Support the Syrian people – not the USA or Russia

Much of the left internationally has given open or covert support to the Assad regime in Syria. The Morning Star in Britain went so far as to call the defeat of Aleppo a “liberation”. Why do left-wingers support a murderous regime instead of people fighting for their freedom? What is the role of Islamist forces in the conflict? Leila al-Shami, co-author of the book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”, gives an interview which provides some answers to these questions. She was interviewed by Max van Lingen, editor of the Dutch newspaper “The Socialist”. The interview was translated into German by Frank Simon, and then into English by Colin Wilson.

Photo:Syria Freedom Forever
Photo:Syria Freedom Forever

What was the main reason you wrote the book [Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War]?

Robin Yassin-Kassab and I felt that reporting about Syria was poor. It wasn’t that there were too few reports, but that they rarely represented Syrian concerns. The media reports mainly about the humanitarian crisis or the rise of Islamic groups and extremism. Syrians are seen either as victims or as terrorists.

We wanted to challenge this point of view by letting people speak for themselves. We wanted to offer a platform for activists who were involved in the revolution and were affected by the war. A left-wing analysis should be based on what the people are doing – not just on what is happening in terms of high politics between states or what the international repercussions of the crisis are.

How did you choose the people you spoke to?

We were connected with the revolution in Syria from the beginning. We already knew a lot of people. When we spoke to these activists, they brought us into contact with other people. So we gained a variety of insights into life in Syria from people from both rural and urban areas, both women and men. We interviewed people in Syria from all religious communities and nationalities: Muslims, Christians, Ismailis and Alawites as well as Kurds and Arabs.

Syria and the Arab Spring

Why do you think a large part of the international left was either very guarded as regards the revolution or even openly hostile towards it?

Many leftists look at Syria within a framework of existing ideas. Before the Arab Spring, their experiences of the Middle East were limited to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the US war and subsequent occupation of Iraq. When the Arab Spring began and the revolution in Syria grew, the left looked at Syria in the context of US imperialism.

What is wrong with this approach?

The situation had changed dramatically in 2011. Suddenly there was an international revolutionary wave in the region, which caused a huge change in people’s thinking. People said they no longer wanted to live under these regimes, which had suppressed them for so long. Most of the left, however, did not respond to the fact that there existed a mass movement from below. They saw the Assad regime as a secular socialist regime that was at war with the US and Israel. But that’s not true.

Can you explain that in more detail?

To start with, it is not a secular regime. In the course of the revolution, we have seen how the regime made use of the various religious communities to carry out a policy of divide and rule. Secondly, it is not a socialist regime. The implementation of neoliberal policies had already begun under Hafez al-Assad, and this increased under Bashar al-Assad.

Bashar al-Assad aimed to integrate Syria more closely into the world economy, for example through an economic “Association Agreement” with the EU. The neoliberal policies he pursued led to a concentration of wealth in the hands of his relatives and the people associated with the regime, while large sections of the population lived in poverty. As a result, one of the main demands of the revolution was social and economic justice.

Syria, the USA and the “regime change”

Some left-wingers reduce the Syrian revolution to a US attempt at “regime change” by supplying arms deliveries to Syrian groups. What do you think of that view?

It is not true that the US has delivered large amounts of weapons to Syria. The US delivered some supplies, but for a long time only light weapons, night vision equipment and ready-to-eat meals. Subsequently, they provided some anti-tank weapons so as to maintain a stalemate. The US did not provide the heavy weapons that Syrian rebels would need to defend themselves against the regime’s air attacks, such as air defence missiles.

What is the specific US military strategy?

The US is looking for proxies to carry out the “war on terror” on its behalf. The Southern Front – an alliance of democratic and nationalist groups which refused to work with Islamists – was forced by the US and Jordan to stop fighting the Assad regime. This allowed the regime to concentrate on other areas, including Daraya, which has fallen to the regime after a long siege and systematic starvation of its people. The US has also provided weapons and air support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are dominated by the Kurdish YPG, because they fight only against Daesh.

The “Islamisation” of the revolution has without doubt reduced its international appeal. How significant do you think this development has been?

A large part of the military struggle is led by Islamists of different kinds, ranging from moderate Islamist groups operating within a democratic framework to Salafist hardliners. International jihadist groups such as Daesh, on the other hand, are counter-revolutionary, they represent a third force. Syrians have fought against Daesh, as they have also fought against the Assad regime. The Free Syrian Army still exists, and has widespread support, but it is no longer the only actor.

The Islamisation of the Revolution

What were the reasons for the “Islamisation” of the revolution?

After the poison gas attack on Ghouta in 2013 at the latest, the Syrian people knew that they were not going to get any help from the West. So they turned to the Gulf States. The result was a more pronounced Islamic vocabulary. Many fighters switched to Islamist groups because these were able to provide weapons and funds. These groups were able to provide pay, which was decisive in the face of economic collapse and hunger.

Although the military struggle is the biggest part of the picture, a strong civil society also exists, which still plays a very important role in the Syrian revolution. In Maarrat al-Nu’man there were more than 200 days of continuous protests against Assad and against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the Front for the Conquest of the Levant, the new name of the al-Nusra Front). [The Al-Nusra Front are jihadists, with links to Al-Qaeda until July 2016 – ed.] The people of Maarrat al-Numan clearly rejected Fatah al-Sham, but the situation in Aleppo is quite different. There, Fatah al-Sham played a major role in breaking through of the siege of East Aleppo, in which 300,000 people were liberated. While the international community abandoned the people of Aleppo, Fatah al-Sham came to their aid. It is absurd to think that people in this situation will reject them.

Militarisation is another contradictory development you describe.

When the revolution began to militarise, a large part of civil society opposed that. People feared that the revolution would lose its legitimacy and that this could lead to increased ethnoreligious sectarianism. Obviously this was what happened – but militarisation was not a decision that was made at some meeting or through some vote, it happened because thousands of people were under fire from the regime. They had the choice between taking up arms to defend themselves and being massacred.

Where now for Syria?

What do you think about the negotiations in Geneva?

I don’t put any great hopes in them, and I don’t think that the Syrian people do either. As far as Syria is concerned, the US has now formed an alliance with Russia. The US is ready to leave the regime in power while it focuses on what the it regards as the greatest threat. As long as the international community sees Islamist extremism as the main problem, any negotiations will have little significance for the Syrian people.

How strong is support for Assad? Can he continue to rely on the Alawite population?

Some Alawites have given the revolution solid support, although the overwhelming majority are behind the regime. There are several reasons for this. While some Alawites benefit from the regime, the absolute majority still live in impoverished communities in the coastal region. They fear, however, retribution by supporters of the revolution in the event that the regime falls and an Islamist alternative comes to power.

In this respect, we can say that the Alawite population is more opposed to the revolution than supportive of the regime – there is also dissatisfaction with the regime within the Alawite community. Many Alawites have protested against conscription, and people who are close to the regime are concerned about the influence of Russia and Iran. Many Alawite militias are no longer under the control of the regime. The main actors on the front lines are external forces, such as Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias, which are under Iranian control.

Are there still groups among the rebels which Syrians can support if they don’t want either the regime or Islamism?

There are many positive things that one can support in Syria. There are local councils which attempt to manage their communities for themselves, even though they are affected by heavy bombing. There are humanitarian aid organizations like the White Helmets, who do a great job and risk their own lives to save the victims of air raids from the rubble. Activists have established women’s centres, independent media centres and human rights organisations.

Of course, at present these initiatives are not the most influential players, but they represent people who are fighting. Left-wingers should support these people. They don’t control what is happening, but that doesn’t mean that we should give our support to states instead. We should support neither the USA nor Russia. All of the states intervening in Syria are causing utter chaos there.

Leila al-Shami has been active in the human rights movement in the Middle East. She is the co-author of “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”. The book is published by Pluto, and is available from their website.

The German version of this interview is available on the Marx21 website.



  1. Sorry, but the article sort of lost me where it says that, it Assad is not a secular regime due to playing religious communities against one another – that’s a secular regime PLAYING politics in that part of the world. I really didn’t want to stop reading after, because conflating such a major point in so much confidence COULD mean the rest is a confused rant too


    a good article by Mary Dejevsky, which suggests:

    “Nor could I possibly be described as a member of the Moazzam Begg fan club. He left Britain for Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2002, and it is still not entirely clear why. I don’t entirely trust his account of events.”
    “All that said, when he was arrested on terrorism charges in February – in the inevitably well-publicised dawn raid – it was hard not to smell a rat. ”
    “Now I may be quite wrong, but the lateness of the intervention, the anonymity and the stonewalling seem to point in one direction and one direction alone: the intelligence services. Not Pakistan’s ISI, not the American CIA, DIA or NSA, but our very own MI5 and/or MI6.”

  3. i agree with Paul above.

    there does seem to be a desperate attempt to invent a revolution even if one doesn’t actually exist.

    it seems to me the problem is made more complicated not just by the left, but also by a split in the organised Muslim organisations in this country. ( i repeat, organisations, not necessarily the ordinary muslim person!)

    It seems to me that CAGE and Moazzem Begg, in particular have muddied the issue. the reception he has received from the left has obscured his actual role in working with security services and organising terrorism in other countries. ie Begg is supported by SWP (he spoke at this years Marxism), lionised by Counterfire, etc. He has also openly supported Al Nusra, the AQ franchise.

    Why is a section of the left going along with this?

    I wouldn’t pretend that Gaddafi or Assad are perfect, but the amount of demonisation they recieved helped justify the imperialist wars, and a large section of the left went along with it.

  4. I’m not sure what, in practical terms, support for the Syrian people is supposed to involve here. It seems to me the main thing we can change is either to support a Western Imperialist intervention designed to weaken Russia and Iran in a global power play, or to attempt to prevent it (is that supporting Assad?), and the idea that supporting Tory bombing campaigns can further anything just reeks of slacktivism and poltics by proxy to me (the same old “shopping for a subject”, for a political agent to do the revolution for us). It seems to me the best way we can support the Syrian people is by organising in the UK, on domestic issues.

  5. hi John

    yes, the so called ‘libyan revolutionary forces’ were not really that, they were reactionaries, Islamists and others who asked the former colonial powers and imperialists to bomb their own country. They are not real revolutionaries. Gaddafi was murdered and Libya destroyed, and you imagine that NATO are there to help a make believe revolution.

    you’ve been suckered and fooled into supporting imperialist intervention.

  6. “if you supported the bombing of Libya, then you are a supporter of imperialism. thats it.” Much like the Libyan revolutionary forces then. The racist arrogance of all this is what really hits home.


    the problem is that it is hard to know which side is which and what they are fighting for.

    I get the impression that some people are so desperate for a revolution and will invent one up even if there isn’t any revolution

    I am not ‘pro Assad’, but I don’t see any other alternative.
    @Dick Gregory – if you supported the bombing of Libya, then you are a supporter of imperialism. thats it.

  8. Patrick. In order.

    1. Yes.
    2. No.
    3. Ex-soldiers and ordinary Syrians.
    4. They have nobody backing them the way Russia and Iran back Assad.
    5. See 4.
    Yassin al-Haj Saleh:
    ‘Due the regime’s brutality and the baseness of the big egos of the globe, a dynamic of radicalisation, Islamisation and militarisation, was triggered and changed everybody in the country, myself included. In September 2015, I was in Oslo for a few days, where I appeared on a TV programme. Before this show, the presenter asked me, if I was “moderate”. No, I am not, I replied. She was alarmed, but she wanted to be sure: “But you are secular, aren’t you?” For the discursive habits in the West, ‘moderate’ implies that siding with us (“We are the centre of the world.”) and “good” are synonyms. You are “extremist” and “bad” whenever you side with your own people.
    Of course, I am bad.’
    6. The Free Syrian Army have received some limited support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They have received binoculars and ready meals from the UK. The US’ main contribution has been to prevent any of those states from providing the FSA with the anti-aircraft missiles which could stop the barrel bombing, but the US administration was more worried that Assad would fall and be replaced by Islamists.
    7. Lucinda Gasuda:
    “You see what is happening in Aleppo? You see that this would have happened in Libya? You can admit that now??? Gaddafi was close to Putin just as Assad is. Now all of you that called me a neo-imperialst traitor when I campaigned for intervention, you SEE now what is happening in Syria? You think this is better than the no fly zone in Libya? You see the massacre that is happening RIGHT NOW? or are you still pretending it isn’t happening????”

  9. In what world is a ruthless murderous dictator better than people struggling against impossible odds for their freedom. Some Islamists are committed to the struggle against Assad, some like ISIS are de facto collaborating with Assad. As Chris Harman wrote 20 years ago in his ‘The prophet and the proletariat’ with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never’.

  10. well Patrick’s comment is proof of all Leila’s criticisms of the “Left”: he has clearly read the interview with no intention of learning anything.

  11. Hi

    asking to support the ‘Syrian people’ is too abstract.
    Is there a revolution?
    or is there a civil war?
    Who are the ‘rebels’ exactly? who are their backers?

    It seems to me that some of the rebels are Saudi backed Islamists of some type or another.
    who are backing the Free Syrian Army?

    it seems to me that these questions should be answered before asking for ‘ support the Syrian people’.

    It seems to me also that many on the left support Assad because there isn;t actually a better option. Some do go overboard in painting Assad as a great anti imperialist, but nonetheless, he is perhaps better than the alternative of Libya after Gaddafi.


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