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Support for Refugees means support for Assad? Confronting the pro-Assad left in Hamilton

On Saturday September 5th in Hamilton, at the Refugees Welcome rally organized by Sanctuary Hamilton, one of the speakers decided to use the opportunity to put forward his views in support of Syria’s Assad regime. Dismissing the millions of people who have participated in the Syrian revolution, from Aleppo to Rojava and from Zabadani to Raqqa, as “the so-called Syrian rebels” (the scare quotes are his), he went on to call for Canada to end its sanctions against the Assad regime and to re-establish diplomatic relations as ways of addressing the desparate situation of many refugees.

I think it’s important to respond to this for two reasons. Firstly, because it was totally innapropriate to inject that message into a non-sectarian rally calling on the federal government to do more for Syrian (and other) refugees. He was effectively blaming the Syrian people for their own displacement by labelling the movement against Assad the source of the problem. But more importantly, support for the Assad regime in leftist spaces is unfortunately not a marginal position. It often hides behind anti-war or anti-imperialist rhetoric, but there is a pro-fascist current within the left. With a blend of cherry-picking, conspiracy theories, and knee-jerk “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” reasoning, it’s possible to give speeches in support of this dictatorship, one that has killed over 200 000 Syrian people in the past four years (1), even while evoking the names of refugees who died while fleeing the regime’s violence (2).

It’s not my intention to focus on the person who spoke at the rally – he’s a long-time activist in Hamilton, we’ve collaborated on many issues, and, broadly speaking, I appreciate his work. Rather, I want to confront the tendency that he embodied, one that I consider unprincipled, a betrayal of solidarity, and based on a gross distortion of the facts on the ground in Syria. This tendency has been described as “the pro-fascist left” by Syrian anarchists who understand the policies of the Assad regime to fit almost any definition of that term (3). However, in this article focused on Syria, I will call it “the pro-Assad left”

In the binary worldview of the pro-Assad left, where any state whose rhetoric opposes the US and Israel is an anti-imperialist hero, these paragraphs are probably already enough for us to be considered supporters of imperialism and western hegemony. However, we must have enough room in our hearts to hate all our enemies – we can oppose imperialism while also opposing dictatorship. If we really believe in abolishing borders, as many of the chants and signs at Saturday’s rally would indicate, we need to oppose all coercive authority, whether it’s American, Assadist, Russian, or Canadian and find ways to be in solidarity across borders with people in struggle.

Which is why it’s so difficult to hear a speech describing the revolutionaries of Syria as American agents, who had no capacity to act until The Friends of Syria group gave them some night vision goggles or some other trivial piece of aid. The pro-Assad leftists want us to believe that the entire uprising can be understood as American provocation through armed gangs, exactly the same rhetoric the Assad regime has used to justify the slaughter of thousands in Homs, Jisr Al-Shughur, Douma, Dar’a, Aleppo, and elsewhere. But especially in its first year, the Syrian revolution has been very grassroots and decentralized, adopting a model of direct democracy based on local councils (4). This was by principle but also by necessity, as it faced brutal attacks in the street as well as abductions and assassination of activists, reaching a rate of several hundred arrests a day within the first three months of the uprising (5).

It’s true that we can find instances of people in the cities listed above calling for a no-fly zone or a military intervention by NATO. However, let’s not forget these calls were made while the cities were under seige by the regime. Jisr al-Shughur and Homs in particular were early targets of the regime’s strategy of militarizing the conflict – rebellious areas were surrounded, water, electricity, and food were cut off, and the area were shelled and bombed . Several thousand people were killed by the regime in each of those cities – in such a situation, when people cry out for outside support as a potential hope for survival, should we really fault them for calling out to NATO? It seems inhumanly callous to look at the seige and destruction of Homs, at all the courage that went into liberating, defending, and finally evacuating that city, and only hear the word “NATO” (6).

Canada, the US, and other countries bombing Syria and Iraq seems to only be making things worse for people on the ground, a situation that should come as no surprise to anyone with a conscience who remembers the last 25 years of the west bombing its way to freedom. It is certainly obvious to most revolutionaries in Syria – chants calling on Assad to take his armies to the Golan rather than kill his own people are more common than the ones calling for a no-fly zone, but the pro-Assad left conveniently ignores this.(7)

It should be obvious that dismissing the Syrian revolution with scare quotes and conspiracy theories is a gross distortion. But the conclusions the pro-Assad left draw from their narrative are even worse. Faced with the precarity and suffering of Syrian refugees, many people who have not paid much attention to the Syrian revolution and civil war are asking how this happened and what they can do.

Pro-Assad leftists are using this opportunity to push forward their false solutions in support of the Assad regime. In their binary world view, we can help by rehabilitating the international reputation of the Assad regime, calling for an end to sanctions and re-establishment of diplomatic ties.

But if we take as our starting point the struggles of grassroots movements in Syria rather than the rhetoric of states and politicians, we get a very different picture of why the massive uprising against Assad has come to such a desperate place. From the beginning, the pro-Assad left joined Syria and Russian state media in spinning the story of American-backed armed gangs and of Assad as some sort of pillar of multi-culturalism (8). They worked to conceal the broad base of support for the mobilizations from all segments of Syrian society and the role of Assad’s intelligence services in exaggerating the sectarian elements of the uprising (for instance, by putting up checkpoints to prevent movement between different neighbourhoods, then attacking one while spreading rumours about armed gangs in the other) (9).

The Assad regime wanted to transform the uprising into a civil war as quickly as possible, and the pro-Assad left collaborated in this. They succeeded in producing enough confusion that no meaningful international solidarity emerged on a grassroots level for the Syrian revolution. The actions of Western states, to which many pro-Assad leftists assign so much importance, were until very recently, token gestures – even the Friends of Syria group they like to rant about never provided more than empty promises and small amounts of equipment, with their meddling massively rejected by the Syrian street (10). This tendency has worked to equate grassroots solidarity with the Syrian revolution to the meddling of Western states, undermining international support and collaborating with the Assad regime. This is a deeply unpricipled position and it is totally in conflict with the positions they take on issues here in Canada. The person who spoke at the rally is unfortunately a great example of this, but so are many other pro-Assad leftists:

They are outspoken against persecution of dissidents by intelligence services here in Canada; and yet, they have no problem with dissapearances and torture carried out by the intelligence service in Syria.

They oppose media censorship and corporate control; and yet they uncritically accept the words of Syrian and Russian state media.

They try to confront neo-liberal capitalism in North America; but in Syria, land theft under the guise of economic restructuring are considered promising reforms (11).

They oppose environmental destruction and the poisoning of our land and water; but they make any excuse when the Assad regime deploys chemical weapons or cuts off access to water for rebellious cities.

They are active on issues of police brutality here; but in Syria, anyone beaten, tortured, or killed by the police is an American agent, a member of an armed gang (all hundred thousand of them).

They claim to be in solidarity with Palestinian human rights; but in the past four years, the Assad regime has tortured at least 400 Palestinians to death in its jails, killed thousands more in the streets, and kept Yarmouk Camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, under seige for years (12).

Why are our movements still making space for these views? Why do we have any sympathy at all for the pro-Assad left? I hope all radicals and people of conscience in Hamilton will ask themselves if supporting a fascist regime has anything in common with their goals or values. We need to confront this garbage and exclude it from our organizing.

The first step in doing that is to clarify our own politics and begin listening to the grassroots voices of a revolution that has been betrayed by those around the world who should have supported it from the beginning. Although it seems absurd to have to say this at all, but support for the Syrian revolution is not incompatible with opposition to the Canadian imperialism, NATO, and military intervention. I would hope our politics are nuanced enough to do away with the binaries. When we see another news article about the refugee crisis, remember that our greatest responsibility is our failure of solidarity – let’s not be paralyzed by inaction, but prepare to make different choices in the days and years to come.


1) As of June, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates the total number of fatalities at about 240 000; estimates made of the percentage of total casualties attributable to the regime have been about 85% during periods studied in 2014 and 2015. Applying that percentage to the total gives us about 200,000 people.

2) The Assad regime is by far the party most responsible for the refugee crisis. The refugee crisis in Syria began in early June 2011 when residents of Jisr Al-Shughur were beseiged and attacked by the regime after staging some protests. As the body count rose and the seige tightened, most inhabitants of the city fled, with over ten thousand crossing into Turkey by mid-month.

Yazbek, Samar. Trans Max Weiss. A woman in the crossfire. Haus Publishing, London. 2012.


3) Specifically, I draw on the analysis of Leila Al-Shami, the Tahrir-ICN collective, and Darth Nader

I’m avoiding insisting on the term “pro-fascist left” in this article because the term is usually used hyperbolically and isn’t well understood. However, it can be applied to the Assad regime in a very technical way. Some of the most obvious fascist aspects of the regime are: glossing over massive class disparities by maintaining a permanent state of patriotic war; centralizing economic control inside the regime so that it can co-ordinate with the overall military orientation of society; development of a romantic, ultra-nationalistic narrative of the recent and distant past; racist and sectarian policies designed to exclude, displace, or eradicate groups that don’t fit into this narrative; a cult of the leader that strongly ties his personal charisma to the strength of the army; a massive intelligence apparatus that operates without any oversight to neutralize all forms of dissent. The issue of pro-fascist leftism is much broader than just Syria though and needs to be confronted wherever it occurs.

4) As the armed struggle against the Assad regime has become broader, these principles are often not shared by the various armed groups; it’s also common for there to be protests against other armed groups, still articulating the revolutionary values that brought people into the street against Assad. For more analysis of the relationship between the grassroots revolutionary mobilizing and various armed elements:

For a great film documenting the anti-Assad social movement and its development into a multi-party armed conflict, check out Ecos del Desgarro:

5) For the rate of arrests: Yazbek, Samar. Trans Max Weiss. A woman in the crossfire. Haus Publishing, London. 2012.

Some analysis of incarceration of activists in Syria:

This facebook page tries to keep track of some of those dissapeared:

6) You can really just type the names of either of these cities into Google and get way more info than you probably want. But for a vivid depiction of the seige of Homs and attempts at resisting it (including desperate calls for western assistance while being bombed) check out Talal Derki’s film “Return to Homs”.

7) Even the victory in Kobane by the YPG/YPJ, the most publicized part of the bombing campaign so far, wasn’t decisively helped by the airstrikes. In fact, some people on the ground have mused, considering the low effectiveness of the strikes against Daesh, that their main purpose seems to have been reducing huge areas of the city to rubble. This would be in line with Turkey’s renewed belligerence against autonomous Kurdish communities in the region and the West’s longterm policy of exploiting Kurdish struggles for autonomy for their own ends. This is the perspective of many Turkish anarchists who participated in the battle or who observed from across the border:

8) Some writers have called this an alliance between imperialists and anti-imperialists, noting that Russia is no less an imperialist nation than the United States. Others stress that the US does not fundamentally have opposing interests to Assad – although perhaps they would like a stable dictatorship that was friendly towards them, such as in Egypt, they will accept a stable dictatorship that is hostile, but who successfully represses all political expression by its own people, even that against American imperialism or in support of Palestine. Either way, many anti-imperialists are in fact working in co-ordination with imperialist powers to deny solidarity to a popular uprising.

9) Samar Yazbek’s diaries of the first three months of the uprising are insightful here. She is an Alawite woman who participates fully in the mobilizations, alongside Christians, Druze, Kurds, and Sunni people. A constant in her story is the presence of sectarian military roadblocks set up to restrict access by residents of minority neighbourhoods to the protests. Since the regime draws its security forces primarily from minority communities (See Jonathan Littel’s Syrian Notebooks or Revolt in Syria by Steven Starr), it then relied on the security to whip up fears of imminent attack.

10) For instance, the talks brokered by the Friends of Syria group between the Assad regime and the Syrian National Council (the largely self-appointed group of former military officers and intellectuals) lead to nothing and contributed to the near-total loss of the SNCs legitimacy inside Syria.

When I say that until recently western support to the revolutionary groups was hollow, I mean until the start of the bombing campaign against Daesh. However, it seems that the primary benefit of this is to the Assad regime, especially because its strategy from the beginning was to transform a popular social uprising into a sectarian civil war in which it could be considered the lesser of evils.

11) Bashar al-Assad has overseen a series of neo-liberal reforms designed to modernise the economy. Like elsewhere in the world, this has resulted in mass displacement and increased inequality. The spin-off of government corporations, lands, and services into private entities further consolidated Syria’s wealth in the Assad family while reducing the resiliency and security of the huge majority of the population. Consider Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s brother-in-law and Syria’s wealthiest man, who controls about 60% of the total economy through his business interests. He has been a frequent target of protestors – one of the earliest protests in Dar’a, before the massacre there, targetted Syriatel, a Syrian telecom company that he owns, and the protest anthem Yalla Irhal ya Bashar singles him out as a friend of the Americans.

12) To be clear, we don’t have any sympathy for the Israeli state or the Zionist project. In spite of the occasional fiery speech, the Assad regime has been a good friend and neighbour to Israel for many years, cracking down on Palestinian resistance, repressing domestic solidarity movements, censoring media communications, and generally helping to maintain the status quo that allows Israel to steal continuously more Palestinian land. In her essay “Nasrallah’s Blood Soaked Road to Jerusalem”, Budour Hassan points out that Palestinians killed by the Assad regime are ignored by the world because they had the misfortune of suffering at the hands of the wrong perpetrator:

Talal Alyan writes about the seige of Yarmouk camp:

Alyan’s Twitter feed is a good place to go for more information about the Assad regime’s war against the Palestinian diaspora: