Robin Yassin-Kassab

A Syrianized World

with 7 comments

fascistsAlongside the chants of ‘Blood and Soil’, ‘You Will Not Replace Us’, ‘White Lives Matter’ and ‘Fuck You Faggots’, some of the privileged fascists rallying at Charlottesville, Virginia gave their opinions on the Syrian issue. “Support the Syrian Arab Army,” they said. “Fight the globalists. Assad did nothing wrong. Replacing Qaddafi was a fucking mistake.”

It’s worth noting that these talking points – support for Assad and the conspiracy theories which absolve him of blame for mass murder and ethnic cleansing, the Islamophobia which underpins these theories, the notion that ‘globalists’ staged the Arab Revolutions, and the idea that the Libyan revolution was entirely a foreign plot – are shared to some extent or other by most of what remains of the left.

In 2011 I expected that Syria’s predominantly working-class uprising against a sadistic regime that is both neo-liberal and fascist would receive the staunch support of leftists around the world. I was wrong. Britain’s Stop the War coalition marched furiously when it seemed America might bomb the regime’s military assets, but ignored America’s bombing of Jihadist groups and Syrian civilians, as well as Assad’s conventional and chemical attacks on defenceless people, and Russian and Iranian war crimes. Key figures in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party followed the StW line. Diane Abbott called the police when Syrians attempted to speak at a StW event. During the final assault on liberated Aleppo last winter, Emily Thornberry suggested to Channel 4 News that Assad protected Christians, that the problem would be solved if ‘jihadists’ left, and that the Assadist occupation of Homs was an example to be emulated – never mind that liberated Aleppo contained democratic councils, that its revolutionaries included people of all religions and sects, or that 80% of Assad’s troops in that battle were foreign Shia jihadists organised by Iran – nor that the vast majority of Homs’s people remain in refugee camps, too terrified to return. John McDonnell gave a speech in Trafalgar Square on May Day under a Stalinist flag and the Baathist flag – that’s the flag of a previous genocide and the flag of a genocide still continuing. It wasn’t him who put the flags up, but he didn’t ask for them to be taken down.

In 2011 I should have known better. Leftists had long made excuses for the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe and the genocidal occupation of Afghanistan. Noam Chomsky, to pick one, made excuses for Pol Pot and Milosevic (today, of course, he rehearses the conspiracy theories which claim Assad’s innocence of sarin gas attacks, and channels like Democracy Now  repeatedly offer him and others a platform to do so).

Leftists repeat the war on terror tropes first developed by the right. So do Putin, and Assad, and Sisi. In his indispensable book The Impossible Revolution, Yassin al-Haj Saleh writes that ‘race’ is ultimately a matter of class. (This is questionable, to say the least, but here he’s using racial constructions as a metaphor, and I’ll go along with him for a while.) In this context, he distinguishes between ‘white’ and ‘black’ Syrians. ‘White’ Syrians promote a discourse of fascist modernity which casts ‘black’ Syrians as backward, primal and dangerous. The regime’s scud missiles and barrel bombs are necessary to protect ‘developed’ and ‘modern’ Syria from the blacks. Leftists around the world parrot this discourse.

Corbynites tell me I shouldn’t get hung up on foreign policy, as if Labour’s parochial nostalgia didn’t effect its support for a hard Brexit, and the enormous consequences of that for the domestic economy. As if Syria were irrelevant to issues like migration and terrorism, which dominate domestic debate.

Until about the 1920s leftists could perhaps have been forgiven for ignoring or deprioritising democratic struggles as ‘bourgeois’. After that point, when the terrible ramifications of crushing democracy became gruesomely apparent, there was no excuse for it. Here’s what Rosa Luxemburg said at the time: “Without general elections, without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, without the free battle of opinions, life in every public institution withers away, becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor.” When Western leftists, who live in democracies, scorn democratic revolutions, they are displaying nothing except their own privilege.

It isn’t surprising that the right sees every Syrian refugee as a potential terrorist when the left has spent years opining that the Syrian revolution is run by al-Qaida (or American imperialism, or Zionism). These beasts feed each other. The greatest threats today are rising authoritarianism, whether it calls itself leftist or rightist (or Islamist), and the preference for ideology over human reality, for simplistic conspiracism over complicated facts.

This is going to get a lot more messy. We need answers to the politics of austerity and the undoubted tensions of a globalised and increasingly technologised economy. Nostalgia for the social compositions of earlier decades, and the era when national borders were impermeable, is by no means an answer. Yassin argues that democracy “retreats everywhere as soon as it stops progressing anywhere”. He speaks of a progressively “Syrianized” world.

So today Western ‘realists’ think the regime which started the Syrian war should remain in power for the sake of stability; and a childish and bullying reality-TV star is president of the world’s most powerful state; and fascists are again gathering for torch-lit rallies. That’s what happens when you ignore human suffering in favour of stirring grand narratives.


Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 12, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Syria, the Left, UK, USA

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7 Responses

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  1. I get very few comments here, unfortunately. People usually respond on social media. I welcome people adding information or debating points, but I don’t provide a platform for fascist propaganda. There are enough platforms for that. Anyway, somebody (from a server in Alabama) posted the following comment. If I allow someone to comment once, it seems wordpress allows them to post again without me checking. So I am copying and pasting it because it illustrates my point about the convergence of left and right. It’s interesting that she uses leftist language (“imperialistic warmongering of the few against the many”) and yet feels no need to distance herself from the people in Charlottesville who are so obviously fascists, Nazi salutes and all. It’s also amusing that she accuses me of being blinded by ‘the mainstream media’,when my main sources for what is happening in Syria are Syrians themselves. I have researched Syria enough to write a book about it. She also accuses me of being British, which is true. I am also Syrian, and I have lived in Syria. She accuses me of being a Zionist too, when I am an anti-Zionist (but not, like her, an anti-Semite), and someone with Palestinians in his family. It’s amusing, but also not, when people in Alabama decide they know so much more about the situation (you know, there’ve been no chemical attacks, and the White Helmets are al-Qaida) than a Syrian who has interviewed lots of Syrians. Susana – any further red-brown outbursts will be binned. Go do the goosestep in Alabama.

    Here’s her comment:

    “They are absolutely and unequivocally correct!!!
    Assad has done NOTHING wrong.
    Replacing Qaddafi WAS a fucking mistake.
    Globalism is a pretty term to excuse the rampaging greed-driven imperialistic warmongering of the few against the many and must end now.
    The Syrian Arab Army is fighting FOR the people of Syria, not against them, and deserves the support of all humanity in their efforts to quash terrorism -NOT a moderate rebellion.

    They are NOT conspiracy theories, as you so dismissively state. You are clearly blinded by the warped mainstream media hogwash that inundates like effluent from a backed up sewer.

    Furthermore, it is absurd and outrageous to suggest such opinions are founded on islamophobic precepts. Your arguments are flawed and baseless, including the groundless and to this day unsubstantiated rubbish regarding supposed chemical attacks, and they perpetuate misunderstanding and support of the coalition’s continuing WAR CRIMES.

    This, along with your condemnation of both Russian and Iranian involvement makes it abundantly clear that you are very obviously a Zionist supporter and thus quite understandably deluded. Apparently, you are British which further explains a lot. Likely you support those bastards the white helmets, too. Your grandstanding is offensive and destructive and anyone who stands against it should be praised and encouraged.”

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    August 12, 2017 at 9:00 pm

  2. louisproyect

    August 13, 2017 at 1:39 pm

  3. Thank you for this excellent essay. I recently finished your agonizing, moving, essential book, Burning Country. Essential for the crucial information it provides on a maligned and misunderstood situation, and also essential for what it says about the political culture today. It took me a while to finish; I had to keep putting it down because it was so painful. And now I have about fifty things to follow up on. It actually confirmed what I was thinking when I was arguing along these lines with friends (on the left and in the anarchist milieu) in 2013 and getting nowhere, and I did not know that much about Syria at that time, except what I saw (the obvious) in the press and some of Bill Weinberg’s admirable interventions (and later the film Return to Homs). I was basing what I saw–the authenticity and creativity and humanity of the revolution, the horrors perpetrated by Assad’s terror-state, and the abject failure of the left to support the people in some way or even to acknowledge who and what they were.–on my understanding of what happened in the Balkans. I spent a lot of time researching and arguing about that, opposing the war crimes/genocide denialist left in my few small ways. (You can see some of my work on the website “Balkan Witness.”) You are describing the “red-brown front,” similar to what happened to the Serbian left in Yugoslavia (and its apologists here) and also the former Soviet Union. (Timothy Snyder provides very useful commentary on this left-right convergence in Russia vis-a-vis the Ukraine conflict, also totally misunderstood and consciously distorted by many on the left. See his articles in the NY Review of Books. See also Masha Gessen’s work on fascism and authoritarianism in Russia.) Thus one can’t really tell if the writer of the comment you printed comes from the “left” or the fascist right. Leftist anti-“MSM” apparats were early practitioners the alternative news universe, turning what started as a reasonable critique of obvious problems and distortions in corporate media news and the manufacture of consent into kneejerk counter-groupthink, and what I call the manufacture of dissent. (This goes back to Cambodia, though Chomsky and Herman never acknowledged their errors, to put their bald apologism gently. And Gareth Porter, who co-wrote a disgusting treatise celebrating the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s that Chomsky and Herman recommended, is now an “expert” on Iran writing for both left and right. It goes back to apologism for Milosevic and his chetnik mass murderers in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosova (as well as against critics in Serbia and the other Yugoslav republics). It goes back to the Spanish Civil War, and the Bolsheviks and then Stalin for that matter.) The racist right has deeper roots in this country, however, and thus has done a more effective job of overthrowing any semblance of political sense, but the right is partly reaping the misinformation of the left, which is still a Small Lie Machine fighting the Big Lie Machine to the point that one is often better of reading the WaPo and NY Times than much of what is produced in some leftist publications, or proffered by the marijuana-addled hippies and fossil lefts in the Green Party. “What remains of the left” is a serious problem–they function as antibodies to authentic radicalization, turning people beginning to explore their critical faculties and to question authority into conspiratorialist zombies and apologists for rival criminal empires, large and small, that are adversaries of this one.The Syrian people, like others before them–the Cambodians, the Bosnians, the Albanian Kosovars, and others–have paid a terrible price for such betrayal. And somehow, we will, too.

    David Watson

    August 28, 2017 at 3:36 pm

  4. […] Von seinem Blog Qunfuz., wo man auch lesen kann: […]

  5. […] muss folgendes vorausschicken, ob man will oder […]

  6. […] Publicado originalmente en inglés: Qunfuz, 12/08/2017 […]

  7. I became a fan of your writing ever since I found your Creative Writing Masterclass (2012 Karachi Literature Festival) on youtube…but the message behind provides a moral anchor to your composition

    Hopefully I can get a chance to read “The Road from Damascus” right after my next TMA for my A363 Creative Writing module at the OU.


    F. Loren Echevarria

    September 14, 2018 at 8:14 pm

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