What we talk about when we talk about Syria
by Peter M Gunn
At its core, Marxism is about understanding contradictions, and there’s no place more full of them than the discourse surrounding the Syrian conflict. The left in the imperial core (i.e. the United States and Western Europe) is chastised for not caring enough about Syria and yet also for arguing too much about it. Those that question the narratives seen in the US press in an effort to stop a US invasion are accused supporting mass murder.
“Anti-imperialism” has become an insult, and those who take positions in its name have apparently become the new imperialists, by both being stooges for Russian imperialism and also for not “centering the voices of Syrians.” Yet many of those concerned about centering the voices of Syrians also regularly dismiss any Syrians inside Syria that may be sympathetic to the current government.
Sometimes it feels like a bizarro world, where down is up, and the tendency is to just give up, especially as the main fighting is winding down, but this confusion is not an accident. Imperial interests want us to believe there are no “good sides.” And yet, the conflict is incredibly complex, a flash point of larger struggles and contradictions that are playing out across the world. This, then, is by no means a comprehensive take on it.
Many on the left understood the initial uprisings in Syria as part of the Arab Spring, which has some truth, though it is also true that the US had been trying to destabilize the country for five years before that. A popular tendency has been to compare it to Occupy Wall Street, which I did have much experience with, and is a useful jumping off point. Say for example, that during the state repression of Occupy, the movement decided to turn militant and align itself with white separatist militias whose only message was that Obama was a genocidal dictator who must be removed. Let’s then also say that a hostile country was providing arms and money to these militias while at the same time the press of that country wanted to portray this now violent rebellion as nothing more than the Obama regime brutally repressing peaceful activists, priming the people of said country for a possible bombing campaign/invasion of the United States. That is probably the closest analogy one can make.
It would be true then, that there was legitimate discontent among a portion of the country at the current political/economic situation, and that the protests reflected that. It would also be true though, that whatever one’s sympathy towards the Occupy movement, an objective analysis would conclude that it was not at a point where it was capable of actually taking power, and that portraying it as a revolution would be disingenuous, and that it had made a strategic error in trying to force a civil war by aligning with some of the most reactionary forces in the country. The logical appropriate response would be that whatever grievances the Occupy movement had could only be addressed after the country had been stabilized and the threat of foreign invasion warded off, and will be decided as an internal matter. This is in fact, despite media narratives about Russia “propping up Assad,” the position that both Russia and the Syrian government have agreed to in peace talks that have been repeatedly thwarted by the opposition.
Acknowledging this reality does not make one an “Assadist,” though one should also not disregard that the Syrian government does have more popular support than the opposition and is the only recognized government of Syria.
It is also not to suggest that people did not bravely risk their lives and face arrest, torture, or possible death during the uprisings for worthy ideals, though the Syrian government has historically saved its greatest wrath for Islamist militants as opposed to leftists.
However, one can also question the effectiveness of the the color revolution model, a model that is anti-communist in its roots, and only sees revolution as undifferentiated masses protesting in a public square instead of organizing social classes into a party that is capable of seizing state power. It is no coincidence that the neoliberal global order supports the former approach to revolution (literally through NGOs and State Department/CIA fronts like the National Endowment for Democracy), one which leaves questions of imperialism or political economy largely unaddressed in favor of half-formed ideas about freedom and democracy.
Yes, the pictures on the news can be heartbreaking, even if they are misleading if not outright staged, and atrocities have been committed, such is the nature of war. But the horrors only underscore the need for a materialist understanding of conflicts, precisely so that this war can end and future ones be avoided.