
The Perspectives of the Syrians themselves. In These Times.
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Timeline Investigations in Syria’s chemical weapons. Reuters.
Smith, A. (2017-2018, October.). Revolution, counterrevolution and imperialism: An Interview with Yassin al-Haj Saleh. International Socialist Review.
Amnesty International. End the Horror in Syria’s Torture Prisons: Saydnaya prison is where the Syrian state quietly slaughters its own people.