Syria, “Revolution,” and the Left

by Daniel Luban

The last couple months have seen the spread of a particular argument about the war in Syria among members of the self-described “anti-imperialist” left. This line of thought argues that the war (along with the Arab Spring more broadly) cannot be considered a true “revolution” and thus the left should be wary of supporting anti-Assad forces — not merely with military or material support, but even sympathy or solidarity. What constitutes a “revolution” is not always spelled out, but Tariq Ali (who was among the first to make this argument) defines it in the loosely Marxist sense of “a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change,” and he takes the lack of such an explicit class struggle in the Syrian war to be proof that the left should resist siding either with Assad or his opponents.

Recently the argument was revived by Asa Winstanley of the Electronic Intifada. After protests caused Middle East Monitor to take Winstanley’s piece down, it was republished by the leftist magazine Jacobin, whose editors describe themselves as holding “a plurality of positions on Syria” but consider the piece to be a “useful contribution to the discussion” and publish it in order “to further this dialogue”. (This is all well and good, and I disagreed with Middle East Monitor‘s initial decision to remove the piece, but I’m not entirely clear which “dialogue” the Jacobin editors are hoping to further. As far as I can tell, all their coverage of Syria has taken a similar line — namely, that there’s little moral difference between the two sides and that the left should avoid getting behind either one.)

I am by no means a Syria expert (although neither, as far as I can tell, are Ali or Winstanley). Nor do I have any clear suggestion for how those of us in Western countries should respond to the Syrian war. I think the left was correct to oppose the Obama administration’s recent push to bomb Syria, not least because it would have done nothing to end the war. And it’s certainly possible that the rebels have been taken over by hardline Islamists to such an extent that we should be wary of rooting for them to triumph — although determining whether this has happened would require a much more fine-grained knowledge of the situation on the ground than I (or Ali, or Winstanley) possess. (Incidentally, it’s been disheartening how many leftists who are perfectly capable of distinguishing various strands of Muslim militancy when discussing Palestine or Pakistan have, in the Syrian context, adopted the kind of monolithic view of Islamist totalitarianism that more properly belongs on the right.)

In any case, this argument for the moral equivalence of the two sides is deeply unconvincing. The problem with the argument isn’t so much that it gives the wrong answer to the question it poses. The problem is that it asks the wrong question altogether.

Let’s assume that the struggle against Assad does not qualify as a “revolution” in the classic Marxist sense or something similar to it. The implicit premise of Ali’s and Winstanley’s argument seems to be that if this is true, then the claims of Assad’s opponents to our support — let’s simply say our moral support, setting aside arguments about military intervention by Western governments — would fall away. But why is this the case? After all, it’s hard to think of many groups of people anywhere who are engaged in large-scale action that would meet Ali’s or Winstanley’s strict criteria for “revolution”. Does it follow that none of them deserve our support?

To take a couple of examples that Western “anti-imperialists” have an easier time wrapping their heads around: Palestinians in the occupied territories are not currently engaged in anything that we could plausibly call a “revolution,” but it doesn’t follow that we should be indifferent when they are bombed or driven from their land. Similarly, the residents of Pakistan’s tribal areas are not engaged in “revolution,” but it doesn’t follow that we should be indifferent when they are blown up by drone strikes.

It’s quite possible, in fact likely, that most of the Syrians opposing Assad don’t aim to impose a world-historical Revolution of the sort that would satisfy many Western leftists — that they simply want to remove the regime that has bombed them, gassed them, starved them, tortured them, and driven them from their homes. It’s hard to see why this forfeits their claims to our moral support.

Given the weakness of this argument from “revolution,” it’s not surprising that its proponents make a set of subsidiary arguments designed to show that there is no real difference between the two sides. None of these are much stronger.

For instance, Ali suggests that we “do not know with certainty” whether it was the regime or the oppositions that perpetrated the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Ghouta. This may have been a defensible claim in early September, when his piece was published, but it has become steadily less so ever since. Likewise, Winstanley points to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights‘ statistics showing that “the majority of [those killed] are combatants — and the majority of those on have been on the pro-Assad side,” which he takes to discredit the media’s “untenable narrative about a revolution of unarmed Syrian protesters which only took up arms after being shot down by the evil Assad regime.” Now, it’s not clear how any view about the origins of the war can be discredited by statistics about what has happened since it got going. More to the point, even if it’s true that the majority of combatant fatalities have been from Assad’s forces, this does nothing to dispel the widely-accepted conclusion that the majority of civilian fatalities have been killed by the regime.

As stated, none of this is to imply any position about what (if anything) Western governments should do in response to the Syrian crisis, or what the solution to it should look like. Like many people, I’ve struggled with this question and don’t have any real answer. Generally, I remain sympathetic to the anti-interventionist position, since no one has provided any proposal for Western intervention that would actually solve the conflict rather than exacerbate it. But opposing outside military intervention does not require us to adopt the attitude that there are no moral stakes to the war, or that the sides are equally culpable. The readiness with which many leftists have moved to the latter positions has been dismaying.

Photo: Civilians near Ma’arrat An-Numan. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

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Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. A Takfiri is a Muslim who accuses other Muslims of apostasy (my apologies, I was typing fast) – it’s an extremely subjective term, and is used by fundamentalists both Shiaa and Sunni to denigrate their opponents – there is no such thing as ‘Takfiri forces’

  2. Can edding please provide a link to the the CIA and UN poll that said said Assad had majority support. I think you may have dreamt that one. Double check that buddy ;)

  3. This might seem like I’m sneering, but it seems to me that the left (at least the further left than American Democrats) seems to think it has a monopoly on revolution when it seems to me that history has shown rather well that revolutions can be right-wing or religious (which can be aligned with either the political left or right). Just because a revolution might not be desired to create a certain group’s political ideal doesn’t mean it’s not revolutionary.

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