What should the radical left do about Syria?

First, we need to recognize that this is a bad question.  We need to back up a bit, and recognize that the radical left (specifically, in the US) is in no position to do anything about Syria.  We’re weak, divided, confused, and largely isolated from the American masses.  We have depressingly little influence on domestic policy, let alone on how US imperialism functions abroad.  Most of our debates are academic and abstract.  Our protests — especially our anti-war protests — are reactive, and utterly disconnected to any kind of larger, coherent strategy around fighting imperialism and building a revolutionary movement.

With this in mind, the next step is to consider what would constitute an effective program around Syria.

The core plank of an effective program would be establishing and deepening concrete ties with people in Syria.  I’m not talking about re-Tweeting activists in Aleppo or helping “raise awareness” through interviews or whatever — I’m talking about actual coordination, planning, and resource transfer with organizations on the ground in and around Syria.  From this perspective, the most effective programs thus far have been 1) solidarity efforts with Rojava, such as fundraising for supplies and volunteering to fight, and 2) solidarity efforts with refugees, which have been particularly impressive in southern European countries like Greece.

Note that neither of these types of programs are immediately relevant to the main area of controversy and confusion among the radical left: the war in western Syria between rebel groups, Islamist paramilitaries, Hezbollah, the Assad regime’s army, and so on.  Indeed, there doesn’t appear to be any real connection between radical left groups in the West and groups in western Syria, like there is in northern Syria.  This basic fact is a big reason why so much of the debate about Assad and the rebels is dominated by superficial analysis about “supporting” sides that nobody is in any real position to support in the first place.  It is all an academic-style debate, isolated to social media, and of little consequence to the war.

It didn’t have to be this way.  The initial uprisings in Syria in 2011 had clearly popular and progressive dimensions.  People were forming radical networks of solidarity, autonomy, and democracy, mostly through the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC).  They opposed not only the authoritarian neoliberalism of the Assad regime, but also the elite liberal exiles in Europe, the reactionary religious forces backed by the Gulf states, and the prospect of Western military intervention.  These forces have since lost tremendous ground, getting killed, exiled, or co-opted by both the regime and by the Salafi-jihadists.  And given the realities of Syria’s geopolitical position — with Iran and Russia on one side, and the US, GCC and Turkey on the other — it was always going to be the case that progressive alternatives in Syria would get sidelined by reactionary forces with powerful foreign backers.

The only way this could have been avoided is if there was a strong and organized international left that constituted a geopolitical force in its own right, capable of supporting local allies against their enemies and undermining other geopolitical blocs from doing the same.  This would’ve required the organizational capacity to provide supplies, money, soldiers, and weapons to popular and progressive forces across Syria.  It would’ve also required strong transnational networks and organizations across the Middle East, with the capacity to stoke unrest and dissent (if not full-blown rebellion) against reactionary and imperialist policies in Russia, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and of course, the US.  In particular, its hard to think of any scenario in the Middle East where a revolution doesn’t get coopted by Salafi-jihadist groups, as long as the GCC monarchies remain stable and wealthy, and free from revolutionary class war.

Needless to say, we are a long ways off from having this level of organization.  But we’ve caught a glimpse of what this may look like with Rojava, where a transnational network centered around the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was able to mobilize networks across the Middle East and Europe to help consolidate and expand the position of radical leftists in northern Syria, and undermine reactionary policies in neighboring countries (particularly Turkey).  But that fight is far from over — the US is continuing to try to coopt the movement for its own imperial interests.  Preventing this requires the same framework as stated above — we need strong organizations and networks, coordination between people in Syria and in the US, ways to support left-wing groups in Rojava that seek to assert their autonomy against the US, Turkey, IS, etc., and tactics to undermine the ability of US imperialism to coopt projects by local leftists.

Let’s get bold and imaginative about this for a second.  There are currently quite a few US military personnel on the ground in northern Syria, who are working closely with the Kurds and their allies.  This includes not only special operations units, but conventional ground troops as well.  Could Rojava be turned into a point of politicization and radicalization for all these troops?  Some sources, like a Radio War Nerd interview with Jack Murphy of SOFREP, suggest that America’s policy in Syria (of backing multiple opposing sides, including fundamentalists) is making a lot of troops disgruntled; and simultaneously, many troops are deeply impressed with the militias of Rojava.  American radicals currently volunteering in the area could jump on this opportunity, connect with these troops, introduce radical left-wing ideas and relevant left-wing groups (i.e. Iraq Veterans Against the War), and potentially even raise the notion of defection if the US government ends up giving Erdogan and Turkey the green-light to invade and crush the Kurds and their allies.

But again, this would probably require a level of organization and competence that the American radical left is sorely lacking, let alone the American radical left in Syria.  Nonetheless, its good to think of these kinds of ambitious and far-reaching goals and strategies; it helps put our task in perspective.

PKK rally in Germany to get the group off the terrorist list, 2014

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