Addressing Left Divisions on Syria

On May 12, The Socialist published a blog by Leila Al Shami, “The ‘Anti-Imperialism’ of Fools,” that condemned April protests against a missile attack on Syria by the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France. She writes, “In fact, the slogan ‘Hands off Syria’ really means ‘Hands off Assad’.”

Later in her article, she refers to those leading some protests as a “pro-fascist left” and states that the ANSWER coalition in the U.S. is a part of a “convergence” of left and right-wing strands that “frequently promote Islamophobic and and-Semitic narratives.”

Moreover, she states, “The U.S., U.K. and French intervention today is less about protecting Syrians from mass-atrocity and more about enforcing an international norm that chemical weapons use is unacceptable, lest one day they be used on westerners themselves.”

Al Shami is identified as a British Syrian human-rights activist. Her blog may reflect the raw anger of Syrians toward Western groups that support the dictator Bashar Al-Assad. But its publication in a U.S. socialist webzine raises issues that need discussion.

First, let’s agree with Al Shami that the Syrian government has used mass murder to suppress opposition, before and after the 2011 uprising that brought the “Arab Spring” to Syria. Thousands of activists and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have died at the hands of the dictatorship, which targets civilian neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals as a way to impose its rule against democratic opposition. It has done so, with Russian and Iranian support, in the name of fighting ISIS and Al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorism. But its targets include all political opposition. Its crimes against humanity go back as far as the destruction of the city of Hama in 1982 and include the victimization of Palestinian refugees living in Syria.

We can also agree with Al Shami that some antiwar groups in countries like the U.S. and U.K. have embraced the Assad dictatorship as a symbol of resistance to imperialism. In fact, that dictatorship, as Al Shami points out, has collaborated with imperialism when able to do so.

However, for its own reasons, Washington has chosen to intervene militarily in Syria, and some of its intervention has been directed against Assad’s forces based in Damascus. In part, Washington is targeting Russian and Iranian influence in Syria, which it wishes to limit. It is staking a claim to influence in the outcome of the Syrian civil war.

Thus, when Al Shami asserts that “Hands off Syria” means “Hands off Assad,” she avoids the main concern for U.S. activists – pushing back against the aggression of Washington. When activists in the U.S. have said, “Hands off Cuba,” “Hands off Vietnam,” “Hands off Panama,” “Hands off Iraq,” and “Hands off Venezuela,” they have not meant hands off the current government in the respective countries. They have meant hands off the countries themselves. The basic concern of U.S. activists, and a condition for making any kind of contribution to peace or justice, is that we oppose our own country’s imperialist aggression against other countries. A Syrian activist may be able to miss this fact, but activists in countries like the U.S. cannot afford to do so

By equating hands-off-Syria with hands-off-Assad, Al Shami means either that the intention of antiwar protesters is to protect the dictator, or that the result of the protests is to protect him.

The intention of pro-Assad groups, who sometimes show large photos of the dictator at antiwar demonstration, is not the same as the result of the demonstrations. In 2013, when U.S. President Obama sought authorization to attack Syria, small antiwar demonstrations may have contributed slightly to preventing the attack; more significant were hesitations in the U.S. Congress and the British Parliament. Such a setback for an imperialist administration is what we need more of. But Al Shami dismisses protests against US intervention in Syria with contempt.

When Al Shami calls the pro-Assad part of the U.S. left “pro-fascist,” her words may mean two things. Her intention may be to condemn U.S. sympathizers with Assad because she views his brutal government as fascist; thus, she rightly condemns their support for what she views as a fascist government and what is certainly a regime guilty of war crimes.

But when we publish in the U.S. the claim that antiwar groups like ANSWER and PSL are “pro-fascist,” we are taking responsibility for more – we are putting a label on left groups that have protested U.S. imperialism, as we have done ourselves. We are setting ourselves up to be condemned for slander.

Groups like ANSWER and the International Action Center are certainly not pro-fascist in U.S. politics. They march against, not with, the alt-right and the Nazis. To wave the word “pro-fascist” around in this way may work on an obscure blog directed against Assad sympathizers, but it isn’t effective politics in the U.S.

Finally, Al Shami states that the imperialist missile attack on Syria in April 2018 was in part “about enforcing an international norm that chemical weapons use is unacceptable…” In doing so, she repeats a false claim of the imperialist governments, which stockpile poisons of all kinds for weapons use by the thousands of tons. She may be attempting to refute a claim, perhaps widespread among some Syrians, that the U.S. wants to help Syrians or can help by its military action.

She does state, “More foreign bombs will not bring about peace and stability.” We can agree. Neither U.S., British, French, nor Russian bombs are helping Syrians.

It may be too much to ask a Syrian activist to see the need for US activists to join hands against their own rulers’ wars. We can hardly blame Syrians, living under barrel bombs, if they “now see foreign intervention as their only hope.” Socialists are in solidarity with Syrians against their own government’s bombs regardless of their opinions of foreign intervention.

But our job in the U.S. is to build inclusive actions to stop Washington’s wars. Among the many groups ready to oppose those wars are some we disagree with. That’s where inclusion comes in. We criticize groups that act divisively by causing antiwar protests to appear to be Assad rallies. And we cannot exclude groups from antiwar protests by applying litmus tests of their opinions on issues of all kinds.

This is because only massive protests, built by broad action coalitions, are capable of slowing or halting the current drive toward wider war – war by the U.S. or U.S. proxies today in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine – and tomorrow in Iran, Korea, and Venezuela. That is an overriding political objective for socialists in the U.S.

David Keil is a member of the Editorial Board of “The Socialist” and of the Boston Area local of the Socialist Party.

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David Keil

is a member of the Editorial Board of "The Socialist" and of the Boston Area local of the Socialist Party.

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