Dereliction of Duty? The Left and the Syrian Civil War

By Evan SandlinOctober 30, 2016

Dereliction of Duty? The Left and the Syrian Civil War
“IF EVER a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan,” said the late left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn in January 1980, just before the start of major Soviet operations in Afghanistan. The Afghan government had already imprisoned and executed tens of thousands, alarming even its Soviet backers, whose direct invasion brought more horrors. From 1979 until 1989, roughly 1.5 million Afghan civilians were killed, five million more became refugees, and another two million were internally displaced.

Despite the carnage, a number of Western leftists applauded Soviet actions, characterizing the new government as good-hearted reformers, dedicated to “deep-seated social reform.” The invasion was supported by members of the “old left,” such as the Communist Party USA, as well as by influential figures in the “new left,” like Angela Davis, Daniel Lazare, and Fred Halliday.

Recent gyrations about the Syrian Civil War have a similar moral vacuum. For many on the left, the Assad regime is a longstanding bastion of socialism, secularism, modernization, and anti-imperialism. In a sea of US-backed client states in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, Syria appeared resilient in the face of US power, even as the end of the Cold War decimated left-wing movements around the globe. But the enduring myth of the Assad family’s left-wing orientation is convincingly deconstructed by Syrian authors Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami in Burning Country, their account of the origins of the Syrian Civil War.

The authors recount a long list of the late Hafez al-Assad’s dubious accomplishments, which should ostensibly unsettle left-wing readers: betrayal of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, acceptance of aid from Gulf monarchies, joining the US coalition in the 1991 Gulf War, working “to preserve the Islamic identity of the country,” and economic liberalization. Bashar al-Assad’s socialist credentials are even less convincing. The younger Assad participated in the US “War on Terror,” cut subsidies for food and fuel, aggressively liberalized banking and trade, and opened the country to US and European oil drilling. Far from being a bastion of socialism, Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami characterize Assad’s Syria as a “fascist” and “corporatist” state.

The authors downplay the effect of US sanctions (they mention them only in passing) and do not credit Hafez al-Assad for some of his more successful modernization efforts. However, it is difficult to see how one could maintain a view of Assad’s Syria as friendly to left-wing causes, let alone basic liberal notions of universal human rights. The only way in which such a view could be supported is if one adopts an outdated “Eastern bloc is good, Western bloc is bad” framework for analyzing international politics.

But this is exactly what many on the left have done. The inability to look outside the Cold War lens has led many leftists to be crude apologists for Assad’s crimes. As a consequence, they have begun to parrot the same tendencies they disparage Western jingoists for.

Acceptance of State Propaganda

Defenders of Assad seem to embrace any reporting that fits the regime’s narrative. The most shameful instance was the reaction to a chemical attack on Ghouta, which left hundreds of Syrian civilians dead, a good number of them children, and was overwhelmingly blamed on Syrian government forces by US media, foreign governments, and international human rights organizations. The UN fact-finding mission reported that the weaponry used indicated access to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile, Russian-manufactured weaponry, and Syrian government–held territory — all hallmarks of a Syrian government operation.

But many on the left, such as historian Tariq Ali and journalist Robert Fisk, have disputed the evidence in favor of concocting wild conspiracy theories and accepting Russian propaganda. Russia Today (RT), the favorite network of Assad apologists, accused the Islamic State of carrying out the attack through the use of materials smuggled out of Turkey, ignoring the fact that nearly every expert points out that the quality of sarin indicates Syrian government origins. The RT report is supported by the testimony of a single member of parliament in the ultranationalist and anti-Islamist Turkish opposition.

Other conspiracy theories have made their way into leftist circles via once-renowned journalist Seymour Hersh, who disputes Syrian government responsibility based upon the testimony of a single anonymous former US Defense Department official. Nevertheless, Hersh’s poorly sourced account has found acceptance among left-wing journalists, including Fisk, Patrick Cockburn (brother of the late Alexander Cockburn), and Peter Lee.

The left-wing denial of Syrian government crimes is almost always explicitly framed in terms of arguing against US intervention. If the chemical weapons claim is false, then the justification for US intervention against Assad crumbles. Similar arguments were made in the run-up to NATO’s intervention in Libya, which amounted to denying Gaddafi’s many crimes.

The Assad regime used chemical weapons. US military intervention would be disastrous. Cannot both of these claims be true at the same time?


The phrase “what about” usually follows any recounting of crimes against a Western state. When Israel is condemned on college campuses or global forums, Israeli apologists always make it a point to list a number of countries with comparably worse human rights records. What about Egypt? What about Syria? What about Saudi Arabia?

Of course, this is pure distraction and in no way exonerates the state of Israel. But a large number of leftists have borrowed this tactic whenever Assad’s crimes in Syria are discussed. Take presidential candidate Gloria La Riva, who is leading the ticket for the Party of Socialism and Liberation. When Assad was condemned as a “butcher” in the Democratic debates, La Riva tweeted the following:

#Clinton2016 #Sanders2016, both wrong & lying! #Assad not a “butcher.” They know who’s responsible for terror in #MidEast: US govt, Israel

Condemning Assad or the actions of the Russians in Syria seems to also provoke accusations of hypocrisy and the retelling of Israeli atrocities in Gaza or the US invasion of Iraq. These crimes should indeed be condemned, but Assadist leftists would use them to deny Syrians the space to discuss the repression of their people.

Sometimes the “what-aboutism” doesn’t come from Assadists but from well-intentioned critics of Western foreign policy who simply don’t understand how they are disrupting discussions of Syrian suffering. A recent meme making the rounds on social media transposes the words “Bush foreign policy,” “Obama foreign policy,” “Trump foreign policy,” and “Clinton foreign policy” over the shocking photo of Syrian child Omran Daqneesh. The meme makes a poignant statement about the reality of US foreign policy, that children will be victimized regardless of who is in office, but it does so at the expense of drawing attention away from Syrian suffering.

Nearly 95 percent of all Syrian civilian casualties are perpetrated by the Assad regime, but many leftists place an undue focus on the Western coalition, calling it the “real force that is undermining any possibility of a complete ceasefire in Syria.” Others, such as journalist Patrick Cockburn, maintain that while some Syrians have suffered at the hands of the Assad regime, Syrian government supporters and Alawites have suffered at the hands of rebels. What seems on its face to be a neutral statement of fact is not. It ignores the vastly greater scale of Assad’s atrocities in comparison to those of the rebels, even those affiliated with the Islamic State.

It is grossly inaccurate to discuss a conflict in terms of equal suffering on “sides” when one of those sides is killing the other at a rate of 10 to one. This is readily understood by members of the left in the context of events like the 2014 Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza, which killed over 2,000 Palestinian civilians and 13 Israeli civilians. Journalist Max Blumenthal calls efforts to portray Palestinians and Israelis as equal sides “normalization,” since such framing erases the fact that one side is the oppressor and the other is the oppressed.

Remarkably, though, Blumenthal does not extend such courtesy to the Syrian rebels or even Syrian first responders. Instead, he criticizes their politics extensively while saying virtually nothing about the brutality of the much more powerful (and much more deadly) Assad regime.

Orientalism and Islamophobia 

Another prominent thread in left-wing Assadist apologetics is Orientalism and Islamophobia. The view that the natives are backward and need redemption was also a staple of left-wing commentary in defense of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

William Blum called Afghanistan “a backward nation […] most people living in nomadic tribes […] identifying more with ethnic groups than with a larger political concept, a life scarcely different from many centuries earlier.” Alexander Cockburn referred to the Afghans as “sheepshaggers and smugglers, who have furnished in their leisure hours some of the worst arts and crafts to ever penetrate the occidental world.”

Syrians are also portrayed as “stone age” by radical left outlets, such as Global Research or Mint Press, but also by mainstream left-wing columnists. Journalist Robert Fisk accuses the Syrian rebels of being devoid of “good guys,” by which he means rebels and “moderate elements” that hold a strict secular-liberal ideology. Jon Queally also argues against the existence of “good” rebels due to the fact that the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups would rather fight Assad than al-Qaeda. It is stunning that Queally would criticize rebels for focusing their firepower on the government forces responsible for 95 percent of the civilian death toll, but the criticism makes sense if one assumes the rebels have purely sectarian motivations, or if the critic wishes to reduce Syrians to nothing more than their religious identity.

Another problem: The far left has been one of the most active voices against Islamophobia in the West, but also one of the most active disseminators of Islamophobia when discussing Syria. Vijay Prashad, who regularly condemns Islamophobic responses to terrorism in the US and Western Europe, groups Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaeda in Iraq together as “sectarian” Sunni forces, despite clear differences between the groups. For Prashad, the very presence of Islamists, regardless of their affiliation, is proof that the rebels have been “overrun by the extremists.”

Ajamu Baraka, the vice presidential nominee of the Green Party, similarly ignores any distinction between Islamist groups, claiming that the “problem for the Syrian people is that these moderates the west is supporting are Salafi-Wahhabi fundamentalists who reject representative democracy and support the imposition of sharia law in Syria.”

This statement bears all the hallmarks of US right-wing Islamophobia — the conflation of Salafism, whose adherents are largely apolitical, together with the extremism of ISIS and al-Qaeda; the denial of the right of self-determination for a people based upon their religious beliefs; and the use of “sharia law” as a scary catchphrase to justify state repression. If one were to transpose Baraka’s words into a Donald Trump speech, virtually no one would notice.

Analysis from left-wing activist groups is similarly Islamophobic. Taylor Goel, whose columns are published by the antiwar group ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), celebrates Syrian government attacks on Aleppo and “Sunni extremist terror groups like ISIS, the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and NATO backed FSA.” One of these groups is not like the other, but it seems too much of a task for Goel to differentiate between Syrian rebel groups with radically different ideologies. Fox News couldn’t either. Syrians themselves evidently recognize the distinctions, which accounts for their periodic infighting.

The anti-Islamist position of the pro-Assad left isn’t only uninformed but is also hypocritical. While Baraka scolds the Islamist character of the Syrian rebels, he condemns the United States for supporting a coup against Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The prospect of “sharia law” does not seem to be relevant in this case. Likewise, leftists do not accede when Israel justifies its atrocities in Gaza as self-defense against Hamas. Vijay Prashad shows no concern for the “Sunni extremist” makeup of the Palestinian opposition and correctly points out that the presence of Hamas cannot be used to defend Israeli atrocities:

All you can say, in bad faith, is Hamas, Hamas, Hamas.
You kill a child. Hamas. You bomb a school. Hamas. You bomb a UN building. Hamas. […]
For you Hamas has become a full-stop, an exclamation point, a digression, a shaggy dog, a golden ring, a do-not-go-to-jail card.

If one were to ask these pro-Palestinian intellectuals and activists if they support Hamas’s political program they would undoubtedly say that they do not but that having the “correct” political views is not a prerequisite for national liberation.

When it comes to Syria, leftists adhere to the racist framework that has dominated Western thought from John Stuart Mill to David Brooks: “barbarous nations” are not worthy of self-determination.

Between the Interventionists 

This criticism is not meant to endorse Western military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Further Western military intervention would be disastrous.

Hundreds of civilians have already been killed in coalition airstrikes. Almost none of these strikes have been directed at the Syrian regime, which calls into question the left-wing anxiety over “regime change” in Syria. Competing goals in Syria have rendered the Obama administration’s policy both ineffective and incoherent.

There are sensible policies that Western governments could undertake. More humanitarian aid could be dispersed, more rescue efforts could be undertaken in the Mediterranean, and more refugees could be welcomed, especially in the United States. None of these will end the conflict, but they will at least ease Syrian suffering without contributing to the violence.

The Assadist left supports intervention, but only so long as it comes from the Russian government. Stephen Kinzer goes so far as to publicly thank Russia. Commentators like him justify Russian intervention on the basis of its request by the Syrian government (I doubt these same leftists would have thought highly of US intervention in Vietnam, despite the request from the South Vietnamese government). And while the motives of US intervention are rightly questioned, Russia’s intervention is assumed to be in the service of a “diplomatic process” and the destruction of hardline groups like ISIS and al-Nusra, despite evidence to the contrary.

Unworthy Victims

Besides its Cold War frame and Islamophobia, the left’s Syria position has another aggravating factor: not listening to actual Syrians.

Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami assemble grim accounts of the early revolution in Burning Country. Police ripped out children’s fingernails, sit-ins were dispersed with live fire, hospitals were occupied by soldiers who detained or shot the wounded. All of this occurred before the opposition had fired a single shot.

Stephen Starr’s Revolt in Syria includes interviews with those from every stratum of Syrian civil society. The book opens with Red Crescent workers describing the difficulty of getting across regime checkpoints to tend to the wounded after a protest. But Revolt in Syria adds historical and sociological context to the revolution. Starr’s interviewees explain the antipathy that exists between wealthy Damascus and the rest of the country, the difficult position Syria’s minorities find themselves in, as well as the relationship between the stooges of the state and the civilian population. Starr’s consensus is that large public demonstrations in support of the regime are state-orchestrated and made up mostly of “school children, state employees,” and “young army conscripts.”

Support for the regime certainly exists, but the perspective of Syrians is out of step with the left-wing Assadist view of a unified Syria besieged by foreign terrorists. Of Syrians living in Syria today, 50 percent think that Assad is a negative influence on the direction of the country, a plurality believes that the regime’s foreign fighters have been worse than the opposition’s foreign fighters, and a majority prefers a political solution to the crisis.

Syrian refugees are even less favorable to Assad. Seventy-eight percent believe that Assad should step down, and 64 percent believe that a change in government is the “best solution to the crisis.”

The left’s incongruence with the opinion of the majority of Syrians is consequential. Syrians understandably refuse to work with those who deny their right to self-determination. Diaspora Syrians and leftists could potentially work together to open the United States to more Syrian refugees. But this is difficult if the left refuses to admit why these refugees are coming in the first place. How could Syrians join in demonstrations when their fellow demonstrators hoist portraits of their oppressor?

The Assadist apologetics of the left are not directly responsible for the suffering in Syria, but it stifles potential activism that could make changes on the margins, and above all, it adds insult to what is likely a multigenerational injury.


Correction: The author originally referred to Vijay Prashad as “pro-Assad.” Although Prashad no longer supports demands for Assad to step down he did issue his condemnation of the Assad regime in 2011.


Evan Sandlin is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Davis. He is studying the effect of US values on foreign aid through social and psychological mechanisms.

LARB Contributor

Evan Sandlin is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Davis. He is studying the effect of US values on foreign aid through social and psychological mechanisms.


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