Anti-imperialism: its contested relevance for Syria solidarity

The Syrian revolution received little solidarity from the progressive Left across the world due to the anti-imperialist track record of the Assad regime. What is that record and how much importance should we give it?


Thomas Pierret

The reluctance of much of the worldwide Left to support the Syrian revolution derives to a great extent from notions of anti-imperialism, primarily in its most caricatural form known as campism: the idea that any kind of regime deserves to be supported if it stands in the “camp” of countries that oppose US hegemony. While Islamophobia, racism, and sectarianism also played a role, anti-imperialism formed the primary lens through which Leftists interpreted the conflict. Through this lens, the conflict appeared as one between a regime with a long record of opposing US-Israeli hegemony in the Middle East, and an opposition supported by Western states and their regional allies.

This perception shaped Leftist takes on the Syrian revolution very early on: by November 2011, for instance, Columbia professor in Modern Arab Politics, Joseph Massad suggested that Syrians should put an end to their revolt because the revolution’s leadership was now assumed by “Gulf dictators and the United States.” A few days later, Syria was suspended from the Arab League, a move which Massad interpreted as the harbinger of a Libya-style military intervention. More fundamentally, however, his reasoning was premised on Syria’s position within the regional order, and the assumption that its line on foreign policy could “not always be guaranteed to serve Western interests.”

In reply to the campist lens employed by western Leftists, a common critical response has been to challenge the anti-imperialist credentials of the regime.

Leftist dismissal of the Syrian revolution has elicited numerous critical responses from Syrian and non-Syrian authors. The latter have drawn up a long list of fallacies and contradictions produced by the Leftist-campist stance on Syria. For instance, it has been argued that Leftists give precedence to geopolitical rivalries over domestic struggles, and thereby extend solidarity to states rather than to the people slaughtered by states. This implies a denial of agency to Syrians and views them as mere pawns in great-power rivalries. Further, the Left in the west has been critiqued for inconsistently condemning foreign military intervention in Syria. When such interventions were not directed against the regime – as was the case for US support for the Kurdish PYD and with the establishment of an Iranian-Russian protectorate over the Assad regime – there was either silence or open support. It also has been argued that the Left’s lack of solidarity for Syrian revolutionaries implicitly promotes a conservative approach to political change that favors top-down, cosmetic reforms over bottom-up, genuine revolutionary transformation, which many Leftists have dismissed as “regime change.” Finally, Leftists have been critiqued for ignoring the class dimension of the Syrian conflict, which has pitted a crony-capitalist regime against a rebellion whose mass centers on underprivileged social strata.

All these critiques are fair and correct. However, in reply to the campist lens employed by western Leftists, a common critical response has been to challenge the anti-imperialist credentials of the regime. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, one of the most eloquent detractors of the campist stance on Syria, insists, for example, that “nothing within the Assadist state (…) is truly anti-imperialist, even if we define imperialism as an essence nestled in the West”. In my view, however, on balance, the Syrian regime’s foreign policy can be correctly classified as deriving from an anti-imperialist ideology. But I also argue that this does not bear relevance to the regime’s legitimacy in the face of its policy of mass murder.

To support the claim that the Syrian Baath regime was not anti-imperialist in nature, al-Haj Saleh and others point, firstly, to the calm that reigned on the Syrian-Israeli ceasefire line between 1974 and 2011. Secondly, they mention Hafez el-Assad’s participation in the US-led multinational coalition against Iraq during the Kuwait crisis of 1990-91. And Damascus’ involvement in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme after the 9/11 attacks is referenced. All of this is correct, but the Assad regime’s overall track record of being a spoiler, rather than a facilitator, of US-Israeli hegemony in the Middle East remains strong.

Over the last 50 years, there were only two episodes of genuine cooperation between Syria and the United States. The first one occurred in the mid-1970s, when Richard Nixon made the first ever US presidential visit to Syria, and was short-lived, as Washington listed Syria as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” in 1979. The second one spanned a decade, starting with the Gulf War in the early 1990s and ended with a failed summit between Bill Clinton and Hafez el-Assad in 2000. However, this decade of relatively friendly ties was marred from 1996 onwards by growing Syrian-Israeli tensions following the election of Benyamin Netanyahu.

There is only one issue with which the progressive Left should concern itself for the time being, namely, the fact that Syria is ruled by a “state of extermination”.

During the 2000s, Damascus’ attempt to appease the Bush administration by torturing detainees on behalf of Washington did not prevent the unprecedented deterioration of bilateral relations, resulting from Syria’s logistical support for the anti-US insurgency in Iraq after 2003. In the meantime, the US repeatedly imposed economic, diplomatic, and, on one occasion, military sanctions on Syria, the latter consisting of a 1983 US airstrike on Syrian positions in Lebanon. In the 1990s, Damascus consistently supported hardline Palestinian factions, even while it was negotiating with Israel, and it became the logistical rear base of Hezbollah, the most significant military threat faced by Israel today. Although, as is often repeated, Syria did not fire a single shot across the Golan Heights for four decades, Damascus’ hostile stance towards Israel owed it to be bombed twice by the Hebrew state (in 2003 and 2007) during the decade that preceded the revolution.

These are the historical facts. Yet, my point here is not that the “argument from anti-imperialism” is right or wrong, but rather that it is irrelevant. In my view, there is only one issue with which the progressive Left should concern itself for the time being, namely, the fact that Syria is not ruled by a mere dictatorship but, as al-Haj Saleh puts it, by a “state of extermination”. What is meant here is that the war of extermination waged by the regime against the Syrian people since 2011 is not an accident of history, but rather a necessary consequence of the regime’s very nature.

Three features set the Syrian regime apart from other authoritarian systems, making it more prone to engage in mass-murder. The first is its “sultanistic” character. That is, patrimonial domination of the ruling clan over the centres of executive power, through the hereditarily transmitted presidency and key command positions in the armed forces. The second feature is the sectarian distribution of power within the regime, as virtually all genuine decision-makers – the president and armed-forces officers – belong to the Alawite minority. The third feature is foreign – Soviet/Russian and Iranian – patronage, which has endowed Syria with immense, even if now outdated, military resources. By 2011, it was estimated that the Syrian army owned a thousand more pieces of artillery than its Egyptian counterpart. More critically, foreign support turned into direct military intervention when regime survival was at stake, resulting in even greater violence against civilians.

Failure to grasp the specificity of the Syrian regime explains much of Leftist short-sightedness on the current conflict. First, as the regime is misunderstood as just another dictatorial regime, the scale of violence witnessed over the last decade has been wrongly explained as the regime fighting off imperialist onslaught. Secondly, ignorance of the regime’s sultanistic-sectarian nature underlies wrongful claims of (even well-wishing) Leftists that the opposition should have sought a negotiated compromise with the regime. This notion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the reality that sultanistic-sectarian rule is not shareable.

Putting an end to Syria’s state of extermination is the only struggle that should concern progressive Leftists when it comes to the Syrian regime. It is a matter of life and death for millions in Idlib today, and since Assad seems poised to finally win this war, it will be a matter of life and death for the next generation of Syrians too. A future popular uprising will be met with the same mass-murder, because the regime is congenitally unable to do otherwise. Only if that future revolution succeeds will it become legitimate, perhaps, for Leftists to concern themselves with the country’s position within geopolitical rivalries.


Thomas Pierret is a senior researcher at the Institute of Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds (IREMAM) of the French National Centre for Scientific Research. His books include Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2013). He tweets at @ThomasPierret