The prevailing Western discourses about Syria are fundamentally flawed, and should be discarded in favor of "new, emancipatory" alternatives, writes Yassin al-Haj Saleh.
Dedicated to Kelly and Steve.
In the West today—and, consequently, around the world—there are three dominant discourses about Syria (and the Middle East more generally). The first is geopolitical; the second culturalist or civilizationist; and the third might be called top-down anti-imperialist.
In analyzing these three, along with the ways in which Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime and its followers benefit from them, this article aims to uncover a deeper structural-discursive pattern concerning the destruction of Syria. There is no need to assume malevolent intentions or conspiratorial schemes, but it is also not simply a matter of unintended mistakes, miscalculations, or neglect. A deeper logic is at work; one closely tied to the structures of Western interests in, and perceptions about, Syria and the Middle East. To bring this to light may also help bring Syria and Syrians back into the discussions from which we have largely been excluded since the moment the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, in spite of our intimate knowledge of oppression, violence, and the experience of being silenced.
The first discourse—the geopolitical—is promoted by states, mainstream think tanks, and media outlets. It speaks in terms of states: presidents and governments; war and diplomacy; special envoys from the US, Europe, and the UN; and the “Middle East conflict,” or conflicts. Over the last three decades, the content of this discourse has shifted from the Arab-Israeli struggle and “peace process,” which dominated up until the early 1990s, to the “War on Terror,” which has prevailed ever since. The latter is trans-national, but its battlefields are mostly situated in the Middle East. As for the “Middle East” itself, it is a somewhat flexible signifier. Syria, Palestine/Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula are always included within it, but it can also extend to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, and North Africa. This “Greater Middle East” appeared after 9/11, and covers most of the Muslim world. It is a geography of the War on Terror, and of torture. The War on Terror, which has reintroduced torture where it was less practiced, is by no means a war; it is torture itself, waged by the powerful against the weak, with no exception to this general rule.
The greatest permanent commitment of the Western powers in the Middle East is to Israel’s security, superiority, and welfare. After this comes “stability” in the region, which until recently meant the safety of oil routes for the capitalist West, and all related requirements to support the ruling regimes. Indeed, after a generation of mostly progressive social, political, and intellectual upheavals following independence (land reforms; wider schooling; improved services; a more active life for larger sectors of our societies), the lesser Middle East has experienced a deadly “stability” since the 1970s; one that has implied permanent rule for familial or oligarchic regimes, and increasing vulnerability and instability for the ruled. Vast masses of people were steadily excluded from this politics of stability, which produced its new lumpen aristocracies and dynasties. Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez was one of these “stable” rulers. He seized power in a military coup in 1970 (possibly rewarding himself for the humiliating defeat in June 1967, when he was Syria’s defense minister). He then relied heavily on sectarianized security apparatuses to preserve power; arresting, torturing, and killing tens of thousands of Syrians from all political and ideological backgrounds. By these means, he was able to secure the prized “stability” in Syria; as well as to “pacify” Lebanon—with a US green light—by intervening in Syria’s small neighbor in 1976; and also to play a vital “regional role,” made possible only by the absolute closure of the political playing field inside Syria. Through power politics, the regime was able to accumulate effective playing cards, especially by sponsoring sub-state actors in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Turkey, all of which proved useful assets for engagement with fellow regional powers and bargains with the more powerful parties; especially the Americans. Those inside Syria were relegated to full invisibility, undergoing massacres, incarceration, and torture scarcely reported in the “free world.” Thus was Hafez able to pass his post on to his son, Bashar, whose earliest slogan was “stability and continuity” (istiqrar and istimrar), implying that demands for political change were inherently destabilizing. Bashar has since been able to kill hundreds of thousands of ill-fated Syrians over the long course of this past decade, the second of his twenty-one-year rule. It is worth noting that each of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya prevented a monarchical turn such as the one that took place in Syria, which was the greatest reactionary leap backward in the country’s modern history.
This geopolitical discourse is inherently statist, whereby states (and no longer economies) are the basis of political dependence, irrespective of good or bad relations with the truly sovereign powers in the region and the world. This is all the more true in the War on Terror age, when Middle Eastern states are considered ramparts against that Terror. States, no matter how tyrannical and barbaric, are the recognized agencies that monopolize deadly violence against the rebellious sectors of their de-humanized people. What Aníbal Quijano called coloniality of power applies here very well, with religions (and ethnicities) taking the place of race (and ethnicities) in Latin America (and Africa). One pillar of the dominant perception of the Middle East in the West is that minority communities are always under threat from a monolithic Arab Muslim majority, and it is the duty of altruistic Western powers (and Russia) to protect them. What if an oligarchy used this very card to sell itself in the West, saying, “We rule over brutes who will target peaceful minorities, especially Christians, if we weaken our grip on their necks”? Judging from our experience under the Assad family’s rule for over half a century now, the demand for such a narrative in the West is quite powerful. The colonial principle of protecting minorities is alive and well once more in these neo-colonial times. Genocides and cleansings are already here: one has been ongoing in Syria for about a decade now, under the cover of the War on Terror and the protection of minorities.
But here we are already encountering the culturalist discourse, which in this War on Terror age is mostly centered around Islam. (Between the 1950s and 1980s, it concerned itself more with Arab nationalism and the “Arab mind.”) Apart from the ever-persecuted minorities, especially Christians, its main recurrent themes are the primitiveness of Islam; the Sunni-Shia divide; primordial sectarian hatreds and wars; and the inferiority of Muslim civilization compared with that of the West. Irrationality, violence, and an incompatibility with democracy are seen as the natural outcomes of Muslim civilization—reduced to culture, reduced to religion, reduced to Islam, which in turn is mostly reduced to Sunni Islam. Extremism and terror are matters of belief and religious instruction. In brief, Islam is now the “other.” The “othering” function performed by this discourse trumps the idea that it might possibly be the other way round: that Islam, and its instruction, have been produced and reproduced, and received and interpreted, during decades of desperate, failing struggles for change and a different future. When the present has been eternalized through despotic rule, and the path to the future is impeded by eternity itself, the past is the only road available. Islam itself is also reformed and rebuilt in ways that respond to demands for continued struggle under impossible conditions, as well as in ways that reflect this political theology of eternalization. Extremists thereby tend to conclude, or derive, themselves from a religion that they themselves produce. But this is not the place to elaborate on that phenomenon (I did so in a recent book in Arabic, The Conquered Imperialists, published in Beirut in 2019).
The culturalist discourse is readily consumed by the right-wing populism currently in the ascendant in the West, partly as a boomerang effect of the War on Terror. Yet it also represents a more prevalent pattern of thought evident within wider circles. The overly simplistic formation of this discourse serves as a facile explanation of complex phenomena; it also exempts people from the arduous task of really knowing history.
Culturalist discourse has always been powerful in the modern capitalist West. Orientalism, for instance, is mostly a culturalist discourse. In his famous thesis about the “clash of civilizations,” Samuel Huntington was inspired by Bernard Lewis, the essentialist orientalist for whom Edward Said spared none of his contempt. After 9/11, the discourse became common wisdom among many in the West and, indeed, the world. The ontological link between the religion of Muslims, on the one hand, and the terror inspired by the idea of Islamic Terror, on the other, veils history, politics, political economy, wars, torture, suppression, discrimination, indeed everything.
One particularly interesting feature of the culturalist discourse is the principle of homogenous historical continuity. History is seen as simply the unfurling of a destiny wrapped within the essence of this or that culture. When Bashar inherited power from his father, this was an event inherent in “their” culture over there in Syria. The killing of 20,000 people in Hama in 1982 had nothing to do with it. Similarly, when Daesh emerged in 2013, this was merely another continuity within Islam. There are no events in the Middle East; no ruptures; no beginnings and ends; no surprises and catastrophes; only vast continuities and primordial intrinsic structures. Such notions run against the very concept of history as a giant tapestry of interaction between changing cultures and environments; a plurality of relevant actors; and the agencies of innumerable people.
These geopolitical and culturalist discourses are complementary in more than one way. The geopolitical priority of stability recommends authoritarianism for Middle Easterners, and the othering of the culturalist encourages apathy and indifference towards their societies. Thus, while our states are possibly not very good, our societies are certainly bad. Empathy is impossible. Democracy is not for Arabs and Muslims; they are essentially unsuited for it. Historically speaking, these two discourses are branches of the nationalist and imperialist discourses employed by former colonial powers about a region colonialism has scarcely left at all. Today, the neo-colonial Middle Eastern system rests on three pillars: Israel’s supremacy and the prolonged plight of the Palestinian people; the incorporation of the Gulf monarchies into the sphere of US national security; and the torturous War on Terror.
Thinking of the region from such geopolitical and/or culturalist perspectives leaves one with the notion that what one sees in the Middle East is the outcome of internal dynamics; political and cultural ones in particular. It also suggests it has always been like this, perhaps even “dating back millennia,” in the phrase of the “cerebral” Barack Obama. As a matter of fact, one can define the Middle East as a system where the US, Europe, and now Russia—though geographically distant—have become insiders in the system, with a history of at least one major war every decade since the heyday of de-colonization; wars always won by the US-Israeli duo, and now by Russia as well.
The systemic character of the Middle East means that most of the talk about external intervention is meaningless, and we should go beyond the binary of intervention-nonintervention, for nonintervention is just nonexistent. The question then becomes one of the structure of the region; its history; and how to facilitate the intervention of the region’s own populations themselves in their own polities. The more Middle Easterners intervene in the political lives of their countries, the less detrimental external interventions turn to be.
Here again, the Assad neo-Sultanate has mastered this discourse, and its ideologues have long been propagating the culturalism that explains politics in relation to the minds of the population, almost giving the impression that the regime is the real victim of the ruled majority. Up until the 1980s, underdevelopment was explained in the language of political economy and economic policies. In the 1990s and afterwards, underdevelopment came to be thought of as “backwardness,” and the explanatory register moved to “culture,” “civilization,” and “minds,” restoring the colonial framework. This tendency should be understood as one aspect of depopulating politics (on which more later). It preceded the Syrian uprising, and was propagated powerfully in Bashar’s first years with the self-imposed neo-liberalization of the Syrian economy. The culturalist turn is an element of the ideology that legitimizes what I call the “internal First World,” or the “Syrian whites,” in the eyes of the “international community,” indeed the “First World.” The regime’s ideologues are no longer Baathists or Arab nationalists; they are agents of the contemporary coloniality of power, translating the local First World to the Western one, many of them living in the West and speaking English or other European languages. Typically, they do not praise the regime explicitly (unlike their counterparts inside the country). Instead, they say only that all who oppose the regime are bad: Islamists, extremists, and terrorists. The famous poet Adonis, who has taken it upon himself to reiterate this time and again since the uprising began, is only the best-known example.
The third discourse is the anti-imperialist one—or, at any rate, a certain variety thereof that thinks of “imperialism” as something peculiar to the capitalist West, which is in turn the sole source of evil at the global level. This view has been adopted by many left-wing movements and intellectuals. It is a discourse about imperialist interventions in the Middle East, and the imperialist support of brutal and corrupt dynasties and ruthless dictators. Principal among the imperial powers since WWII is the US. This is quite true. One could never exaggerate the role of US imperialism in reducing the Middle East to a “space of exception” (in Giorgio Agamben’s terminology), where the sovereignty of states is only respected against their subjects, never against aggressive colonial powers such as Israel. Many Arab countries are dependent on US imperialism; the Gulf monarchies and Egypt in particular. Yet for some obscure and peculiar reason, the extremely brutal and corrupt dynastic rule in Syria does not fall within the category of these countries. It is only since the Syrian revolution that we, Syrian democrats and leftists, have begun to realize just how few allies we have among Western anti-imperialist leftists. For many of the latter, our struggle is no more than an imperialist, American-led “regime change” plot, in which we are unconscious—or perhaps conscious— tools.
According to this discourse, the only real actor is Western imperialism; a notion reminiscent of a well-known theological tenet in the history of Islam, which holds that the only real actor is God. The God-like imperialist acts in a manner that nullifies the autonomy of any other actors; even the “sovereign” governments that are busying themselves torturing and killing their peoples. Thus, those who define themselves as opponents of this deity dismiss our struggle for democracy in Syria, because it is perceived to have been supported by this celestial imperialism.
But was it, in fact? Only in August 2011 did Obama declare that Bashar should step down—that is, some five months after the revolution began, when it was still fully peaceful. He declared this because he thought the revolutionary wave was steadily progressing, and the Assad regime would inevitably fall, and he wanted to show that, for once, the US cared about popular movements in the region. He had said something similar about Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak just two weeks after the eruption of revolution in Cairo. Later, US imperialism did its best to avoid harming the Assad regime after it violated Obama’s chemical “red line.” The regime that had just killed 1,466 of its subjects using prohibited weapons was rewarded by engagement in politics about a future to which it had been denying its subjects any access. It had killed 100,000 of them by that time, for the reason that they sought to appropriate politics: gathering in public spaces; talking about public issues; and protesting peacefully (all of which were strictly forbidden by the regime for decades). As it happens, it appears the inspiration for the chemical deal between the US and Russian imperialists came from the Israelis. Assad was saved, unlike at least a half million Syrians. Meanwhile, in the West, many anti-imperialists congratulated themselves for mobilizing against—what exactly? Certainly not the war, for that still rages on, more than nine years later. Instead, they cheered their opposition to punishing a thug who had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, using internationally-banned weapons, against civilians. Let us never forget that the ephemeral intentions to punish the regime were by no means because it was murdering Syrians—God forbid—but rather because it breached a “red line” drawn by the powerful. There was, and still is, a possible discussion about the legitimacy and expediency of deterring the chemical regime, but the inconsistency of the Western left on this is shocking. They simply did not see people who were struggling for their basic rights. Never have we seen mobilization against the killing of Syrians, nor even symbolic solidarity. One year after the sordid chemical deal, the US did intervene in Syria after all, against Daesh, without this stirring any protest from the anti-war movement. The following year, the Russians were invited by the Iranians to lend a hand in protecting the genocidal regime. After that, it wasn’t long before Turkey occupied parts of northern Syria, using a very Israeli justification: security needs. Iran had already been there since 2012; a situation condoned by the Obama administration as a fair price for the nuclear deal it sought with Tehran. Israel, meanwhile, has of course been occupying Syrian soil since 1967. None of these states has been doing anything in Syria but war, war, and more war.
Apart from being extremely West-centered, this top-down anti-imperialist theology renders itself imperialist by denying the autonomy of our struggle from its own never-ending, non-existent battle against imperialism. In this denial, it resembles Soviet communism, which adopted the same detrimental approach to Middle Eastern struggles after WWII, a fact which crippled Arab communism. There is no plausible reason to expect different outcomes from this imperialist anti-imperialism. It is worth recalling here that the Syrian Communist Party experienced a major split in the early 1970s precisely over the question of dependency-versus-independence vis-à-vis the Soviet Union at that time. A few years after the split, the advocates of independence were in jail; it happened that I was one of them, a university student at the time. The followers of Moscow in those days are followers of the regime today, and have been for the whole last half-century. Their leader passed on his post to his widow after his death in the mid-1990s, and she passed it on in turn to their son when she died in 2012.
This does not mean dynastic communism is the only element defending the regime on anti-imperialist pretexts. The regime also instrumentalizes its old Arab nationalist credentials when necessary. It is so tragically interesting to witness a dynastic and absolutist regime denouncing imperialist plots, all while ruling the country with colonial methods of torture, divide and rule, permanent exceptions, and primitive accumulation, and turning the country into a protectorate of two ultranationalist powers: Russia and Iran.
It is the anti-imperialists’ fixation on high politics that has made this reactionary use of anti-imperialism against the Syrian struggle for change possible. High politics is essentially incompatible with social struggles, for it consigns the subaltern to further subalternity and invisibility. All it is good for is imperialisms and their derivatives.
Do these three discourses share anything in common? Yes: they are all depopulated (I borrow the term from Kelly Grotke). There are no people in them; no names; no stories; no communities; no classes; no society, political activists, intellectuals, human rights activists, women and men struggling for life. We were fully invisible, nonexistent indeed. This depopulation renders the three discourses a continuation of the regime’s discourses and practices of denying Syrians both rights and agency. Depopulated discourses are a natural match for the use of depopulating weaponry, such as Sarin and chlorine, barrel bombs and white phosphorus, against Syrian civilians.
The three discourses are also deterministic, indeed fatalistic. Only the determinant changes: geopolitics; culture or civilization; and divine imperialism, respectively. Determinism is a product of ignorance about the plurality, diversity, and complexity of Middle Eastern societies. The history of desperate struggles for justice and freedom by so many people in Syria and the region is equally ignored, or only selectively remembered.
The agency of Syrians struggling for democracy and social justice is denied by the three depopulated discourses on three levels: political, ethical, and epistemological.
Political agency is denied by relegating Syrian struggles to primordial, irrational, infra-political, and infra-historical clashes of sects and beliefs—that is, when Syrians are not merely being viewed as puppets of foreign powers. Syrians are not perceived as people fighting for freedom and political change in their country. Their story is not one about democracy, social justice, and human dignity. It is either “regime change,” religious fanaticism, or proxy war. The rise of nihilist Islamism after the regime’s war against the revolution has been used against Syrians to make us unworthy of sympathy or support, rather than this rise being seen as the most likely outcome of a dynastic junta politiciding the people and depopulating politics for decades. As it happens, religious ideology was in part a language and symbolism that helped many to gather, cooperate, and possess politics; that is, to defend their political agency, though that basic need has always been immediately sacrificed and betrayed by extremely elitist organizational structures and an imperialist imaginary: jihad, conquest, and empire. Islamists, especially jihadists, suffer less from the absence of political life than we leftists and democrats do. Indeed, they are the fittest to survive in conditions of long-term politicide. Religion is the politics of a society without politics, a Muslim Marx might say. Those who suffer most are the leftists, democrats, and secularists whose very condition of survival is public space, or at least safe private spaces. We have been decimated time and again since the 1970s.
I would add that the Western media’s morbid, years-long fascination with Daesh gives one the impression the savage organization was satisfying a real need: it was fueling the “othering” machine to work at full capacity. It was really the Daesh game.
The denial of ethical agency is no less obvious when the chemical regime is treated as a lesser evil than nihilist Islamism, Daesh, and al-Qaeda, who are the greater evil. It is always obnoxious to compare between evils (and sufferings) in this way, but when the entity responsible for 90% of Syrian deaths is a “lesser evil” than those responsible for around 5%, we can only conclude that our lives and deaths are irrelevant to those holding this view. This is the position of the Western fascists—who are staunch Assad supporters, incidentally. The three discourses also share an inability to defend ordinary people’s right to say what is good and what is evil for them.
Epistemological agency is equally denied. I have had the unhappy opportunity on several occasions to witness that it is not us—Syrian activists and intellectuals—who are the principal sources of information and analysis regarding our struggle. At best, we are sources of quotes; rarely of analysis or theory. You want to know about Syria? Read Patrick Cockburn! You want to prove there are no good guys in Syria? Read Robert Fisk, the embedded journalist and close friend of Assad’s thuggish mukhabarat security agencies. You want to know about the chemical massacre of August 2013? Read Seymour Hersh. To assure yourself that the White Helmets are terrorists, created and supported by imperialism, read Max Blumenthal and follow Russia Today. Do you want to know the best five books about the Syrian struggle? Well, it happens that none of their authors is Syrian, according to Nikolaos van Dam, the pioneer of what might be called the “principle of sectarian determinism” in explaining Syrian politics to Western audiences (the late “leftist” Fisk shared this “scientific” method with van Dam). It appears that Syrians cannot represent themselves, or speak for themselves. The cause of the subaltern seems to be subaltern itself: there is a need for others to speak for them. Ideally Europeans or Americans.
OK. But why then can one hardly find a single interesting book, or paper, or even an article written by these people about Syria? Why is the Western literature about Syria fraught with oversimplifications, generally lacking even the tiniest human touch? Why has Chomsky failed over the course of a decade to write one short article about Syria, saying anything meaningful? Why is it impossible for our anti- imperialist brethren to reply, when asked about Syria: “We don’t know! The country was shut off from the rest of the world for many decades, so perhaps we have things to learn from Syrians themselves, and should ask them! Let us work together with them so that we may better understand our shared world!”
In order to answer these questions, one must also answer another question: What does this comprehensive denial of agency mean? My one-word answer is: racism. I mentioned above that the lesser evil in the typical Western eye is responsible for the deaths of 90% of Syria’s victims. This goes beyond the denial of agency. Here, we are already in the territory of racialization and dehumanization.
Racism need not necessarily take the form of exiling people from humanity, but it may take the form of exiling them from the humanities; the methods and tools through which we study other societies as we do our own. The aforementioned three deterministic, overly simplistic, and theological discourses, depopulated and depopulating, do not allow for the emergence of humanities in studying Syria and the Middle East. Humanities emerge only through dismantling these discourses.
Is this an accusation that the top-down, anti-imperialist is being racist? I will exert no effort to prove or disprove this, but what I do think is easily provable is that they do not care about ordinary people in Syria. They do not care to know about the Syrian people’s desperate struggle. They do not care to protest against a massacre. They cannot find it within themselves to express solidarity with prisoners in unspeakable conditions, or even to sign a statement condemning war criminals in Syria. This apathy is rooted in the very structure of top-down anti-imperialism. From their Olympian heights, it often happens that top down anti-imperialists—who risk nothing whatsoever by their ethereal struggle against divine imperialism—blame those who lose a lot; indeed who have lost everything already in their struggle for their basic rights; simply for not seeing the world, and even their own country, the way these luminaries see it. Apparently, it takes a dogmatic identification with the universal good for anti-racists to act in a racist way. This identification is a pan-Western phenomenon, and it has left-wing, right-wing, and mainstream versions.
In response to this unhappy lot, it would seem that Syrian activists and intellectuals must either be awed into silence; crushed under the weight of our subaltern, deep-seated inferiority complex and the authority of these monopolizers of legitimate speech (the agents of the aforementioned three discourses); or adopt these forms of speech for ourselves, for who are we to challenge such weighty authorities! This leads to self-annihilation. Some of us try to have it all: to interpret our struggle in a way that pleases the top-down anti-imperialists. The attempt is made in vain, as far as I can tell.
It is a persistent refrain in the West to say Syria is “complicated.” It is. And this destroys identification and empathy. People flee from complexity like the plague. I hope what I have written above demonstrates the structural logic of this “complexity.” It is a function of the dominant, depopulated, undemocratic discourses, and of the fact that the Middle East is the most internationalized region in the world; a place where colonialism never ended. It is “complicated” because there are so many active and powerful complicators.
From the perspective of the victims, however, the story is not especially complex: it is a story of unheard-of pains, countless tragedies, infinite despair, and absolute worldlessness.
Fortunately, there are many decent and modest people who are able to say, “We don’t know; we will try to learn,” and who side with those actually involved in the struggle, instead of preaching at them from above. For such a grassroots anti-imperialism, the starting point of which is the struggles here and now for basic rights, we still have not developed a full-fledged discourse that rises to meet the unprecedented destruction of the country and responds to progressively complicated Syrian, Middle Eastern, global, and planetary conditions. But I believe we are in a better position to fight imperialism by fighting the “coloniality of power” when we can just live safely in our country, talk about public issues, and say that our eternal leader is possibly not that great at all. You risked your life if you said this in “Assad’s Syria” before the revolution, and you still do today.
It is a large task for us to develop a new emancipatory discourse, given that so much of the world is in Syria now, and so many Syrians are dispersed throughout the world (just under 30% of the population), but we might as well begin the process. To think of the Middle East as an analytical unit where you cannot separate Syria from Palestine-Israel, from Iraq and Lebanon, from Egypt and the Gulf, from Iran and Turkey, and at the same time to think of Syria as a micro-Middle East, indeed a microcosm thereof, might be relevant starting points. Emancipation is a matter of resisting three dehumanizing powers: politicidal oligarchic regimes that blur the boundary between politics and crime; nihilist Islamism, with its combination of victimhood and imperialist ideals and aspirations; and powers both imperialist (US, Russia, France) and sub-imperialist (Israel, Iran, and Turkey), along with their sub-state proxies, all of whom share in the impossible destruction of the impossible revolution.
Emancipation is also a matter of repopulating our discourses and thinking. Populated politics, a.k.a. democracy, is about people representing themselves; returning from forced absence; speaking for themselves; and asserting their own presence.