Robin Yassin-Kassab has written an article on what he describes as ‘infantile leftists’ and their blanket judgements on the Syria crisis. I agree with the idea that blanket statements should be avoided, as this does not capture the nuances of the events, especially with the comlexity being a feature of the Syrian uprising. While much is agreeable with the post, some points need qualification:
1) Robin rejects the label of ‘client state’, due to its crude usage and inability to acknowledge the full complexity of inter-state relations and the decision making process within each state. Complexity and contingency is a feature of all concrete events and should be the foundation of any analysis. However, complexity is not somehow incongruent with the idea of relations of power that mediate the relations between actors. In other words, while we should acknowledge complexity at all levels of policy making, this does not negate the fact that some actors in that process have access to forms of capital that can affect to a large degree, at different levels, the relation between actors.
When Gulf monarchies are described as US client states, it is to affirm the relation of a-symmetry and dependency to US imperialism, with some monarchies virtual protectorates of the US military. All Gulf monarchies train and arm their forces in strategic partnerships with the US. The strategic Saudi/US relation was set-out in the 1945 Roosevelt/King Abdul-Aziz meeting and this still broadly defines relations between the Saudi monarchy and subsequent US regimes. There can be differences between the US and its aligned dictatorships (as seen in the Saudi monarchy’s deep disdain with the Obama regime’s decision to not stay the extra mile with Mubarak’s regime in 2011) but broadly they are in tandem with US designs for the region. All these states have actively played a role in implementing a US and Israeli blockade of Gaza and sought to prolong Israel’s assault on Lebanon (2006) to curtail Iran’s regional stretch. Again, this does not negate real differences in decision making within these states, between these states themselves and their relation to US regional hegemony. Nevertheless, this broad alignment with US policy, can only give these states a label of ‘client state’.
2) It is correct to deny the broad label of ‘sectarian gangs’ to describe armed opposition groups operating in Syria. Nevertheless, evidence exists that these groups are not uniform and there is no united leadership or central command. A sectarian dynamic exists in the current conflict and some of these groups have been galvanised by anti-Shi’a hatred preached by Saudi aligned Salafi preachers (Sheikh ‘Adnan al-’Arour being one prominent example). Human Rights Watch and United Nations reports agree on violence committed by some opposition armed groups (Human Rights Watch makes salient the sectarian dimension of some of these abuses).
The kidnapping of Iranian engineers and Lebanese pilgrims, for example, are examples of this sectarian dimension. Leading Syrian opposition figures (e.g. Burhan Ghalioun and Haitham al-Maleh) justified the kidnapping of Lebanese civilians, perpetuating the narrative of leading Hezbollah officers being captured. Further, documents and news are frequently fabricated from an array of opposition factions (armed and civilian) to establish, on sectarian terms, the armed presence of thousands of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Sadr Brigades and Hezbollah fighters (a propaganda industry in coordination with the different Saudi monarchy owned media stations). It is not coincidental that this orchestrated scheme of fabrication is largely run on sectarian lines. In other words, it is not only the regime and its backers that may operate along communal lines but also opposition groups.
Also, specific wordings and ideas from anti-Shi’a Salafi polemics and tracts, initially mass distributed during the Iran/Iraq war (e.g. the book ‘The Magians (Zoroastrians) turn has come’), has now become common currency across some opposition factions (it is common to find, in this discourse of derision, talk of the dangers of the Shi’ite esoterics [in this context meaning a communal trait of treachery], the Zoroastrian Twelver Shi’ite rejectionists, the expansionist conspiracies of the Safavids etc.). Popular Facebook pages, such as Shaam News Network and the Syrian Revolution, regularly repeat terms initially concocted by Wahabi preachers (whether Saudi aligned or not), though it is not clear if they realise the theological background of the terms used (these terms are used within a Salafi discourse to excommunicate Twelver Shi’ism from Islam and treat their beliefs and practices as both pagan and idolatrous. This de-humanising language is also used to establish communal traits of treachery and expansionist visions as part of this supposed belief system).
3) The largest faction of the Syrian opposition (the SNC) are, at the highest levels of its decision making, organically aligned to US, Qatari and Saudi interests (many recorded statements of SNC leaders make no secret of this). Some of these leading figures also have ties to neo-Conservative think-tanks and have received millions in funding from the US, Saudi-Arabia and Qatar. This extends to open alliances with the US backed March 14 alliance in Lebanon and even pro-US anti-Castro opposition groups. Considering these issues, it is understandable for some to distance themselves from the uprising or at least be sceptical it. Again, this does not excuse any apologia for the murderous policies of the regime.
4) Supporting the FSA is not a litmus test to demonstrate authentic opposition to the Syrian regime (the same applies to the SNC). While it is acknowledged that many of those who took up arms sincerely felt the need to fend off the regime but this has turned into an open guerilla war to topple the regime. There is a difference between an open guerilla warfare against a vastly superior and vicious regime, naively mimicking the Libyan scenario, and self-defence as an exception. This is also the view, from what it seems, of some influential traditional Islamic scholars in Syria. In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, Sheikh Sariyya al-Rifa’i refused to concur to any declaration of ‘Jihad’ (armed struggle) to topple the regime. He also stated soldiers in the Syrian army are ‘brothers’ and likewise self-declared members of the FSA – neither should target the other. Jawdat Sa’id, a well known Muslim non-violence theorist, continues to reject armed struggle to topple the regime. Jawdat Sa’id and Sheikh Sariyya al-Rifa’i, for example, are no Bashar al-Assad sympathisers but have not outwardly supported the FSA. To put it another way, it is not infantile to reject armed struggle and so oppose the actions of armed groups, but also oppose the murderous policies of the Syrian regime. To conflate this distinction is to fall under what Robin Yassin-Kassab states as ‘blanket statements’.
At the same time, Robin Yassin-Kassab is right to identify elements of leftist thinking, among others, as over generalising regarding the plethora of armed groups operating in Syria or sometimes drawing on Islamophobic templates of the orient (when the sect becomes exclusively a religious signifier, sectarianism the only issue, and all is reduced to religious fanaticism). There are those, also, who are supportive of the Syrian regime or at least offer a sympathetic view of its narrative of the uprising. Yet, there is no balance in Robin’s criticism – if the regime carries full responsibility for sectarian tensions that may exist, then this does not translate into a blanket support of the FSA (assuming it is a cohesive unit at all) or diminish the role of the CIA and Gulf states in arming and agitating along sectarian lines. Nor can there be any dismissal of the clear acquiescence of leaders of the SNC to US designs for the region and their zeal for a US Marshall plan to re-build Syria, after the fall of the regime (something advocated by the SNC), along Neo-Liberal lines. These factions are not secondary or marginal forces in the uprising but important players in shaping the future of the country, whether in attempting to topple the regime or when it eventually falls.