Letter to a friend about Syria

Hi Friend, It was really good to see you and your family yesterday. I hope we can hang out again soon. I am writing this letter because I feel the need to say something in response to this notion of “complexity” that you used in one of our conversations to characterize the situation in Syria.

Of course the situation in Syria is complex. All situations are complex. In fact, I’d say complexity is very much in the eye of the beholder. At one level, there are many different factions in the opposition, many different interests funding many different actors, etc. And by the way, exactly the same thing can been said about the 2nd intifada in Palestine: how were the various rebel groups funded? Well, it’s complicated – Hamas was probably being funded by Qatar and other Gulf states, as well as non-state actors in the Gulf. Fatah was being funded through Iran and Syria and Lebanon, including various state and non-state actors. And, Fatah had captured a lot of American weapons in the early days of the uprising, specifically in the north I know an entire armoury of PA weapons were captured by the resistance, under the orders of the main PA security commander in the area. Just as American weapons are now being used by many different actors in Syria, American weapons and American trained fighters fought on both sides of the 2nd intifada.

At another level, there is a single aggressor – a state power which refused reforms to respond to a popular revolution for dignity, which has decided there is no limit to the amount of force it is willing to use against its own population force them into submission. This decision is one dictators are sometimes forced to make – when the Iranian revolution began, the Shah made a principled choice to limit the amount of violence to be used against his own people, and decided to flea instead. Assad has made the opposite choice – to encourage the militarization of the opposition (through such things as releasing Islamist prisoners in droves, encouraging the worst elements of the opposition, and then calling anyone who opposes his rule “terrorists”) – and then to seek a unilateral military solution to the conflict. He is committing major war crimes daily, and with Iranian and Russian direct military support. At this point, the Syrian army is largely staffed by non-Syrian officers, simply because his original army has been so depleted. There are also many whole unites of Iranian and Russian forces operating in Syria. If not for Iranian and Russian support, his state terrorist army would have collapsed long ago.

So what is happening right now in Aleppo is not complicated, in my view. There are many sides, but the main criminal side is the Assad/Russian/Iranian aggressor attempting to re-take the city. Assad refuses a political settlement because he believes he can still pursue absolute military victory. More aid to the opposition, if it were to tip the balance away from the possibility of absolute victory for Assad, is the only thing that would force him to the negotiating table. That is why I believe, at this point, that it would be effectively right, and an anti-war, anti-war crime action to push for Canada to send military aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons to defend against Russian/Iranian/Assadist air strikes on Aleppo. In fact, we don’t even need to do this – because all that has to happen is for Obama to give the green light to the Gulf states to ship effective anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition in Syria. Yes, this will mean that bad people get ahold of powerful weapons, but it is also the only thing, short of western military intervention, that can stop the assault on Aleppo.

In the future we will look back at this moment and compare it to other great destructions of popular uprisings by fascist powers. The Warsaw uprising, where the Polish people independently stood up against the Nazis and were abandoned by Stalin and left to be destroyed by the fascists while the red army waited on the other side of the Volga, is an obvious comparison which people are not making today, but I believe they will make in the future.

I think that a lot of activism is “stupid” in the specific sense that it is reactionary – it allows itself to be overly determined by the thing it is opposing. Right now, the Iraq war remains the paradigmatic event through which leftists interpret how to oppose bad things – but, firstly, I think the left has an irresponsibly simplistic interpretation of what actually happened in the Iraq war, and secondly, the situation in Syria is really not very similar to the Iraq war (although parts of it are a product of that war – specifically the Islamist component – the fighters who formed ISIS are very much people who were created by the American occupation of Iraq and Assad’s sponsoring of the insurgency which included allowing Islamists from Afghanistan to come to Syria and cross into Iraq across the Syrian border). I think that when wars are happening, it’s irresponsible to be “anti war” in the sense of refusing to think about the situation militarily. I think a lot of people like to take simplistic anti-war and anti-militarism positions because it allows them to believe that they are a good person because they don’t even want to know about what the different weapons and actors in play are, what their interests are, what their loyalties are, etc. We want to say that anyone who ships weapons at all is evil, and the universal response to war is just to oppose weaponization. We forget that there would be no Russian revolution without German imperial support (including arms), no American revolution without French military support, no end to Apartheid in South Africa without Cuban military support, no end to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon without Iranian and Syrian military support to Hezbollah, or end to the occupation of the Sinai without Soviet military support, and the list goes on.

When leftists oppose military intervention and support as such, they conveniently ignore that virtually every leftist victory was conditional on some form of external support. When we tell revolting Syrians that they can’t accept weapons from Gulfies, or from the United States, or else we consider them pawns in “proxy wars”, we are holding them to a higher standard than we ever hold any historical actors to. This is not to say that Syrian opposition are all good people – that definitely not true. By the way, it also wasn’t true of the fighters in the Warsaw Uprising – many of them were chauvinistic nationalists who harboured anti-semitic tendencies. But they were fighting against fascist occupation. Assad’s position in Syria today has been argued by many Syrians to be equivalent to a kind of “occupation”, and also that his practices and beliefs are fascist. If Assad wins in Syria, if absolute domination of the regime is achieved by military force, the regime which will exist in Syria will make Belarus and North Korea look like liberal democracies.


Tristan Laing

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