By Jason Schulman and Tristan Sloughter
Note: Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.
A protest movement-turned-revolution met with such criminal brutality that it created the most awful humanitarian crisis since World War II. A counter-revolution led, on the one hand, by a second-generation dictator, supported by far-right and fascist parties throughout Europe, and on the other an apocalyptic “Islamic” cult.
One would think such facts should make a stance of clear solidarity from the left with the Syrian revolution obvious. But all too often, this has not been the case. As democratic socialists we find it very important to consider why this is, how to fix it and how we can and should act in solidarity with those fighting not only for freedom but for their very survival.
The origins of the democratic revolution in Syria against Bashar al-Assad should be well-known by now and yet aren’t. We urge all leftists to "do their homework" on this subject, and in particular recommend the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (London: Pluto Press, 2016) for its thorough documentation.
The initial goals of protesters were for reforms, such as an end to the emergency law that had been in place for 48 years, release of political prisoners and political freedoms. Alongside these were demands for economic reforms, driven by the recognition of factors such as widespread corruption, Bashar’s cousin’s domination of 60% of the economy, and economic decline due to drought and drops in subsidies and salaries. But improvements like an end to corruption and the adoption of a modern welfare system would never suffice on their own. Consider the slogan from Daraa, "We do not want your bread, we want dignity,” formulated after the government announced a raise in state salaries while continuing to murder protesters. As this military response grew, the pro-government message of "Assad or We Burn the Country" was made clear and the demands of the protesters had to evolve. Nothing short of the fall of Assad was necessary.
Unfortunately, disinformation and confusion on the subjection of the revolution and Assad’s response dominate on the American Left. Between accusations of the revolution’s Islamism, apologies for Assad’s brutality, and disingenuous concerns about American imperialism, the democratic revolution has been overshadowed by a widespread resignation to Assad as the only option for Syria. We are disappointed and concerned to see even left-wing writers are spreading what is essentially a conspiracy theory about the origins of the war: that the Obama administration made a concerted effort to support al-Qaeda in Syria in an attempt to overthrow the Assad regime. By extension, they argue, it follows that the reason for the Syrian refugee crisis is "the rebels," not Assad (or Vladimir Putin, or Hezbollah), and that any violence committed by that regime and its allies, such as the slaughter in Aleppo or, most recently, Idlib, is merely self-defense.
The amount of $1 billion is commonly referred to in order to give the appearance of a vast supply of weaponry and support from the US government and Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. The number comes from a Washington Post article from 2015 on the House Intelligence Committee voting for cuts to the CIA program, said to be 20% of $1 billion.
But that very article notes, “In the past two years, the goal of the CIA’s mission in Syria has shifted from ousting Assad to countering the rise of extremist groups including al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.” Repeated invocations of the “$1 billion a year” figure fail to make distinctions between the CIA program and the Pentagon program. The Pentagon’s training was solely focused on the fight against ISIS (even as ISIS and the Assad regime were collaborating—whether through the regime bombing the rebels who were fighting ISIS or through ISIS’s sale of oil to the regime, their largest source of funding). This made it completely unsuccessful because it meant ignoring the biggest killer in Syria and instead concentrating efforts on a secondary enemy because doing so aligned with the interests of the US government and the Assad regime.
The CIA program, in contrast, was not initially restricted to fighting against ISIS. This meant it could work with, for example, the Southern Front, founded in 2014. But the aid from Western states was still restricted. The US blocked any rebels from gaining access to any serious weapons. As Michael Karadjis writes, “When the US did start supplying some ‘vetted’ rebels with light arms in late 2013, the fact that the aim was bare survival plus co-optation is exemplified by reports of rebels getting supplied 16 bullets a month. As for the CIA training program that went with this, many rebels—who already knew how to fight—felt the main American interest was surveillance.” (Karadjis also discredits the idea that the US has been arming the Free Syrian Army since 2012. And it’s worth noting that during the same period, the US also "ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border" to block the flow of weapons, including MANPADS the rebels needed to have any chance of fighting the bombardment of cities from the skies the regime’s airforce, and later Russia’s, were conducting.)
After successes by the Southern Front in Daraya, the access to CIA supplies dried up. The Front was repeatedly told the “real” fight was with ISIS and al-Nusra, while Russia’s air force (claiming to be going after ISIS) was bombing Southern civilian areas. The CIA program thus became little different from the pathetic Pentagon program. Given Russian bombardment, the lack of supplies, low pay and the change in focus, many in the Front would leave to fight with al-Nusra against the regime—not because they shared its theological or political beliefs, but because they were determined to fight the regime that destroyed their country. (When considering the “foreign funding of $1 billion” we should also consider the foreign aid the Assad regime has received. Russia’s annual cost is somewhere between $1 and $1.5 billion, while Iran’s assistance has been $35 billion a year, according to Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy to Syria.)
The US and Assad – Uneasy Allies, but Allies
So much for US support for any of “the rebels”—“rebels” which, since September 2014, the US has been far more interested in bombing than helping, as “even before Trump’s election, Obama and Putin were ramping up their coordination in Syria,” with anti-Assad Syrians protesting the actual US military interventions in their country? And why not, given that Assad is no opponent of Western imperialism? How did “anti-imperialist” journalists not notice Obama’s lack of sympathy for a democratic revolution in Syria in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg? Or that in July 2015, his White House Press Secretary said that “The president feels very strongly that the very significant problems that are faced by people in Syria, for example, are not problems that the United States is going to come in and solve for them”? That he made clear last November that “the terrorists” were his main target, not Assad?
As the Syrian Solidarity Campaign (UK) puts it, Western states’
constant pronouncements of ‘we believe Assad must go’ concurrent with the intermittent ‘but we are not seeking the collapse of the regime and don’t want to see his army militarily defeated’ has unfortunately deceived many within Western public opinion about the true nature of the US intervention in the Syrian war, and hidden from Western citizens the horrific nature of this policy which has been crucial in prolonging the Syrian war. Indeed whilst the main anti-ISIS coordination with ground forces has come with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – who do not fight Assad – and instances of coordination with regime troops have been limited, there have nonetheless been more reported examples of anti-ISIS coordination with regime forces than there has been with Syrian rebels.
For a Real Anti-Imperialist Movement
As socialists we stand with the workers of the world in struggle with exploiters and oppressors. We don’t look at the world through the lens of bourgeois geopolitics and certainly don’t extend even “lesser-evil” solidarity to fascist states like Assad’s, regardless of that state’s supposed opposition to US imperialism.
The Trump administration, despite its incoherent waffling, still clearly sees Assad as a lesser evil to “the terrorists.” Trump has simply built upon Obama’s legacy—even if now he’s bombed a single Syrian government airbase because he was so “moved” by footage of those killed by Assad’s sarin gas assault in Khan Sheikhoun. Socialists’ job is to oppose all imperialism in Syria, targeted at either Assad or any opposition to Assad, and to stop blathering on about the imaginary specter of a US-imposed no-fly zone. Active solidarity is needed not only with Syrian refugees—which requires forcing the Trump administration to allow them entry into the US—but with what remains of the democratic Syrian revolution exemplified in its Local Coordination Committees, as well as with those risking their lives to work as first responders (most prominently represented by the White Helmets) or report what is really happening on the ground. We can’t claim to be “pro-refugee” if we spread lies about why Syrians are refugees in the first place, and we certainly can’t support “progressive” Democrats like Tulsi Gabbard, an opponent of Syrian refugees entering the US who met with Assad via the assistance of genuine fascists.
Too much of the US left has effectively abetted genocide in Syria. It’s time for us to act like a real left—one that’s morally consistent, recognizes facts, and supports democratic revolution against fascism—rather than be dupes of conspiracy-mongering “second-campists” who echo George W. Bush’s War on Terror rhetoric, asserting that “you’re either with us—and by extension Assad and Putin —or with the ‘head-chopping jihadists.’” We should be with neither—we should be with Syrian democratic and socialist revolutionaries.
Jason Schulman is a member of New York City DSA. Tristan Sloughter is a member of San Diego DSA.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.