The Arab revolutions that started in the winter of 2010 have wreaked havoc with political certainties. At the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” last year, the British-Pakistani intellectual Tariq Ali lamented the fracturing of the anti-Imperialist movement over Libya and Syria. A decade earlier, Iraq had brought together people from diverse backgrounds—Marxists, liberals, greens, realists, libertarians—to oppose an unprovoked war that everyone believed would be a disaster. The alliances held and the coordination proved useful in rolling back the worst excesses of unilateral interventionists. Then came the Arab Spring.
Everyone applauded the toppling of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt; they also cheered the crowds that drove Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh from office. In each case, the Obama administration was criticised for its sluggish response and its reluctance to support people demanding dignity and self-determination. The administration dragged its feet on Libya too, when Muammar Gaddafi responded to a popular uprising with a rampage. But under pressure from European and Arab allies, Obama relented and a UN-sanctioned military intervention halted Gaddafi’s advance. With help from NATO, Gaddafi was toppled soon thereafter.
But some lily-livered leftists lost their nerve and endorsed this action—and anti-imperialism has never been the same again. By the time the uprising in Syria started, committed anti-imperialists were better prepared. They barricaded themselves against their former, constitutionally weak, comrades and resisted the spell of subversive notions like dignity, self-determination and human rights. The Syrian regime was part of an “axis of resistance”, they said, and it deserved support.
But like persistent ghosts, Assad’s opponents continue to haunt anti-imperialist imagination, eroding certainties, sowing doubt. It has not been enough to ignore them: they keep claiming headlines by dying in spectacular ways. Organisations like the Stop the War Coalition have taken affirmative action by banning all Syrians from their platforms (all except two—luckily both of them regime supporters). Out of sight, out of mind, one would hope. Except, they keep ceaselessly intruding into our sights. When recently the Stop the War Coalition held a public meeting at the parliament to discuss Syria, it took care not to allow any Syrian on its platform. But some still infiltrated the event and, despite the best efforts of the chair (Diane Abbott), they tried to sap anti-imperialist morale by diverting attention to Assad’s follies, ignoring his symbolic significance.
Assad admittedly hasn’t made it easy for anti-imperialists to stand by him. His behaviour might make sense to us politically but is hard to explain to the uninitiated. Even George Galloway cannot openly salute him. Assad is resisting his whole country and, except for the Russian Army, Hizbullah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Crop, Iraqi militias and an international brigade of sectarian volunteers, he is all by himself. He needs protecting. Until he has completely stamped out imperialism (or “the people”, as some prefer to call his nemesis) we need to ensure that sentimental concern with “human rights” doesn’t pre-empt it. A coherent set of arguments is therefore in order to protect Assad from The People.
To support Assad, deny that you support Assad. In their understandable eagerness to recognize Assad’s services in fighting imperialism, some anti-imperialists have openly embraced him. Former Democratic congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and The Wikileaks Party, led by Julian Assange’s father, went on solidarity tours of Damascus; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire promoted one of Assad’s close allies. This is a mistake. It diminishes one’s perceived objectivity and puts one in the complicated position of having to defend Assad’s record instead of focusing on his opponents’ crimes. It is imperative therefore that every statement in support of Assad be prefaced with: “I am no fan of Assad but…” This is also insurance against possible errors in judgment. Should Assad do something really horrible in the future, one can always point to these words to exculpate oneself. Also, one’s credibility is enhanced if one pronounces oneself a supporter of the earlier “peaceful and democratic” protests. Though one will have to take care not to mention what happened to the peaceful and democratic protests. Anti-imperialists must avoid drawing attention to the less savoury aspects of Assad’s record lest it encourages their interventionist impulse.
Don’t defend Assad; attack his opponents. Peace and security have a price. When a state is trying to restore law and order and citizens take up arms, firm action becomes necessary. But since there might be a discrepancy between this ideal sequence and what actually transpired in Syria, anti-imperialists must not allow themselves to be cornered into defending Assad’s record. Focus on his opponents. The opposition is broad without a coherent hierarchy or structure; it lacks discipline. It has people from all walks of life. It includes many opportunists, even some criminals. It is inevitable that some of them will commit crimes. Highlight and amplify them—make them representative of all the opposition. Remember the rebel who ate a dead regime soldier’s lung? Everyone does. How many still speak of Hamza al-Khatib, the 13-year-old protester who was picked up by Syrian government soldiers in April 2011 and returned to his parents in a casket after a month’s detention, with burns and bruises, severed genitals, and three gunshot wounds on his body? None.
A will to disbelieve. Like great reformers of the past, Assad too has made mistakes. It was perhaps not necessary to kill al-Khatib or to napalm school playgrounds. But when people brainwash their children and use them as instruments of sedition, the state cannot stand by indefinitely. Though tragic, such deaths can sometimes be edifying: they dissuade other parents from leading their children astray. But where the political necessity of such actions is understandable to us, prolonged encounter with the effects of systematic repression could still cause distress among sympathetic observers. For this reason, effective anti-imperialism needs psychological discipline. It requires a strong will to disbelieve.
An anti-imperialist has no obligation to follow any atrocity that cannot directly be blamed on imperialism. Anti-imperialists’ default attitude toward an atrocity by a foreign government currently in the bad books of imperialist powers should be one of resolute disbelief. When a regime militia killed 108 people in Houla, anti-imperialists rightly doubted the story. When the regime used chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta, deductive logic was sufficient to deny regime responsibility, UN and Human Rights Watch reports notwithstanding. Indeed, to deny accusations that it is too sympathetic to Assad, the Stop the War Coalition recently published an article by journalist Matt Carr denying Assad’s responsibility for the attack.
Functional Doubt. In journalism and scholarship, doubt has a cachet. To be sceptical is to be savvy—it is not to be a dupe. But doubt also has a political function. Sometimes reality fails to oblige and facts do not favour one’s argument. Under those circumstances, one can of course concede the argument. But if such concession threatens one’s position or profits, it is preferable to postpone judgment. “Doubt is our product”, is the advice that PR companies gave the tobacco industry after science established an irrefutable link between cigarette smoking and cancer. As long as there was doubt, people continued to smoke and legislation was postponed. Dick Cheney used residual doubts about climate change to postpone environmental regulation while serving as the vice president of the United States. Similarly, anti-imperialists can use doubt to excellent effect. If conceding a point can undermine the larger cause of anti-imperialism, doubt can be used to avoid resolution. In August 2013, when Assad used chemical weapons to attack opposition neighbourhoods, the regime’s responsibility was quickly established. But while the courageous few—most notably Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk—chose to clumsily blame the attack on Assad’s opponents, thereby risking refutation, savvier anti-imperialists adopted an attitude of doubt. Long after the debate was settled, stalwarts like Seumas Milne, Phyllis Bennis and Charles Glass used doubt to deflect attention from the regime’s responsibility, thwarting imperialist aggression.
Sympathise selectively. An anti-imperialist must know that sympathy is not a luxury; it carries costs. If one is indiscriminate in one’s sympathies, one could inadvertently end up rationalising imperialist aggression. In May 2012, when a regime militia killed 108 civilians, including 49 children, in the town of Houla using ghastly means, the weak and sentimental were swayed to sympathise with the deceased. But few anti-imperialists lost their nerve. They all focused on what really mattered: protecting the regime from responsibility, lest it enable imperialist aggression against Syria. Likewise, no anti-imperialist succumbed to cheap sympathy for the over 1,400 dead after the gassing of Eastern Ghouta. They correctly reasoned that it was more important to prevent the potential civilian deaths should imperial powers decide to act against Assad. But this doesn’t mean that anti-imperialists have to turn a blind eye to all atrocities. Two weeks after the Ghouta massacre when the New York Timesrevealed that the anti-Assad rebels had executed seven regime soldiers, anti-imperialists were rightly incensed. In commentaries and interviews after the incident, Yale professor David Bromwich expressed outrage at the killing of the soldiers while simultaneously suggesting that Assad wasn’t responsible for the chemical attack and that he launched the chemical attack for a reason (because, he claimed, the neighbourhoods were harbouring rebels).
Champion the Minorities. Minorities hold a vulnerable position in many societies. Legal protections for minorities are a great achievement of the civilised world. But in history, concern for minorities has sometimes been used as a justification for imperial intervention. There is no reason why minority concern cannot also be harnessed for an anti-imperialist cause. In Syria, it is the Sunni majority that is under assault, but the potential danger of regime collapse for Syria’s minorities is too great for us to be overly concerned with this. It is incumbent upon us to support a government that is protecting minorities; majorities are not an anti-imperialist concern.
God sends ISIS. ISIS is the deus ex machinaof the Syrian conflict. It resolves many contradictions. One can take absolute positions in relation to ISIS in a way one can’t with any other aspect of the Syrian conflict. For far too long anti-imperialists have been accused of indifference toward the colossal human suffering in Syria. They can use ISIS to erase this impression. They can unreservedly sympathise with the victims of ISIS and condemn its crimes without equivocation. Detractors might point out that over 90 percent of the civilian deaths in Syria have been caused by the regime, but anti-imperialists can counter by pointing out that at least the regime is secular.
ISIS also might help anti-imperialists make their support for Assad explicit. Some, like Patrick Cockburn, are already blazing a path by advocating western support for the regime. Even Noam Chomsky has criticised Obama for not supporting the regime, which—according to him—is one of the main forces fighting ISIS. Visionaries like Chomsky and Cockburn are imagining a brave new world in which imperialism itself serves anti-imperialism and facts are displaced by feelings. (Facts, for example, don’t quite live up to Chomsky’s feelings: far from being “one of the main forces” confronting ISIS, the regime has fought the terrorist organisation in just 6 percent of its encounters)
Frame arguments against bombing as arguments forbombing. With bodies piling up in Syria and the regime’s aerial bombings being one of the main causes of civilian deaths, calls have been growing for a no-bombing zone. The idea is to protect civilians from the barrel bombs dropped by the regime’s helicopters and jets. This argument is hard to argue against. It has a prima facieattraction that could give it wider support, thereby enabling imperialism. It must be recast to diminish its appeal. If the case for a no-bombing zone is instead referred to as a case to “bomb Syria”, it become easier to argue against. Indeed, this is precisely how Labour’s Diane Abbot, the SNP’s Alex Salmond, and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas have reframed it. It even allows anti-imperialists, who might have been accused of indifference toward the victims of the barrel bombs, to cast themselves as champions of the potential victims of the West’s hypothetical bombs. Even more usefully, this allows opponents of Assad’s bombings to be recast as proponents of NATO’s bombs.
The Value of Refugees. Close to 12 million Syrians are now displaced. But over 7 million of them remain inside Syria’s borders. They are vulnerable to regime and ISIS attacks—but they are not our concern. It is the ones fleeing to Europe we need to focus on. They bring several advantages. They are an uncomplicated cause to champion that doesn’t raise any vexing political dilemmas. Sure, in the past we have dismissed aid and charity as distractions for root causes. But in this case, addressing the root cause—the regime’s military campaign against Syrian civilians—might lead to calls for revoking Assad’s impunity. For this reason, anti-imperialists must dismiss any discussion of root causes as “political”, a distraction from pure and elevated “humanitarian” concerns. The refugee crisis gives anti-imperialists an opportunity to battle true evil by using it as a stick to beat governments at home with. Anti-imperialist concerns might have prevented us from supporting Syrians’ political rights but that doesn’t mean we can’t support their residual human rights.
Learn from enemies. Finally, in a complex world no ideology can survive unless it is flexible and adaptive. Anti-imperialism too has to deal with contradictions—and it has much to learn. In some instances, it has already shown flexibility. At home anti-imperialists have long railed against rampant Islamophobia, but they have demonstrated great agility in adapting its tropes to their own ends. There are takfiris, salafis, and jihadis among Assad’s opponents: why not label them all takfiris, salafis and jihadis? It works for the Israelis. When it comes to dissimulation, one should turn to the masters. When Israelis bomb civilians in Gaza, or besiege them, they claim it is only to kill the terrorists hiding among them. Using the same logic, anti-imperialists have blamed the siege and bombing of the Yarmouk refugee camp on the terrorists hiding among the people. An anti-imperialist must never take absolute positions on things like collective punishment or torture: sometimes these tools become necessary in fighting empire.
The threat of imperialist action in Syria has receded somewhat. Russian forces have entered Syria to support Assad and the West doesn’t have the stomach for a fight with Putin. (Some detractors have tried to denounce the Russian intervention as imperialism. But as Noam Chomsky assures us, this can’t be true since Russia entered Syria at the “government’s” request. One must be careful, however, not to extend this argument too far, otherwise they’ll have to concede that the US intervention in Vietnam wasn’t imperialism either, since it was initiated at the South Vietnamese government’s request.) The fight however is not over, and until Assad re-establishes his authority, anti-imperialists will need an intellectual toolkit to deal with its exigencies. This modest contribution is a contribution toward that end.