While everyone agrees that Syria is a humanitarian disaster, there has been a complete fracturing of the left when it comes to analyzing the conflict. Unfortunately, the debates have been unusually vicious and sectarian making rational discussion difficult. The specifics of Syria account for only a part of the viciousness of the debate. At heart are differences in conception of what an antiwar movement is about. Accordingly, this article is divided into two parts, beginning with a review of the facts specific to Syria, and then a discussion of broader questions for the antiwar movement.
By now, there is extensive, in-depth material available on Syria. As such, what is discussed below is mostly a review of the existing material, mostly drawn from the book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami.
Asymmetric nature of the civil war
Like all civil wars, it is hard to obtain accurate information about the Syrian civil war. However, the facts do show that: (1) the primary battle in Syria is between the regime and the rebellion; other actors, notably ISIS are responsible for only a small fraction of the deaths in Syria, and (2) although both the Assad regime and the rebellion receive foreign support, the battle between them is asymmetric; the Assad regime has all the apparatus of state power on its side – a centralized army, planes and artillery – and has benefited from direct intervention by its allies, primarily Russia and Iran. One key illustration of the asymmetry is air power which is used exclusively by the Assad regime and its allies, and is responsible for a large part of the destruction. It is noteworthy that air power is responsible not only for direct civilian deaths, but also indirect ones through, for instance the systematic destruction of hospitals.
Therefore, it is safe to conclude that although there are atrocities committed by both sides, the Assad regime is responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths and displacement. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the regime is responsible for over 90% of civilian deaths, whereas ISIS is responsible for less than 1.5% of the civilian deaths.
One of the most contentious issues on the left is the role of the US and its allies. One view that is popular is that the US is engaged in a regime-change operation similar to Iraq. There is however little evidence of a regime-change operation. Here is a relevant passage from “Burning Country” describing the support received by the rebellion: “An inconsistent and uncoordinated supply of mainly light weaponry also came from regional states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The ebb and flow of outside commitment was directly reflected on the battlefield….When regional states turned the taps off, fighters even went hungry. Ahmad, a teacher from Banyas who’d survived the May 2011 massacre by hiding in a cupboard, later fought with an FSA militia in the Jebel al-Akrad in northern Lattakia. ‘First we ran out of ammunition. We stayed on the mountain, being shot at and bombed, unable to fire back, waiting for ammunition to arrive. It never came. Then we ran out of food. The villagers were feeding us, but they didn’t have enough to eat themselves. At that time, I left for Turkey. What was the point?’” Whatever external support the rebellion received, an organized regime-change operation it clearly was not.
One of the main points frequently brought up on the other side of the debate is a Washington Post article describing CIA’s expenditure on Syria: “The cost of that CIA program has not previously been disclosed, and the figure provides the clearest indication to date of the extent to which the agency’s attention and resources have shifted to Syria.At $1 billion, Syria-related operations account for about $1 of every $15 in the CIA’s overall budget, judging by spending levels revealed in documents The Washington Post obtained from former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.”
In response, it is to be noted that the point is not that external support was absent, but that it was “inconsistent and uncoordinated” and involved a supply of light weaponry, surely not enough to fight an organized army. Any claim around regime change has to demonstrate not only the existence of external support, but also a coherent plan carrying it out. Thus far, there is little evidence of any such plan.
Nature of the rebellion
A common narrative among the left holds that the rebellion consists of jihadis. The book “Burning Country” details the nature of the rebellion and is the best counter to the above narrative. It is beyond the scope of this article to recount the history of the rebellion. Like all popular revolutions, the Syrian revolution has thrown up its share of heroes and we list a few in order to shed light on the nature of the rebellion: (1) Ghiath Matar, “a well-known advocate of peaceful resistance” under whose influence “protestors offered flowers and bottles of water to the soldiers sent to shoot them.” Subsequent to his arrest, his tortured corpse was returned to his family. (2) Omar Aziz, one of the main visionaries behind the local coordination committees who, shortly before his arrest in 2012, said that “we are no less than the Paris Commune workers – they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half”; he died in prison soon after his arrest, (3) Razan Zaitouneh, one of the founding members of the local coordination committees who “was a human rights lawyer who advocated for political prisoners” and later “offered human rights training to armed groups and fearlessly criticized anyone who abused the people’s freedoms”. Razan was abducted by an armed militia since when nothing has been heard of her. Also noteworthy is the resurgence in civil society activity whenever there is a lull in the civil war, e.g. during last year’s ceasefires.
Is there anything more heroic than an oppressed people fighting their oppressors? As leftists, aren’t we constantly looking for such stories to draw inspiration from? To reduce genuine revolutionaries to jihadists is not only deeply insulting, but also seriously undermines our credibility as leftists.
It is true that the character of the uprising has changed over time. This should not come as a surprise. Popular revolts assume the idioms that the population relates to. In an Islamic country like Syria, it would assume an Islamic form especially when faced with the inevitable violent reactionary repression.
It is also true that there is a significant presence of jihadis among the rebellion. As several analysts have noted, the jihadi presence owes a large part of its existence to external support, but crucially also to the Assad regime which strategically fueled jihadi elements within the rebellion since it helped them frame the civil war as a war on terrorism. The jihadi elements are of course responsible for many atrocities even though as noted above, the violence is asymmetric.
While it is hard to drill down into the precise nature of the rebellion today, given the widespread nature of the early revolution that was undoubtedly not jihadist, it seems fair to assume that the mainstream of the opposition, while Islamic, is not jihadist.
Broader questions for antiwar movement
The above facts are debated, often viciously, within the left. A more detailed defense of the views presented above is available elsewhere. However, what is at stake in the debate is broader than issues specific to Syria. While the discussion below focuses on the US, the points raised hold about the West more broadly.
The antiwar movement in the US has overwhelmingly opposed US interventions. The history of US interventions makes the above position compelling. The fact is that US interventions are invariably intended to serve its imperialist needs and their cost is invariably high. One might add that the mainstream culture in the US, led by its media, excels at trivializing the cost of US imperialism, so that even when the costs are high in reality, they are under-estimated by the population.
Yet, a non-interventionist foreign policy isn’t necessarily a just foreign policy.When the degree of oppression within a state is severe, at least in principle, some form of external intervention is justified. Didn’t we on the recent occasion of Fidel Castro’s death, praise him for the Cuban intervention in Angola, and correctly point out its role in ending apartheid in South Africa? What would we have done had we been part of the antiwar movement in Cuba at the time? Surely, we would not have opposed the intervention by narrowing our focus to minimizing our own government’s role in any given conflict. Similarly, if we were dissidents in the erstwhile Soviet Union at the time of the Vietnam war, surely it would have made no sense to oppose arming the NLF. In both the above examples, the moral position was counterintuitive; it is unnatural for a movement that defines itself as antiwar to not oppose arming and militarization.
Of course, the history of the US almost never throws up such situations. Yet, at least in theory, similar principles hold even for the US. In fact, the Syrian conflict poses similar conundrums for the antiwar movement in the US, as can be illustrated with two examples. First, as noted above, support for the rebellion from the US and its allies did exist, albeit being “inconsistent and uncoordinated.” It would have made little sense for the antiwar movement to oppose it, for reasons similar to the ones in the examples above involving Cuba and the Soviet Union. Many in the antiwar movement did call for opposing arms flow to all sides, but fell short of proposing exactly how that was to be achieved without destroying the rebellion,in face of the clear asymmetry in the civil war.Another example in the context of Syria is the support offered by the US to YPG against ISIS in Rojava. Perhaps good arguments could have been made against US intervention even in this instance, but few did; in fact, many on the left did not oppose it, for good reasons.
Having said that, throughout the Syrian civil war, it did make sense to oppose a wider US military intervention, including imposition of a No-Fly Zone (NFZ). However, it is important to bear the following points in mind:
- The view of the Syrian conflict outlined earlier is consistent with opposition to US intervention. Sometimes, when reading the debates on the left, it feels like the view outlined earlier implies a call for greater US intervention. This is not the case.
- There has been an unfortunate tendency within the antiwar movement to go to any extent to make arguments against US intervention, including denying crimes committed by the Assad regime and its allies. Arguments against intervention that over-state their case by buying into the propaganda system of the Assad regime severely undermine our credibility. Opposing US intervention has to be done in a way that builds solidarity with Syrian people.
- There will be well-meaning people who examine the facts related to Syria and be open to the possibility of US intervention. For instance, it is natural for folks on the ground who are being bombarded from the air to support an NFZ; after all, an NFZ has the apparent appeal of stopping aerial bombardment. One might understandably disagree and attempt to explain what is actually involved in enforcing an NFZ, but attacking people on the ground for supporting an NFZ is surely not the way to show solidarity.
Much of the hostility in the debates around Syria can be traced to the points raised above, in addition to the familiar sectarianism within the left that is certainly not unique to the Syrian issue.
The fall of Aleppo signals the beginning of the end of the Syrian civil war, changing the relevance of many arguments about the specifics of the Syrian conflict. Yet, the larger lessons remain. Whether we learn them is up to us.
Raghav Kaushik is software engineer and political activist.