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Dennis Kucinich and the western left's blind spot over Syria

Essentialist anti-imperialists in the West conveniently overlook Assad's brutal opportunism towards religious extremism

On 12 April 2017, Dennis Kucinich, the former Democratic congressman who has met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad several times, was interviewed by The Intercept’s "Intercepted" podcast and was asked a rather simple question: “Isn’t Assad also a butcher who has mercilessly killed civilians?”

What Kucinich and others will never accept is that it is in Putin’s self-interest to promote his own 'war on terror' narrative in Syria just as George W Bush promoted his in Iraq

Rather than adopt what thousands of Syrian activists have been saying for six years or read the countless reports by Syrian and international human rights organisations and reply with a simple "yes", Kucinich, who is still called upon to keynote liberal activist conferences, declared that Assad was defending his own country against a foreign invasion of jihadis. He then engaged in what can only be described as barely restrained glorification of the Assad regime, and of Assad personally.

Now, to those who have adopted the reductive "essentialist anti-imperialist" narrative that only sees Western countries as agents of imperialism and which, therefore, exonerates or even supports the atrocities of "anti-Western" tyrannies, Kucinich could be regarded as a hero, and a brave one at that. He is speaking against the system, speaking truth to power.

But among the many things that Kucinich and his supporters conveniently omit is the fact that the Assad regime is neither anti-imperialist, nor opposed to religious extremism. As more sober observers have pointed out time and time again, the Assad regime has always sought to instrumentalise both imperialism and religious extremism whenever it was convenient for it to do so.

Assad and the neocons

In the post-9/11 years, when the US government wanted "terror suspects" to be tortured in secret locations, the "anti-imperialist" Assad regime happily obliged.

In fact, one of his most well-known Western victims was also interviewed in that same episode of "Intercepted": Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar. Arar was kidnapped by the US government in 2002, sent to Jordan and then driven across the border into the hands of the Assad regime. The Assad regime kept Arar for a whole year, and repeatedly tortured him.

Months after he arrived home from Syria, Maher Arar plays with his children Baraa Arar, 7 (L), and Houd Arar, 2, in his home 14 January 2004 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (AFP)
The Canadian government ended up apologising to Arar, but to this day, not only has the US government never apologised, but it has not removed him from its No Fly List, meaning that he cannot travel to the US. Given his experience, it should come as no surprise that Arar himself, aware of the inherent hypocrisy in these highly selective "anti-imperialists", has been calling them out for years.

And even if we put aside the Russian and Iranian elephants in the room, have these "anti-imperialists" already forgotten that Assad welcomed US troops "to fight terrorism" as recently as February 2017? The Shabiha slogan "Assad or we burn the country" is meant literally. Assad has never hesitated to sell country and soul to maintain his father’s throne.

Recently, the Russian state-run media outlet Sputnik quoted Assad as saying that “the Syrian government has reached contracts with a number of Russian oil and gas companies and will continue to do so”. It also quoted Assad as saying that “China can take part in reconstruction work in every sector of Syria's economy”.

This, again, should come as no surprise as Assad accelerated the process of neoliberalisation and privatisation of Syria’s economy started by his father, Hafez Assad.

Working with militants

As for the notion that the Assad regime is waging war on religious extremism, one can simply point to the fact that the regime released a number of high-profile Islamists from Saydnaya prison in 2011, an operation directly overseen by the notorious General Security Directorate, while it accelerated the arrests and murder of secular activists throughout the country.

This follows the Assad regime’s well-documented collaboration with and support of Islamist militants during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. To quote one analyst: “Syria became the principal point of entry for foreign jihadists hoping to join the Iraqi insurgency.” 

Among the released were: Zahran Aloush, commander of Jaysh Al-Islam; Abdul Rahman Suweis of the Liwa al-Haq; Hassan Aboud of Ahrar Al-Sham; and Ahmad Aisa al-Sheikh.

Saydnaya is just one of the many gulags employed by the Assad regime to exterminate the Syrian population that do not belong to what he called 'useful' Syria

Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2015, the Assad regime hanged up to 13,000 people, many of whom were well-known revolutionary activists and humanitarian workers, in Saydnaya prison in what Amnesty International described as a "calculated campaign of extrajudicial executions by mass hangings".

And Saydnaya is just one of the many gulags employed by the Assad regime to exterminate the Syrian population that do not belong to what he called "useful Syria", the term used to denote the areas that the regime (and Russia and Iran) considers strategically useful but which can also be used to describe the "ideal Syrian" in Assad’s eyes - obedient subjects.

This, as Leila al-Shami has explained, shows that “the Syrian regime has employed violence, sectarianism and Machiavellian tactics to try and derail the revolution, defame its supporters and strengthen fringe jihadi movements”.

To name but one example of the impact of these releases: Jaish al-Islam kidnapped the famous activists and staunch secularists Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Al-Khalil, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi, now known as the "Douma Four", in December of 2013. Recently, Jaysh al-Islam temporarily shut down the activities of civic groups in Douma, among which was the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC). This was not just oppressive but highly symbolic since the Douma Four worked with the VDC, which Zaitouneh founded.
These regime tactics are designed to overwhelm pro-democracy and secular opposition groups, forcing them into defensive mode, while empowering, directly and indirectly, more conservative and authoritarian groups. And this method has proved to be very effective. Assad’s narrative of "it’s either me or the jihadis" has gained followers, from the far-right to the "radical" left. 

Furthermore, one can also point out the even more obvious fact that, in addition to Russia, the Assad regime is almost entirely dependent on Iranian-backed sectarian jihadis from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan for its survival. As recently as October 2016, Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah marked the yearly religious Ashura commemoration by declaring the continuation of its "jihad" in Syria. 

Reality out the window

By saying "what choice" does Assad have, Kucinich revealed one essential belief: the Assad regime, as representative of a sovereign (but Iran and Russia-dependent) state has the right to "self-defence".

Or, to quote far-right personality, Richard Spencer, who put it more honestly: “Does anyone who accuses Assad of 'war crimes' actually want to argue that sovereign states have no right to suppress rebellions?” Unlike Kucinich, Spencer does not deny that Assad is suppressing a rebellion - ie, a popular movement, not a foreign conspiracy. He is simply fine with it.

It is no longer the dynamics of post-2011 Syria that matters, but rather the domestic politics of the left-wing observer 

As we have seen time and time again over the past few years, the main difference between the far-right and much of what is erroneously referred to as "the left" regarding Syria is that the former do not shy away from stating their beliefs clearly.

But it doesn’t end there. The fact that Kucinich could not answer a question about ongoing events without mentioning 9/11 reveals another symptom of the malaise in today’s anti-war left: by applying the same impulses fostered during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and simply transplanting them to 2011-2017 Syria, one inevitably abandons any loyalty towards reality.

Under such conditions, it is no longer the dynamics of post-2011 Syria that matters, but rather the domestic politics of the left-wing observer who, despite meaning well, looks at complexity and simplifies it to fit his or her own political priorities.

The result erases Syrian agency and paints the whole area of the Middle East and North Africa with the colours of geopolitics. This is not done just by "analysts" working at think tanks, but by activists as well.

Outdoing Bush

It is supposed to be a basic truism by now that just because one’s enemy says something, it does not make that something false. Putin accepting the reality of man-made climate change does not make climate change a hoax. In the realm of facts, empirical evidence matters.

What Kucinich and others will never accept is that it is in Putin’s self-interest to promote his own "war on terror" narrative in Syria just as George W Bush promoted his in Iraq. The difference is that we, in the "left", refused to accept Bush’s war on terror narrative, and resisted its normalisation, regardless of how much we disliked components of the anti-US resistance. In Syria, however, we have outdone Bush himself.

What is extraordinary about the Khan Sheykhoun massacre is that it was nothing out of the ordinary

This is why it is very easy for a Richard Spencer to speak of the "right" of nation states to crush rebellions. It is not Spencer’s worldview that is worrying here - it is to be expected - but rather the fact that it does not sound that different from the worldview of many people on the left. In other words, that worldview has already been normalised.

When we abandon the most fundamental understanding of what human rights - the right to liberty, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of movement, and so on - are and should be, we abandon them to power structures that will almost always want to reduce or destroy them.

Kucinich then went on Fox News to say that there was no evidence that Assad committed the latest sarin gas attack. He also denied that Assad committed the notorious 2013 Ghouta massacre as well as denying that Assad has ever used chemical weapons in Syria. This ignores the past six years of Assad’s actions in Syria, including every single well-documented chemical attack. Indeed, what is extraordinary about the Khan Sheikhun massacre is that it was nothing out of the ordinary.

It was not fundamentally different from when Assad bombed the UN convoy in September of 2016, which the UN determined to be deliberate and therefore a war crime. It is not even different from any of the other chemical attacks committed by the regime. In October of 2016, the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism “declared the Syrian regime responsible for three chemical attacks that took place between 2014 and 2015.” And these are just three of many more.

There were at least nine documented chemical attacks since the beginning of 2017 alone, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a UN-certified Syrian documentation source. The SNHR has documented 137 uses of chemical weapons since UN Resolution 2118, adopted on 27 May 2013.

The only major difference between the Khan Sheikhun massacre and the others is that the former received media attention and, especially, a US government response.

Again, the pattern is clear: what matters is not the number of Syrian civilians murdered or how and why they were murdered, but how "we" react to them. In other words, rather than support those resisting it, the Assad regime’s destruction of Syrian agency is being assisted by many "analysts" and "activists".

If anti-authoritarian leftists want to take part in the fight against tyranny and extremism, they must be humble enough to accept that context matters, that things do not happen in a vacuum, and that it is not only about the West. Syrians’ right to narrate their own experiences must be given primacy. These are not mere details, and failure to do so inevitably puts us on the de facto side of the oppressors.

- Joey Ayoub is the MENA editor at Global Voices as well as a Lebanese researcher from Beirut currently living in London. He is the founder of Hummus For Thought and mostly writes on Syria, Israel-Palestine and Lebanon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) speaking with US Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich during a meeting in Damascus, 02 September 2007. (AFP/SANA)

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