[Vredeslijst] Syria and the Problem of Left Solidarity

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Zo Mrt 4 16:01:43 CET 2018

Syria and the Problem of Left Solidarity
by Donya Alinejad & Saskia Baas


Since January, Syria has seen escalations in violence and civilian 
casualties in two conflict areas. Afrin, the Kurdish-held enclave along 
the Turkish border, has seen increased fighting since the Turkish 
military entered the area by force on January 19th this year. To date, 
the fighting has left an estimated 112 civilians dead. Meanwhile, in 
Eastern Ghouta, only a few hours’ drive away from Afrin, the Syrian 
military is finishing off final pockets of resistance through a brutal 
extermination campaign in which civilians are systematically targeted. 
Decisively reinforced by Russian air and Iranian ground forces, the 
bloodshed is reminiscent of the assault on Aleppo just over a year ago, 
during which more than 30,000 Syrians were killed. The civilian death 
toll in Eastern Ghouta has risen to include 1,070 civilians over the 
past three months.

As the tragedy in Afrin develops, North American and European leftist 
platforms have been disseminating calls by Kurdish armed groups for 
solidarity with victims of military violence in Syria’s northern 
district of Afrin. Such solidarity is much needed and deserved, but so 
is international solidarity with civilians elsewhere in Syria. Instead, 
the Western Left has largely remained silent in the face of the 
unimpeded massacre in Eastern Ghouta. The striking hypocrisy forces us 
to re-examine how our concept of international solidarity applies to the 
unarmed victims of this war.

The problem with selective solidarity

Western observers across the political spectrum have long struggled to 
grasp the Syrian conflict’s complicated history and relate to the 
country’s shifting revolutionary landscape. The response by mainstream 
liberals in the U.K. and U.S. has been the cynical use of moments of 
public outrage over Assad’s crimes for the perusal of the American 
geo-political goal of limiting Russian and Iranian regional control. In 
opposition to this, a significant part of the Western Left has eschewed 
all criticism of Syrian, Iranian, and Russian leadership in the name of 
resisting U.S. empire. This has drawn them into elaborate media 
campaigns to erase any signs of the revolution against Assad. We witness 
the concerning effects of this among Western Leftist activists, whose 
selective engagement with the crises in Syria result in almost exclusive 
expressions of solidarity with the Kurdish revolutionary movement.

Recent events have made the painful limitations of this selective 
approach particularly apparent. As we take up the rightful defense of 
Afrin against the Turkish military’s assault on Syrian Kurds, the mass 
slaughter of civilians simultaneously occurs in other parts of Syria. 
The situation in Afrin is urgent, but in Idlib and Ghouta it has been 
urgent for years.

Before the outbreak of revolution in Syria, the Assad regime had cracked 
down on Kurdish protests, notably in Al Qamishli in 2004 and 2005, where 
extreme military force and mass arrests were used. And forty years of 
Baathist rule made consistent attempts to erode Kurdish identity through 
Arabization policies, to the point where the mere act of giving a child 
a Kurdish name would create risks of arrests and enforced 

But when popular protests spread across Syria during 2011, they 
re-activated revolutionary ideals both in Kurdish areas and areas with 
primarily Sunni-Arab populations. This time, the Syrian regime’s 
response to these revolutions was two-pronged: on the one hand Arab 
calls for reforms were quelled with brutal violence; on the other hand 
the Kurdish revolution was handled through co-optation. In this way, 
Assad pre-empted an Arab-Kurdish uprising that would threaten the 
regime’s control, marking a tactical shift from the excessive violence 
that Kurdish uprisings had been met with in the past.

The contrast between this prior heavy-handed oppression and the relative 
space that the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” (or “Rojava”) 
has more recently been granted must be understood as part of Assad’s 
efforts to keep Kurdish armed resistance against his regime pacified, 
and isolate the Kurdish struggle from other movements within Syria. Far 
from being a break with the previous anti-Kurdish bigotry, this signals 
a continuation of Assad’s long-running approach of maintaining power by 
pragmatically stoking sectarianism along ethnic and religious lines.

In earlier years of the revolution, Arab-Kurdish alliances were built in 
nascent forms. But during the armed conflict in northern Syria more 
recently, Turkey succeeded in rallying Arab opposition forces, including 
the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to fight the Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed Syrian 
Democratic Forces (SDF). This was despite both groups having resisted 
Daesh together before this turning point in 2016. In addition to Turkish 
involvement, various other parts of the armed rebellion continue to be 
kept afloat through direct support from certain Western powers and Gulf 
States. The increased dependence on foreign military support has 
exacerbated both the fragmentation of these groups and their divergence 
from the ideals and tactics of the pro-democratic, non-sectarian 
demonstrations that took place in 2011. It also continues to undermine 
the local initiatives that emerge, particularly in areas not under Assad 
or Daesh control.

Despite shared grievances against the Assad regime and a common interest 
in rising up against it, Kurdish and Arab revolutionary movements have 
been split by domestic and foreign state influences. To any supporter of 
anti-dictatorial popular movements, this situation must register as 
tragic. For those of us in Europe and North America interested in 
building left wing solidarity that engages with Syrian revolutionary 
struggles, the task is to do justice to this history. This means 
acknowledging the shared origins and destinies of Syria’s multiple 
revolutions. Not least because the self-determination of the Kurdish 
people in Syria will not be guaranteed by any precarious, war-time 
alignment, but is inherently tied up in the dynamics of the Syrian 
people’s revolution. Our solidarity must therefore be principled, 
avoiding preferential support that indirectly bolsters authoritarian 
divide-and-conquer tactics, one of the hallmarks of 
counter-revolutionary regimes in the region, especially Assad’s.

Facing ourselves

Crude notions of anti-imperialism have for too long yielded dubious 
analyses of Syria and the Middle East. The contribution of the Left has 
often been dominated by an unsophisticated ‘campism’ wherein the enemy 
of our enemy should not be criticized. This has taken startling and 
contradictory forms: a recent petition calls for the leaders of Russia, 
Iran, and the U.S. to “ensure that the sovereignty of Syrian borders is 
not breached by Turkey.” The petition was signed by, among others, Noam 
Chomsky, Michael Hardt and David Graeber. Staggeringly, the petition 
appeals to the key perpetrators of war crimes in Syria for help in the 
protection of Afrin.

There are a multitude of ways we might explain such a turn, among them a 
Euro/American-centrism wherein the Left’s positions simply mirror and 
are dictated by those of their liberal opponents, the Western left’s 
long-running ideological links to the PKK, Left sectarianism, refusal to 
update expired Cold War categories, incidental ignorance and laziness, 
and the relative sophistication of the YPG/J’s communication networks 
and media branding with Western audiences. We end up engaging with Syria 
as no more than a distant war in which our task as the Left is merely to 
discuss and select the correct armed faction to support. But this 
filters out the less spectacular but equally courageous initiatives for 
self-organization still going on in various parts of the country and 
among its refugee diaspora; compelling cases such as the recent women’s 
campaign against forced disappearances. In ignoring these, we surrender 
our key principles of upholding the value of human lives in the face of 
militarism, state interests, and divisive borders.

Our internationalism must cultivate a willingness to grasp the 
complexity of Syrian polity, society, and culture as it unfolds in 
everyday life under the current circumstances of extraordinary duress. 
Rather than a lapse into apolitical humanitarianism, defending the lives 
of those brutalized by violence is based on an international solidarity 
that registers survival in this context as struggle. Similarly, our 
welcoming and hospitality to those who fled Syria in recent years must 
not smother them into politically pacified victimhood. We must seek out 
and listen to what a variety of Leftist Syrian political activists and 
intellectuals have to say about Syria. Their migration experiences and 
diasporic self-organization are part of the story of the Syrian 
revolution, an inexhaustibly rich resource for understanding and 
learning from the realities of this important contemporary struggle. It 
is a struggle that lives on in many of them and contains intimate 
knowledge of the notions of racial and ethnic discrimination, prison 
state, political disenfranchisement, and neoliberal policies we also 
fight against. The vast contextual differences make articulating the 
common ground all the more profound.

In short, let us stop approaching Syria in the way a colonial power 
approaches its subject’s civil war, calculating which intervention(s) of 
force to back and then vehemently spreading the chosen party’s war 
propaganda. Let us focus, instead, on building a socialism that modestly 
but consistently puts into practice the radical internationalist idea 
that we inhabit the same world as all those who struggle for a dignified 
human existence.

Donya Alinejad is an anthropologist of migration
and media who has conducted research on Iranian
and Turkish diasporas. She is a Postdoctoral
research fellow at Utrecht University.

Saskia Baas is a social scientist and holds a
PhD from the University of Amsterdam. She has
done extensive research on armed revolutionary
movements in Sudan and Syria.

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