Anti-Assad Leftists Failed to Build a Syrian Revolution Solidarity Movement

9 min readSep 5, 2018

By Joe Hill

Some observations towards a balance of the US Left’s response to the genocidal repression of the Syrian revolution.

An air-tight case has been presented for the US Left’s helpless response to genocidal repression of a revolutionary struggle in Syria. The base and sides of the box are bound with the unbreakable principle that revolutionaries promote proletarian independence, and within this box many on the anti-Assad Left close themselves under the lid of the incontrovertible observation that US imperialism is hostile towards revolutions, only paying lip service to human rights to cover its own horrendous crimes and abuses. Trapped between proletarian principles and the nature of The Beast, these thinkers conclude that faced with the genocidal crushing of a revolutionary struggle by reactionary forces other than US imperialism, all the US Left could do is confront its own imperialist bourgeoisie, while counseling the Syrian revolutionaries not to trust in US or European imperialism, or the UN.

Principles and analyses are put to test in the course of political struggle. The remarkable result of the previous conclusion, in practice, was that much of the Left that supported the revolution in propaganda was in terms of its practical demands indistinguishable from the likes of Noam Chomsky, long a purveyor of the parochialist “fight our enemy at home” — which is not internationalism — and certainly not a supporter of the Syrian revolution.

The anti-Assad Left’s staunch opposition to Syrian appeals for a humanitarian intervention also meant that in regards the main US policy they were indistinguishable from the apologists for Assad; the two wings of the revolutionary Left coincided on key points: opposition to Obama’s “red line” and condemnation of Trump’s missile strikes.

Protesting U.S. airstrikes on Assad’s counter-revolutionary forces alongside ANSWER

United front mobilizations around single demands can be very effective, bringing together broad forces that are otherwise disunited, as per the historically classic example of the demand “US Out Now” from Vietnam, and “US Hands Off Nicaragua”. In the case of the Syrian revolution, however, united Left opposition — in practice if not in theory and propaganda — to appeals for humanitarian interventions from the Syrian masses being bombed and starved has not won the Left any victories, although US imperialism, Trump’s theatric missile strikes notwithstanding, has indeed allowed the genocide to proceed.

Although the US Left’s opposition to humanitarian intervention has been the order of the day in Washington, across two administrations, this has not meant a victory for our movement. On the contrary, our anti-war movement has withered and died, under the leadership of Assad’s apologists, as we have passively witnessed neighborhoods, communities and cities buried under rubble and millions driven from their homes.

To be fair, many among the anti-Assad Left called for lifting the embargo on arms to the opposition, some even for delivering ground-to-air missile defense systems. Others called for non-lethal aid, food and medicines, to be delivered to the besieged, but to my knowledge, here in the US, with the exception of our own small Anti-War Committees in Solidarity with the Struggles for Self-Determination, and our allies in News and Letters Chicago, none on the Left called for taking up the demand raised widely by Syrians for a humanitarian intervention to stop the bombing, often practically expressed as a call for a No Fly Zone (NFZ).

Two things must be said in regards the nuanced opposition to interventions, first the practical result of rejecting Syrian appeals for a humanitarian intervention to stop the bombing, although supporting other forms of interventions, meant that the anti-Assad Left could not work in unity with the Syrian diaspora, which mobilized repeatedly in mass actions for an NFZ. Indeed, by and large, the anti-Assad left did not make a united effort with the Syrian diaspora to build a solidarity movement. Second, the incongruity of opposing humanitarian interventions categorically while calling for imperialism to intervene through the supply of arms and other measures was not only painfully obvious, such contortions did nothing to challenge the really dangerous illusions held widely in the US working class that an isolationist strategy can save us from being embroiled in wars. It is a remarkable feature of this period that distrust in the intentions of the generals at the Pentagon and the politicians in Capitol Hill is fairly widespread. I would venture to say that illusions in the good will of US imperialism are not the primary confusion among working people; rather, the response to this recognition is confused, for instead of building international solidarity with peoples in struggle against austerity and for human rights and democracy around the world, the general sentiment seems to be that we must turn inward; isolationism is the confusion that befuddles our struggles.

The anti-Assad left, again with notable exceptions, by adopting a categorical rejection of the Syrian appeals for a humanitarian intervention, has in practice simply adapted to the isolationist sentiments to which the apologists pander in a deceitful manner.

In regards the struggle for leadership, which is the irreducible material down to which all political struggles are boiled, trapped by its own conclusions, the anti-Assad Left could not challenge the apologists, who held tightly onto the leadership of the main US anti-war coalitions. Once their leadership over anti-war opposition was accepted, the normalization of the apology for genocide inevitably resulted. Thus, although the International Socialist Organization has, to its credit, promoted Syrian intellectuals, such as Joseph Daher, and publications of such important works as Yassin al Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution (which quite pointedly does not categorically reject the appeal for an international intervention), it did so even as it supported Ajamu Baraka’s [vice-presidential] candidacy, even as the latter openly praised the Assad regime and engaged in atrocity denial. Thus, more recently, the united forces against fascism in this country include the ANSWER coalition, which is an open supporter of fascism in Syria. Having failed to split the anti-war opposition on principle from the apologists for genocide, the anti-Assad Left can only ever challenge its opponents in propaganda, which is meaningless to the Syrians being bombed.

Deprived of our own anti-war banners, the practical imperatives of confronting the fascists and the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants and Muslims, has repeatedly subordinated solidarity with the Syrian struggle, and principled opposition to atrocity denial, so that the apologists for genocide of ANSWER and Workers’ World have been accepted on the Left as “comrades”. The final result is the normalization of apology for genocide within the ranks of the US Left and the popular movements in which it intervenes.

Needless to say, many Syrians look upon this moral collapse of our movements with complete disgust, and thus, not only is the Left unable to connect to the Syrian struggle, many Syrian activists have begun openly questioning the relevance of a Left which accepts “comrades” engaging in atrocity denial.

Now these practical results were surely not the desired outcome the anti-Assad leftists sought, but these are nonetheless the results toward which this sector of the US Left, its principled elements, fatally stumbled.

Another point needs to be made about the principled US Left’s response to the Syrian revolution. Reading their material, one cannot help but draw the conclusion that these leftists feel the revolution was primarily lost by its leadership, not crushed through massive repression. Some forthright elements of the anti-Assad Left are explicit in this charge that the leadership failed the revolution, rather than the reverses being the result of genocidal repression, but even the elements that avoid such sharp accusations cannot really distance themselves from the charge.

If one accepts that collective punishment of civilians by the regime, with massive direct international support from Russia and Iran, rolled back the territorial gains of the revolution, then opposition to the bombing logically follows as the central demand for the solidarity movement. In practical terms, recognizing the primary threat of the bombing to the revolution would have opened up the possibility for united actions with the Syrian diaspora. With these allies, the weak forces of the anti-Assad Left might have been able to marginalize and isolate the atrocity deniers and take leadership of anti-war opposition. Furthermore, in the same rallies in which we were opposing the bombing of Syrians by Assad and Putin, and Iran’s intervention, we as internationalists could also have raised Israel’s crimes of bombing civilians in Gaza, the siege of Gaza, and the US supported bombing and blockade of Yemen, and more generally, opposition to the bloody farce of the “War on Terror”.

To build united actions with the diaspora, it would not have been necessary to support Syrian demands for an NFZ, but it was certainly necessary not to reject these demands (which is how I read Mr. Yassin al Haj Saleh’s position and the appeal that we “listen to Syrians”).

The key was to recognize the primary task of opposing Assad’s bombing.

Instead of building a united solidarity movement against the bombing, united with allies in the Syrian diaspora who repeatedly took to the streets, the anti-Assad Left largely accepted the core argument made ad nauseum by the apologist Left, and now plainly absurd, that a humanitarian intervention to stop the bombing could only make matters worse — worse than genocide.

As some reason had therefore to be offered for how such a heroic struggle as the Syrian revolution could suffer defeats, and why we could not build a united solidarity movement with the Syrian diaspora against the bombing, the leaderships of the US anti-Assad Left, either consciously or not, fell back on the rather canned conclusion that without a proletarian leadership the revolution was doomed to failure. Somehow the relentless explosions of concrete rubble and shrapnel and the terrible toll these took on the Syrian leaderships was ignored, as if the problem were only one of clarity and resolve. A balance of the US Left suggests that it is our clarity that is in question and our resolved that lacked.

Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim

What is remarkable about the fatalism of the US anti-Assad Left is how it follows strictly from an argument that assumes the intentions of US imperialism are decisive, and not the balance of forces in the struggle.

If I have understood Das Kapital, we would be silly to believe the US ruling class has the good intentions to raise the federal minimum wage to a level allowing working families to rise out of poverty. Yet, the obstinate opposition of the capitalist class not withstanding, revolutionaries generally support the struggle of Fight for $15 Now (and do not refuse to participate in the movement because its leadership is “reformist”). This is not an isolated example; on the contrary, it is generalizable: the intentions of the ruling class are relevant, but so are ours.

If we intend to limit imperialist interventions in Syria to the protection of civilians from bombing, then we can exert political pressure towards that end. There were and are clearly great risks that US imperialism could have used and could use the pretext of humanitarian intervention to attempt to control and corrupt the democratic revolutionary struggle, but it would be perverse for US leftists to now breathe a deep sigh of relief, since no such intervention has taken place, and resistance in Syria has been reduced to a last stand in Idlib. On the contrary, the danger of foreign control over the revolutionary struggle, which will continue until Assad is overthrown, has grown precisely to the degree to which the mass popular movement has been forced by relentless bombing and sieges to hole up and endure terrible sacrifices, such that, indeed, short of a humanitarian intervention, the fatal end was forseeable in one revolutionary stronghold after another.