Taking Sides: The Western Left and Syria

Over the course of the Syrian Civil War, many groups in the Western Left have taken an array of positions regarding the conflict. In particular, a tendency towards campism has lead to several groups voicing support for the Assad regime. Among these, the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Workers World party have been some of the most outspoken proponents of this “anti-imperialist” position. This  seems to have gained some traction on the Left, seeing as Green Party vice presidential candidate Ajamu Bakara has taken this stance. This uncritical support for a capitalist state from groups and individuals who claim to be Marxist is concerning, to say the least.

On the other hand, a wave of enthusiasm has swept through anarchist and socialist circles over the the supposed “revolution” taking place in Rojava. Reminscent of the international left’s reaction to the syndicalist takeover in Catalonia, leftists have flocked to the banner of the YPG, PKK, and democratic confederalism. Some have even gone so far as to travel to Rojava to  participate in the fighting.

Both of these positions stem from a poor analysis of the class nature of the conflict and of imperialism as a system. An idealized perception of nationalist conflicts is a direct result of this innacurate take on geopolitics. It is important to examine these inaccuracies in order to identify the theoretical flaws in both stances.

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One of the first assumptions of campist groups like the PSL and ANSWER Coalition (a PSL front) is that the Western powers constitute the international imperialist bloc. While it is true that the West remains dominant geopolitically, imperialism isn’t just a group of nations. Imperialism is a global system, and all nations function as components of that system, working to exploit the international proletariat. To a certain extent, there is a cooperation between states to extract maximum profits through this systematic exploitation. Conflict between states doesn’t become an anti-imperialist struggle simply because one state is larger or more powerful.

“Anti-imperialism” primarily foucuses on opposing regime change and intervention. This is all well and good, but proponents often lapse into nationalistic rhetoric, speaking of “national sovereignity” and “self-determination”. This is a completely anti-Marxist position, for it relegates class struggle to a secondary importance, instead emphasizing collaboration between local bourgeoise and workers in order to defeat foreign forces. In the end, all this can possibly achieve is to expand the economic autonomy of the local borugeoise, allowing them to further exploit the working people who fought with them against the “imperialist” agressors.

We see a similar trend with those who claim to stand with the Kurds in Rojava. Failing to understand the sectarian nature of the conflict, they idealize the situtation, claiming that a social revolution is taking place in northern Syria. Regardless of what empty ideological rhetoric the YPG and PKK espouse, the fact of the matter is their intention is to carve out a new Kurdish state from the ashes of the crumbling Syrian regime. Whether you call it national liberation or nationalism, the war in Rojava is not a class war.

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Emerging out of this pro-Rojava sentiment comes a worrisome fetishization of militarism, and to a certain extent, military women. It is common to find users on leftist internet forums drooling over images of Kurdish women with guns and fatigues. While ostensibly coming from a well-intentioned support of female empowerment, it becomes an objectifying and de-humanizing process in which Westerners who have little to no knowledge of what is really happening on the ground project their own fantasies of an ideal “lefitst” woman on to these people. In general, the glorification of sectarian, militaristic groups greatly distorts the realities of the situation.

If one is to maintain a position on Syria that is based on a Marxist analysis, one must refrain from the ideological opportunism that has become rampant amongst the Western Left. This isn’t an athletic event, where we have the luxury of choosing teams for superficial reasons. Let us stand with the workers of Syria in their struggle to free themselves from the oppressive yoke of capitalism, instead of picking sides in a sectarian conflict. The delusions of “anti-imperialism” and national liberation must be cast aside if we are to take a principled stance on Syria.

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