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Charles Davis

Left-wing imperialism in Syria

Response to US airstrikes in Syria has been decidedly muted, writes Davis [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 July, 2016

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Comment: Failure to recognise that imperial rivalry does not mean fundamentally different interests, is obscuring the reality and Washington's intention to preserve the regime in Syria, writes Charles Davis.

We were told to expect another world war and all we got instead was more lousy imperialist collusion and the misreading of US and Russian objectives in Syria. The failure to recognise that imperial rivalry does not mean fundamentally different perceived interests is obscuring the reality that rhetoric and a dead-end peace process aside, in 2016 both Moscow and Washington are dropping bombs on the Levant with an eye toward preserving the regime in Damascus, not changing it.

When 51 US State Department diplomats openly dissented from the de facto US policy of regime preservation, calling for Barack Obama to use the threat of US military power to ground Syrian jets violating a US-Russian crafted ceasefire, popular left-wing reaction accused the warmongers of being at it again. "I don't know about you", wrote Benjamin Norton, a blogger for the liberal website Salon, "but starting WWIII sounds like a great idea".

Analysis suggesting that such dissent demonstrates that US policy is not dead set on seeing a hodgepodge of militias overrun Damascus, was left untouched; abandoned for more click-worthy fear-mongering based on a flawed premise: Even if the advice of these diplomats were followed (and it won't be), that either the US or Russia would allow a tactical difference to prompt a shooting war between global powers.

Indeed, it's the nature of that difference - one of tactics, not ultimate goals - that has been conspicuously overlooked by an "anti-imperialist" left which settled on a narrative of regime change five years ago and has stuck with it ever since.

The response to actually existing imperialism, including the 4,300 or more airstrikes the US has launched in Syria, targeting everyone but those aligned with the Syrian regime, has been decidedly muted. And when The Washington Post reported on June 30 that the Obama administration is proposing to formalise and expand US-Russian cooperation in Syria, left-wing media's most outspoken anti-war-iors were as quiet as a barrel bombed mouse.

That's because, as journalist Avi Asher-Schapiro wrote in The New York Times, "the United States finds itself in an awkward alignment with Mr. Assad" - and Mr Putin, a fact awkward not just for US officials who have publicly criticised both figures, but for those who pride themselves on seeing through US rhetoric but, in the case of Syria, based their analysis more on words than on actions.

Rhetoric and a dead-end peace process aside, in 2016 both Moscow and Washington are dropping bombs on the Levant with an eye toward preserving the regime in Damascus, not changing it

"The crux of the deal", the Post reported, "is a U.S. promise to join forces with the Russian air force to share targeting and coordinate an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, which is primarily fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad."

That would be a boon to Assad, particularly as just about every Syrian with a beard and a gun is a part of al-Nusra in Russian eyes, meaning fewer rebels of all stripes that his air force will need to bomb themselves.

"This will worsen the situation", Karam Alhmad, a Syrian activist originally from the city of Deir az-Zour who is now a refugee in Turkey, told me. "This deal will only serve as a campaign of recruitment for Jabhat al-Nusra", he said. "I heard of so many guys from college, people who were doing dabke (line dancing) with us at the festivals or at concerts we had in my city, who lately joined Nusra - and the reason was only to fight that stupid guy who is sitting in Damascus, laughing and killing Syrians with all the means of death."

In the Iraq years, this would have been an argument a leftist made: That non-state terrorism could not be defeated with the state variety, and that in fact bombs are the extremists' best friend. Now much of the left embraces the logic of the war on terror because it's a logic shared by other governments who haven't always been best of friends with the West. That these governments are more cooperative than might be inferred from the things they say in public, may come as a shock to this crowd, but it is not surprising.

Despite a war of words and competition for influence among the various actors in the Syrian conflict, US cooperation with Russia - and, indeed, the Assad regime - has been evident for quite some time, and not just in the thousands of civilians their airstrikes have killed between them.

Despite a war of words and competition for influence among the various actors in the Syrian conflict, US cooperation with Russia - and, indeed, the Assad regime - has been evident for quite some time

When the US first began bombing Syria in September 2014, Iraq's foreign minister, Ibrahim Jafari, told the Los Angeles Times that US Secretary of State John Kerry "asked me to deliver a message to the Syrians". That message was that the US would be bombing Syria shortly, but "that it would be limited to Daesh bases". (In fact, the first US strikes would target Jabhat al-Nusra as well.) The response from the Syrian regime was illustrative and, to Washington's foreign policy establishment, encouraging.

"Assad", wrote Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie Gelb in The Daily Beast, "seems to be turning off his air-defense system when U.S. aircraft attack." And that was promising, in Gelb's view, for his observation came in a column arguing that the only real way to fight the threat of the Islamic State group was for the United States to "work with Bashar Assad's Syria, and with Iran. It is a tricky and perilous path, but there are no realistic alternatives."

In this, Gelb, the consummate insider, was and is not alone. When the RAND Corporation assembled "experts from the U.S. intelligence and policy communities" for a workshop on Syria in December 2013, it came away with two key findings: That a negotiated settlement "was deemed the least likely" outcome of the war and that, "Regime collapse… was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests."

Assuming what these insiders say amongst themselves is what they truly believe, and is reflected in the US foreign policy they help shape - that President Obama's chemical weapons "red line" was crossed, with an Israeli-brokered deal to save the regime in response - then recent developments make a lot of sense, as does the awkward silence of some who purport to anti-imperialism.

So set on a narrative, many neglected to consider that a myopic, obsessive fear of providing aid to the imperialist enemy at home by critiquing the official enemy abroad risks undermining one's own credibility to condemn the former's war crimes, while potentially rehabilitating a once and future friend.

"We have always been ready to help and cooperate with any country that wants to fight terrorism", the Syrian leader said in a 2015 interview when asked why he helped the CIA by "interrogating and torturing people" on its behalf, a characterisation of the relationship he did not challenge.

"And for that reason we helped the Americans", Assad added, "and we are always ready to join any country which is sincere about fighting terrorism".

The problem with taking selective offense at crimes against humanity based on one's reading of geopolitics is that one's reading can be wrong

Western states appear to be taking Assad up on his offer. "They attack us politically", Assad said of Western nations in a June 30 interview, "and then they send officials to deal with us under the table".

The problem with taking selective offense at crimes against humanity based on one's reading of geopolitics is that one's reading can be wrong, with what seems like an anti-war strategy in the short-term proving to be a boon to imperialism in the long run. How can one claim to be morally outraged by one bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan but silent on the repeated bombing of hospitals in Aleppo?

And after condemning one and condoning another, why should anyone not already a part of the left-wing subculture care what one has to self-righteously say?

In the absence of power, the antiwar left has its credibility - creditibility lost, it seems, when it proved an obstacle to a career "U.S.-backed regime change in Syria" becoming a hard left dogma and expressions of solidarity with bombed and besieged Syrians becoming problematic.

Leftist pundit Vijay Prashad, for instance, knew in 2012 that the US and Israel see "no alternative to Bashar's regime", and that their tough talk about his needing to go could be explained by the fact that, "The US cannot be seen to make any moves in defense of Bashar, and they need not do so: The Chinese and Russian wall allows the US and Israel to benefit as free riders." By 2016, Prashad was referring to the millions of Syrians fleeing the Assad regime as "regime change refugees".

If there's a lesson for the less career-minded left, it ought to be that one's solidarity with those facing mass murder should not be determined by the whims of US policy, which isn't always what meets the eye. Syrians, at least, can take refuge in the fact that, should relations between the West and their oppressor continue to warm, it may once again become the good anti-imperialist's duty to oppose their oppression. It just might take a few years.

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