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Syria: Anti-Imperialism for Dummies
by Charles Davis
An iron law of know-nothing “anti-imperialists” is that if a group receives support from the United States, however minimally—or even just is perceived as aligned with U.S. interests—that group must be very bad and should be opposed by every good practicing opponent of empire. This is why many see no need to learn a thing about Syria beyond what can be found in 140 characters or less from Julian Assange. If the U.S. government says that Bashar al-Assad is bad—because of an oil pipeline or a Russian military base—then the Syrian leader must be good, or at the very least less bad than those backed by the empire.
Such opponents of empire prefer the simplicity of a “regime-change” narrative that went from stale to rotten in 2013, when the U.S. eagerly embraced an Israeli-brokered deal with Russia to keep Assad in power. They long ago decided that all who fight the regime in Damascus are unthinking “Contras,” or mercenaries fighting not for their own reasons but for the reasons of the regime in Washington. They’ve maintained this belief despite the fact that when the U.S. tried to create an actual mercenary army to fight the Islamic State (IS or ISIS)—in coordination with the regime it ostensibly wants to change at all costs—it managed to recruit all of 54 people.
The attraction of this narrative is not its factuality, but its familiarity and ideological convenience. By inflating U.S. support for the Syrian opposition and ignoring the actual targets of U.S. bombs, such anti-imperialists can cater to the narcissism of the Western left by repeating a few time-tested talking points. If something bad is happening in the world, like millions of people forced to leave their homes, it must be the exclusive fault of the United States.
Those who embrace this storyline, such as the universally non-Syrian commentators who have published in the center-left Jacobin magazine, have inflated the role of imperialism with respect to the Free Syrian Army and downplayed U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds. The Kurds of the leftist PYD have accepted a mighty lot of U.S. assistance—more in fact than the “fascist” FSA—and yet somehow avoided the stigma of being associated with U.S. empire.
As Abu Mohammad, a resident of the IS-occupied city of Raqqa, told The Guardian: “I like the FSA, but we need a real one; they are not organized and don’t have supplies.” That’s a marked contrast to the PYD and its militias, the only parties in Syria who can call in U.S. airstrikes, which they have been doing for just about a year now. In October, the leftist Kurds received a shipment of no less than “50 tons of ammunition” from Uncle Sam, the first of many to come.
And yet, the anti-imperialist left has not challenged Kurdish motives or denied them agency. Although U.S. support for the Kurds is flaunted near-daily at State Department briefings, Pepe Escobar downplays this, choosing to emphasize and condemn the “CIA weaponizing” of militias elsewhere, manned by “Islamo-Fascists.” He further neglects to mention that, since 2011, the CIA has worked to prevent rebels in Syria from obtaining—from the United States or from anyone else—the anti-aircraft weapons needed to challenge the Syrian government’s unchecked air supremacy. U.S. support for the avowedly leftist and secular PYD certainly points to a more complex picture that involves the U.S. having goals other than regime change.
Meanwhile, left-wing stalwarts like Tariq Ali and George Galloway have been offering their support for imperialist airstrikes on Syria at rallies ostensibly against the bombing of Syria. But these airstrikes, launched by Russian forces, are good and just so long as Assad is the accomplice and not the target. In this way, the faux-anti-imperialist wing of the Orientalist West has long since passed the point of correctable analytic folly and become irredeemable farce.
Photo: Kurdish fighters in Syria
Charles Davis is a writer and producer based in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The New Republic, and Salon.