“The start of solidarity is correcting the narrative.”
-Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and Civil War.
Since the Syrian revolution began in 2011, a mixture of propaganda and conspiracy theories has obscured the nature of the conflict. As the Syrian conflict is the biggest refugee crisis in a generation, we cannot stand by and let these myths go unchallenged.
It’s just a sectarian conflict
As with many conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, Syria’s conflict is often depicted as a solely ethnic/sectarian conflict. The spectre of Arabs, and particularly Sunni Muslims, with guns is stereotyped as only religiously motivated.
However, the beginning of the revolution in 2011 was profoundly democratic and secular. All ethnicities and religious denominations took to the streets, as part of the broader regional upsurge dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’.
In the squares, Syrians chanted ‘One, One, One, the Syrian people are One’ and ‘Sunnis and Alawis are one’, referring to the oppressed Sunni majority and the dominant Alawi minority (of whom President Bashar-Al Assad is a member).
In seeking to crush the democratic movement, Assad deliberately provoked sectarian conflict. Regime death squads primarily targeted Sunnis, and the regime released salafists (militant Sunnis) from jail to add fuel to the fire. While sectarianism has grown since then, the responsibility lies with the regime, which deliberately sought to undermine the secular nature of the revolution.
The democratic current that emerged in 2011 still exists, albeit besieged from all sides.
The Syrian rebels are a US proxy
Conspiracy theorists argue that the revolution was simply a CIA-funded proxy from the start. A more nuanced take holds that the US has since hijacked the revolution. Indeed, the US has in the past funded coups, dictatorships, and Islamist movements in the region.
However, there is a fundamental difference between a US-backed coup, and a popular democracy movement calling for international support.
Assad shot first. When the revolutionaries were forced to arm in self-defence, they had woefully inadequate weaponry. Their call for international support must be understood in this context.
Obama stated that chemical weapons attacks were a ‘red line’ that he would not allow Assad to cross. When Assad carried out a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in 2013, Obama’s regime failed to act. This led to a sense of betrayal among Syrian revolutionaries.
Assad and his Russian backers continue to rain fire on the Syrian people. In Aleppo, Syrian children burn tires so that the fumes will create a makeshift No-Fly Zone. The US refuses to impose a No-Fly Zone on Assad, or grant anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian rebels (perhaps fearing that the revolution would turn against the USA and Israel). The revolutionaries remain woefully outgunned by Assad.
If we cannot offer any alternative to the Syrian rebels, we have no right to preach to them about their decision to call for any support they can get.
ISIS is the only alternative to Assad
Many commentators say that Assad is the lesser evil, as ISIS is the only alternative.
However, there are alternatives to both Assad and ISIS within Syrian society. In fact, ISIS did not originate among the Syrian people. Rather, the group formed in Iraqi jails, before recruiting disenfranchised Muslims from around the world. In Syria, ISIS are essentially a foreign occupying force.
By contrast, the Free Syrian Army and its allies have fought both Assad’s and ISIS’ forces. In liberated areas of Syria, democratic Local Coordination Committees remain as an alternative to both Assadist and Islamist dictatorship.
A Free Syria would be governed by the people, not by dictators.
US and Russian intervention are equally to blame
It is no secret that US intervention has torn apart much of the Middle East and North Africa. From backing Israeli colonisation, to funding the Afghan mujahideen which would later morph into the Taliban, and more recently occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has pursued an imperialist policy that continues to destroy lives.
However, Syria is not Iraq. We cannot show meaningful solidarity with the Syrian people if we fail to explain the political conditions they face.
Assad’s regime has killed overwhelmingly more Syrians than any other force involved. Putin’s Russia, in militarily intervening to support the criminal Assad, simply wants a proxy in the region. Any attempt to depict this as ‘anti-imperialism’ makes a mockery of the term.
The United States is not the only evil on the world stage. Rising Russian imperialism poses a similar threat, backing genocide in Syria, just as the United States backs genocide in Palestine.
5. The only people worth supporting in Syria are the Kurds.
Many Western leftists, confused by the supposed “sectarian” nature of the Syrian conflict, have latched onto the Kurdish forces as the only “good guys” in the struggle. The Kurdish enclave of Rojava, ruled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), is touted as some kind of “anarcho-feminist” safe haven of rights and democracy. This romanticisation of Kurdish culture as somehow superior to other Syrian nationalities is quite silly and somewhat racist, and leads to willful blindness to the negative side of what Kurdish forces are actually doing.
While Rojava’s leaders talk of “democratic confederalism”, PYD forces have ethnically cleansed Arab villages and shut down other Kurdish political parties. The PYD’s fight against ISIS has been supported by both United States AND Russian firepower – a real problem for those who otherwise talk about “foreign intervention” as the real problem in Syria.
Most disturbingly, the PYD have not been above actually working with the Assad dictatorship. The regime actually handed over large parts of Rojava to the PYD without a fight, and continues to pay the wages of the civil servants there. The PYD also holds parts of the northern suburbs of Aleppo, where it has helped the regime forces in the Western suburbs against rebel-held Eastern suburbs.
The Kurdish people in the north of Syria – as well as those in Turkey, Iraq and Iran – have been fighting for their right to self-determination for nearly 100 years, and of course they should be supported in this struggle. But the PYD are no more spotless angels than anyone on the Free Syrian side. Any democratic solution will have to include Syrian Arabs, Kurds and all other ethnicities joining to put an end to the Assad regime.
“When people ask ‘Who should we support in Syria?’ I should say: in Syria no political party, militia or army is worthy of our wholehearted or uncritical support. No ideology either. What we should support are the community-grown democratic and quasi-democratic institutions and the civilian communities they represent. These people deserve support which is both critical and absolute. Critical because nothing should be uncritical. Absolute because these survivors inside are under continuous and full-scale military assault, beleaguered and at risk of extinction.”
What can we do?
As Aotearoa/New Zealand has diplomatic ties with Russia, our responsibility is to challenge the Russian role in the conflict.
We can also donate to humanitarian groups like the White Helmets in Syria, and call on our own government to accept refugees.
For more information please:
Like ‘Syrian Solidarity New Zealand’ on Facebook.
Read the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and Civil War, by Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab. This book is based on extensive interviews with Syrians on the ground.