On Syria: Where the Left is right and the Right is wrong

Both the Left and the Right in Syria are “statists” – power hungry, reaching to gain control of the state apparatus.

Syrians, like other Arabs, no longer fear their rulers [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – When the Green Movement started in Iran in June 2009, there was a recalcitrant fraction of the Left (taken in a very generic sense) that went on a rampage against it and denounced the civil rights uprising as a Saudi-US plot to dismantle the Islamic Republic and appease Israel and pave the way for neoliberal imperialism. “I am only for revolutions that make Israel angry,” one such sophomoric detractor of the Green Movement famously said at the time. “If Israel is happy with an uprising I am not happy.” 

More than two years after the Green Movement and a year into the Arab Spring, the selfsame segment of the Left faces an even more crippling dilemma trying to formulate a sensible position vis-à-vis the bloody drama in Syria. 

The dilemma that this component of the Left faces in Syria is rooted in a more fundamental failure to read the Arab Spring in general – for if they denounced the Green Movement because the US had allocated some millions of dollars for “regime change” in Iran, that sum was peanuts compared with the money that the US had invested in the Egyptian army, and that the Saudis had in ensuring the Islamists had the upper hand in post-Mubarak Egyptian elections. So what to do with the Egyptian revolution? Dismiss the whole thing just because the US and the Saudis were trying to control its outcome?   

To be fair and to understand the predicament of the Left vis-à-vis the Arab Spring in general and the Syrian uprising in particular, we must first have a clear conception of the Right (understood equally in a generic sense) – to which the Left is in part reacting. 

Syrian activists mobilise around Assad’s power base

No left turn

The position of the Right is now self-evident: the Syrian regime is a murderous tyranny, it is butchering its own citizens, and “the international community” (by which they mean the US, its European and regional allies, through their machinations at the UN, the GCC and the Arab League) must intervene to prevent the bloodbath, and any one raising the slightest question about that narrative is an accomplice in the murderous acts of Bashar al-Assad. That the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia are actively involved in dismantling the Syrian regime for and to their own advantage either does not enter the calculations of the Right, or if it does, it is a plus. 

Anyone critical of the US-Saudi design for the region in general, or for Syria in particular, the Right accuses of being in cahoots with the ruling regime in Syria and/or Iran. People are risking their lives against tyranny, they charge on their high moral horses, and the Left is not allowed to assume a “puritanical position” and pass judgment on what is right or wrong for these uprisings. The UN and the bomber of NATO and the US must be encouraged to do the job and get rid of these tyrants. For them, NATO and US forces are forces of good, and these local tyrants are evil. The US must liberate these people and set them free. 

The distinguished post-colonial feminist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak used to have a phrase quite befitting these folks and their politics: “White Men saving Brown Women from Brown Men.” 

To be sure – the self-serving chicanery of this position of the Right that is either morally blind or intellectually challenged is incapable of seeing the hypocrisy of the US/NATO position, cherry picking their “humanitarian intervention” – a fact which boils people’s blood – and thus encouraging the rush to the position that the Left now assumes. 

But that tit for tat is a useless tautology and will not help clarify the fault lines of the Left beyond its current dilemma.    

The centre cannot hold

There can be little doubt that US, European, Israeli, Saudi and other Gulf states’ special forces and financing are at work in covert operations in Syria, pulling and pushing the uprising in their own directions and for their own advantages. The gloves are now in fact completely off and the Saudis have come out clean that they must arm (meaning they have been arming) the Syrian rebels.
“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” the colloquial American saying goes in the realm of economics – and in politics too, there ain’t no such thing as a free Uzi. The hand that giveth the Uzi today, taketh back a share of post-Assad politics tomorrow.
But the Right is not only silent about such manipulations of a revolutionary uprising, but in fact, approves and endorses it – for them, the Libyan episode has been quite appetising, entirely oblivious or even dismissive of the post-Gaddafi atrocities that has prompted the critical intervention of (among others) Trinity College professor, Vijay Prashad, who has recently observed

There is a serious need to evaluate what has happened in Libya as a result not only of the Gaddafi atrocities, of the rise of a rebellion, but also significantly of the nature of the NATO intervention. And that evaluation has not happened … I’m afraid that is really calling into question the use of human rights as a lubricant for intervention. If we can’t go back and evaluate what has happened, I think a lot of people around the world are afraid of going forward into another intervention, where the lessons of Libya have not been learned. 

The Right dismisses all this as leftist hogwash, and in response to this outright hypocrisy or blatant imperialism of the Right, the position of the Left becomes even more entrenched, and thus morally ambivalent and intellectually challenged: Yes, the Syrian regime might be corrupt and murderous, they consent, but the real danger to the Syrian revolution comes from the US and Saudi Arabia – so they remain at best ambivalent and at worst silent on the criminal Syrian regime. If anyone dares to point to Assad’s murderous spectacle, they accuse him/her of complacency with the US and Saudi Arabia, or else a mere simpleton manipulated by “the Western media”.   

Syria holds referendum amid violence

The Left contends that what started as genuine protests has now been hijacked by “extremist Sunni groups” inside Syria and by outside forces that extend from the US to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and by extension, the Gulf states – all lining up against Iran and Hezbollah, which, for them, is evidently the forefront of resistance against imperialism. Some on the Left who approve of the Arab Spring even suggest that the Arab revolutionaries ought to develop a strategic alliance with the ruling regime in the Islamic Republic. Yes, they say, the regime in Iran might be murderous towards its own citizens, but it is standing up to imperialism. Again: the moral depravity of the position is informed by its political illiteracy. 

Now even al-Qaeda (whatever that means) has entered the scene and wants to have a piece of the action. Ayman al-Zawahiri recently issued a video, denouncing Assad and urging Muslims to revolt against him – which fact has given even more reason to the Left to denounce the Syrian uprising altogether. Now that even Hamas has dissociated itself from the murderous Assad regime and sided with the Syrian revolutionaries, the Left is left hanging out to dry, wondering what to do or say about a world that is changing so fast that has left them chasing after their own tail.   

Beyond the clichés

The problem with both these positions – Left and Right – is that they speak from a position of power or counter-power – from a statist position, a 100-metre spree to grab hold of the state apparatus and replace it as it falls. The Right speaks from behind the US-Israeli guns and from behind the Saudi bank accounts, and the Left speaks from a position of resisting that power and wishing to support an existing, evolving or emerging state apparatus that can ensure that resistance. The Assad regime is falling, and now we have a rush to get hold of the state apparatus, the military in particular. What the Left and the Right share is their identical statism, because, for them, these entire Arab revolutions are about taking control of the state apparatus, of state power, of steering (or more accurately trying to steer) the falling regimes of power to their own direction. 

Categorically absent from the calculations of both the Left and the Right are the people, the real people, ordinary people, those who occupy the public space, people it, own it. For the Left and the Right, these people are mere puppets that are either used, abused for facilitating the US-Saudi machinations, or else duped into revolutionary uprising that has been hijacked from them. Neither the Left nor the Right has the slightest trust, confidence, or even a politically potent conception of the public space that ordinary people physically and normatively occupy. 

Suppose Bashar al-Assad falls tomorrow, the Saudi and the Americans succeed in establishing a puppet regime and resume business as usual – is that the end of Syrians’ uprising? Is that what the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square are all about? Now, suppose Russia, China and the Islamic Republic manage to keep Assad in power, is that the end of the Syrian uprising? 

No: the revolutions have just started. 

Inside Syria – Is Syria’s uprising being hijacked?

The fundamental flaw of both the Left and the Right is that – one from intellectual limitation and the other out of moral deprivation – they have no ground-up conception of what it is that is unfolding in front of their eyes and we call the Arab Spring. They are both statists – power hungry, reaching to gain control of the state apparatus, or what Max Weber called “external means” of any state, its violent means of domination, forgetting what in the same sentence Weber called the necessity of “inner justification” on part of the people subject to those external means. Syrians, like all other Arabs from Morocco to Bahrain and down to Yemen, as indeed Iranians before and along with them in the rest of the Muslim world, have lost that “inner justification” and no “external means” – provided by the US/Saudis or by Russia/Islamic Republic – can force them into obedience. 

Open-ended revolutions are what we are witnessing in the Arab world – and open-ended revolutions mean people matter, mean the Egyptians are still out in Tahrir Square, and they mean that these states, however they turn out and are manufactured by external machinations, need a populace to rule – and that populace will never be subject to one or another sort of tyranny or treachery.

The Saudis and the Islamic Republic, as with the US and the Russians/Chinese, can perform all their machinations – but resistant and defiant will remain the Syrian people – and their open-ended revolution, which is integral to the Arab Spring. 

They say you can conquer a land on horse, but you must descend in order to rule it – the same is true about Syria: From the US and Israel to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and then from Russia and China to the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah, there certainly are many machinations at work to conquer Syria. But when all the dust is settled and these mighty machinations end, the new conquerors must come down to rule it – and when they do, they will find themselves facing the indomitable spirit of the people that have left their inner dungeons of fear – and who will never ever again be subject of either domestic tyranny or external treachery. Syrians have already won their revolution – for the next tyrants now wishing to conquer Syria will come down from their horses, facing a nation refusing to be frightened or fooled into obedience. 

The Arab Spring has unleashed the power of ordinary people and staged the public space they occupy and the civic associations they will eventually and inevitably form on that space. The Arab Spring has already given birth to a robust revolutionary gemeinschaft that will stay with these societies no matter who and what is in power. Unbeknown to the political machinations that have divided the Left and the Right, people of Syria – as indeed people from across the Arab and Muslim world – are dispelling their agoraphobia and realising the power of their communal gatherings. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His forthcoming book, The Arab Spring:  The End of Postcolonialism is scheduled for publication from Zed in May 2012.