In April, US President Donald Trump launched what is estimated to be the country’s 8,000th military strike against Syria. What makes this strike a game changer was that unlike previous strikes, which focused on Islamists, this one targeted the government, in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack that left dozens of civilians dead.
You wouldn’t have known that these previous strikes have happened in certain corners of left media, where the line is that the US, in trying to remove Assad from power, are doing Al-Qaeda’s bidding, and that sentiment for the rebel’s glosses over the fact that it is not a movement for freedom but one of radical Islamist oppression against a sovereign state simply trying to maintain order. There were few if any rallying calls for an immediate anti-war convergence a month earlier when US forces hit an Al-Qaeda target, killing more than 40 people at a nearby mosque. But the US switching to the regime as a target was a whole other matter.
Read AlterNet’s coverage of the carnage and one walks away with the impression that the United States is backing a jihadist menace despite their airstrikes against Islamists, that Washington is obsessed with taking out the one leader who separates civilization from the Sunni barbarians despite the west’s public stance against ISIS. ANSWER, a heavy hitter in the anti-war scene in the United States, opposes US action against Assad, but also cheered on the government and Russian brutal advances into eastern Aleppo on grounds it was “under the control of terror groups.” Russian state-controlled RT called the campaign a “liberation,” hitting the same notes neoconservatives heralded during the assault on Iraq as a “liberation” from Saddam Hussein.
In just one example of the crack up, after Jacobin posted an article about how an anti-war left must also oppose Assad’s brutality, the comment section exploded with dissent about how his necessary evil keeps the jihadist forces at bay, and that’s all there was to it. What’s taken hold is in the multitude of American left reactions to Syria, there’s one sector that ominously takes on both the paranoia of the far right Alex Jones and Richard Spencer camp (both support Assad) and the neoconservative binary world view that the global is an eternal existential battlefield between Western enlightenment and Islamic terror.
The Syrian Civil War is a complex one, so it’s good to review a few basics. The Free Syrian Army’s rebellion against the ruling dictator began to grab the attention of the world in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, although as early as 2012, Israeli intelligence feared that jihadist elements were entering the fray. In fact, Assad released jihadist prisoners from Syrian prisons the previous year in hopes they would join the rebellion in order to taint his opposition, and the result was that a strong jihadist faction would emerge, including the infamous Jabhat al-Nusra.
But this isn’t like Assad doesn’t have his own religious fanatics—he has on-the-ground support from the armed wing of the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, and military and financial help from the theocratic Iranian government. That also doesn’t negate that however secular his regime may be it has been oppressive before the uprising and unrelentingly brutal since the start of the war. And a great many leftists see the complexity—journalists and academics such as Danny Postel and Steve Zunes have noted the hypocrisy of supporting Assad, and groups like the International Socialist Organization have taken a “neither Moscow, Washington nor Damascus” position.
But no matter: some hard left purists have eerily adopted a line from the neoconservative philosophy of the last Bush administration, that radical Islam is the paramount threat to society, and anyone who waivers on this question might as well be helping the terrorists. And this approach is dangerous not just because it puts some leftists on the side of who might as well be today’s Pol Pot, but it justifies the imperialist military aggression of Russia, as if sorties raining death from above are only bad when the Yanks do it.
In a line attributed to George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Dowd, when your opponent is fighting you using your language and terms, you’re winning. That’s especially true when leftist Assad apologists invoke the same language far-right Zionists used during the last assault on Gaza. If Assad’s forces struck a hospital, it was because the rebels were storing weapons there. If civilians were killed, they were human shields.
Sure, Assad’s military is forceful, but they’re putting down a jihadist army who use the banner of “liberation” to inflict Sharia law on secular society, just like Zionists say of Hamas and its control of Gaza. Besides, they started this war. And to use the parlance of our Trumpian times, any imagery of Assad’s brutality on children must be “fake news.” Zionists and Assad supporters, predictably, see the same Fifth Columns. The media is hopelessly married to a false David and Goliath narrative. The “White Helmets” are a mere whitewash for Al-Qaeda, the same way every aid worker in Gaza is some public relations pawn for Hamas.
Where could such insanity come from? Part of it is the age-old split between Stalinists and Trotskyists, the former believing that any side the US takes is inherently bad and any force against it represents a front in the global war against the imperialist order. Stalinist support for imperial military aggression toward Muslims is nothing new: Alexander Cockburn gleefully celebrated the Soviet destruction of Afghanistan, saying, “if ever a country deserved rape, it’s Afghanistan.” But the ideas here have seeped out of the fringes of the far left and are beginning to make it into the mainstream, with the best case study being Democratic Party Congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard.
Gabbard made waves last year when she resigned from the Democratic National Committee in order to publicly back the socialist presidential challenger, Bernie Sanders, and with the Sanders wing of the party emboldened, it is eagerly looking for a candidate in 2020. Sanders may be too old, at age 78, for another run. Congressman Keith Ellison lost a bruising battle for the DNC chairmanship. Gabbard almost seems too perfect to carry the torch. She’s young, currently the minimum age for presidential eligibility, at 35. A war veteran, she has an unquestionable military record. She’s on the left on most social and economic issues. A Hindu, she’d be the first non-Christian as well as the first woman president.
The Atlantic calls her the “GOP’s favorite Democrat,” in large part because of her criticism of the Obama Administration for not outwardly decrying “radical Islam” as the root of conflict in the Middle East, and her critics on the left have pointed out her links to the Indian BJP, a far-right, Islamophobic and Hindu nationalist party. While Gabbard espouses non-interventionism, her anti-Islam platform materializes in other ways. In 2016, Ashley Smith wrote in the Socialist Worker that “Gabbard has tried to obstruct Muslim immigrants and refugees from coming to the US. She backed a Republican bill, opposed by the [Obama] White House, which would have made it all but impossible Syrian refugees to enter the US. In 2014, she called for restrictions on visa waivers for people from European countries with ‘Islamic extremist’ populations.”
Gabbard has repeated the theory, popular in both hard left and alt-right circles, that the most recent gas attack may not have been carried about the regime, giving prominence to what may have once been regarded as mere quackery.
This infighting on the left can appear tedious, but it’s necessary to resolve, largely because whatever we think about the Assad regime, more US aggression, whether it’s against ISIS and Al-Qaeda or the regime will only make matters worse, and if Trump’s aggression toward the latter continues, that puts us on a collision course with Russia, which backs Assad militarily, and that unleashes the possibilities of eventualities no one wants.
And an anti-war left can only be strong if it dispenses with this outmoded binary approach to all conflicts. The civil war started as a result of Assad’s violent reaction to protesters inspired by the Arab Spring, a moment that doesn’t fall neatly within the “US versus the world” framework, for it featured uprisings in American client states like Egypt, but in hostile territory like Libya. Some people fighting Assad are jihadist outsiders who are taking advantage of the conflict. But the regime’s response only causes more suffering.
As internationalists, there should be a clear answer: End Western meddling in the region, whether it’s bombing a government airstrip or Al-Qaeda positions, since both kinds of attacks only fuel anger for either side. The real solution should be a diplomatic one, with multiple parties and open channels, as far-fetched as that might sound in our current world. The tactic of merely supporting who Washington doesn’t like makes it so the anti-war left doesn’t really care about bettering tragic situations but rather about maintaining ideological consistency. And if that’s the case, outsiders won’t take our protests seriously. And perhaps they’d be right not to.