The Syrian Cause and Anti-Imperialism
Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat
This post first appeared on Al-Jumhuriya on May 5, 2017.
In memory of Michel Seurat, our martyr.
I was in Istanbul for about ten days when I met a Turkish communist who explained to me that what was going on in Syria was nothing but an imperialist conspiracy against a progressive, anti-imperialist regime. The Turkish comrade’s talk contained no novel information or analytical spark that could suggest something useful about my country, and everything I tried to say seemed utterly useless. I was the Syrian who left his country for the first time at the age of fifty-two, only to be lectured about what was really happening there from someone who has probably only visited Syria a few times, if at all.
Incidents like this are repeated over and over in both the real and virtual worlds: a German, a Brit, or an American activist would argue with a Syrian over what is really happening in Syria. It looks like they know more about the cause than Syrians themselves. We are denied “epistemological agency,” that is, our competence in providing the most informed facts and nuanced analysis about our country. Either there is no value to what we say, or we are confined to lesser domains of knowledge, turned into mere sources for quotations that a Western journalist or scholar can add to the knowledge he produces. They may accept us as sources of some basic information, and may refer to something we, natives, said in order to sound authentic, but rarely do they draw on our analysis. This hierarchy of knowledge is very widespread and remains under-criticized in the West.
There are articles, research papers, and books written by Westerner academics and journalists about Syria that do not refer to a single Syrian source–especially one that is opposed to the Assad regime. Syria seems to be an open book of a country; anyone with a passing interest knows the truth about it. They particularly know more than dissidents, whom they often call into question, practically continuing the negation of their existence which is already their fate in their homeland. Consequently, we are denied political agency in such a way that builds on the work of the Assad regime, which has, for two entire generations, stripped usof any political or intellectual merit in our own country. We are no longer relevant for our own cause. This standpoint applies to the global anti-imperialist left, to mainstream western-centrists, and of course to the right-wing.
The Western mainstream approaches Syria (and the Middle East) through one of three discourses: a geopolitical discourse, which focuses on Israeli security and prioritizes stability; a culturalist or civilizationalist discourse, which basically revolves around Islam, Islamists, Islamic terrorism and minority rights; and a human-rights discourse, which addresses Syrians as mere victims (detainees, torture victims, refugees, food needs, health services, etc.), entirely overlooking the political and social dimensions of our struggles. These three discourses have one thing in common: they are depopulated (Kelly Grotke), devoid of people, individuals, or groups. They are devoid of a sense of social life, of what people live and dream.
The first two discourses, the geopolitical and the culturalist, are shared by the Western right as well.
But what about the left? The central element in the definition of the anti-imperial left is imperialism and, of course, combatting it. Imperialist power is thought of as something that exists in large amounts in America and Europe. Elsewhere it is either nonexistent or present only in small amounts. In internationalist struggles, the most important cause is fighting against western imperialism. Secondary conflicts, negligible cause and vague local struggles should not be a source of distraction. This depopulated discourse, which has nothing to do with people’s lived experiences, and which demonstrates no need for knowledge about Syrians, has considered it unimportant to know more about the history of their local struggles.
The Palestinian cause, which was only discovered by most anti-imperialists during the 1990s, has paradoxically played a role in their hostility towards the Syrian cause. From their far-off, transcendent position in the imperialist metropoles, they have the general impression that Syria is against Israel, which occupies Syrian territory. Thus, if Syria is with Palestine and against Israel, it is against imperialism. At the end of the day, these comrades are with the Assadists, because Syria has been under the Assad family rule for nearly half a century. Roughly speaking, this is the core of the political line of thinking which can be called ivory-tower anti-imperialism. That Syrians have been subject to extreme Palestinization by a brutal, internal Israel, and that they are susceptible to political and physical annihilation, just like Palestinians, in fact lies outside the clueless, tasteless geopolitical approach of those detached anti-imperialists, who ignorantly bracket off politics, economics, culture, the social reality of the masses and the actual history of Syria.
This way of linking our conflict to one major global struggle, which is supposedly the only real one in the world, denies the autonomy of any other social and political struggle taking place in the world. Anti-imperialists, especially those living in the allegedly imperialist metropoles, are most qualified to tell the truth about all struggles. Those who are directly involved in this or that struggle hardly know what’s really going on – their knowledge is partial, “non-scientific”, if not outright reactionary.
During the Cold War, orthodox communists knew the real interests of the masses, as well as the ultimate course of history. This was sufficient reason for a communist worldview to be always in the right, without fail. But this position, which looks down on history, has placed itself in an overly exalted position with relation to the masses and their actual lives, and in relation to social and political battles on the ground. In fact, this position can be accurately described as imperialist: it expands at the expense of other conflicts, appropriates them for itself and shows little interest in listening to those involved or in learning anything about them. The distinguishing feature of most Western anti-imperialists is that they have nothing but vague impressions about the history of our country; they cannot possibly know anything about its potential adherence to –or noncompliance with– “the course of history.” This makes their meddling in our affairs an imperialist intervention in every sense of the word: interference from above; depriving us of the agency and capacity to represent our own cause; enacting a power relation in which we occupy the position of the weak who do not matter; and finally the complete absence of a sense of comradeship, solidarity, and partnership.
This remains true even when the anti-imperialist left stands with the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions. It stands by their side on the basis of stereotyped and simplistic discourses that are inherited from the Cold War era. The anti-imperialist comrade is with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt for the same reason that led him to “resist” alongside the Syrian regime: to stand in opposition to the great amounts of imperialist power that are concentrated at the White House and 10 Downing Street. Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, or Syria, people are invisible, and their lives do not matter. We remain marginal to some other issue, the only one that matters: the struggle against imperialism (a struggle that, ironically, is also not being fought by these anti-imperialists, as I will argue below).
The anti-imperialist left remembers from the Cold War era that Syria was close to the Soviet Union, so it sides with this supposedly anti-imperialist regime. Consequently, those who resist this regime are “objectively” pro-imperialists. Framing imperial power as something that only exists in the West ascribes to the anti-imperialists a Western-centric tendency, which is no less severe than that of imperialist hardliners themselves.
The response to this discourse need not be to point out the truth, that the Assadist state is not against imperialism in any way whatsoever. First and foremost, the autonomy of our social and political struggles for democracy and social justice must be highlighted and separated out from this grand, abstract scheme. It should be said that this particular mode of analysis, which belongs to the transcendental anti-imperialism, is a belittling imperialist tendency that should to be resisted. There is no just way, for instance, to deny the right of the North Koreans to resist their fascist regime on the basis of such an abstract scheme. Instead, such a scheme can only serve to silence them, just as their regime does.
It is absolutely necessary to rebuild an intellectual and political foundation for criticism and seeking change in the world, but metropolitan anti-imperialism is totally unfit for this job. It has absorbed subordinating imperialistic tendencies, and it is fraught with eurocentrism and void of any true democratic content. A better starting point for criticism and change would be to look at actual conflicts and actual relationships between conflicting parties. This could involve, for example, thinking about how the structure of a globally dominating Western first world has been re-enacted in our own countries, including Syria. We have an “internal first world” that is the Assadist political and economic elites, and a vulnerable internal third world, which the state is free to discipline, humiliate, and exterminate. The relationship between the first world of Assad and the third world of “black Syrians” perfectly explains Syria’s Palestinization. Imperialism as such has shifted from an essence that exists in the West to a major aspect of local, domesticated power structures. Ironically, the power elites protecting this neo-imperialism may well draw on classical anti-imperialist rhetoric in order to discredit local dissidence and suppress potential political schisms. This is especially true in the Middle East, the world’s most heavily internationalized region. It is characterized by an extensive and aggressive imperialist presence that is directed mainly at suppressing democracy and political change.
From this perspective, working to overthrow the Assadist state is a grassroots struggle against imperialism. Conversely, the victory of the Assadist state over the revolution is a victory for imperialism and a consolidation of imperialist relations in Syria, the Middle East, and the world. Meanwhile, the transcendental anti-imperialists continue to be mere parasites who barely know anything, practically contributing to the victory of imperialism by opposing the Syrian revolution.