Syria and the Death of the Anti-War Movement

by Guy Mika on April 28, 2018

The Tragedy and the Farce


In the wake of the Iraq War, Dissent Magazine (one of the US’s premier left-leaning publications) published a long opinion piece addressing the upcoming possibility of war in Iraq. The piece consists of a variety of shorter articles written by the editors and friends of the publication. While today we remember the vast left opposition to the war in Iraq—including some of the most massive protests in history—the piece shows a vastly more complex picture to left opinion on the possibility of war. Just in the prelude to the piece, Editor-in-Chief Michael Walzer writes: “I would support a UN war to enforce inspection; I would not support a U. S. war for “regime change” (though I don’t deny that the Iraqi regime needs changing). I could not support a peace movement whose purpose or effect is the appeasement of Saddam Hussein.”

Walzer statements, however, were not even the most adamantly in favor of the war. Dissent co-editor Mitchell Cohen wrote forcefully in support of regime change in Iraq. He starts his piece, “Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship is pathological and distinct from other rotten regimes today, including those rooted in a similar ideology (Syria, for example).” He continues, “It is not just a matter of this regime’s fascist-like character (call it fascism-plus), although its ruling Ba’ath Party fused Pan-Arabism to the worst ideas of early twentieth-century Europe. It is not just Baghdad’s brutality, although it is difficult to imagine a more vicious, vengeful regime…” After naming a few more of Saddam Hussein’s slights, he writes: “No, it is not “just” these things. It is their combination with the fact that this regime never keeps agreements.” Then he named a few of the regime’s victims “Ask Iranians. Ask Kuwaitis. Ask Iraqi communists. Ask Iraqi Shiites. Ask Iraqi Kurds. Recall the UN inspections.” He proceeded to urge the left to judge the Iraq situation independently of the rest of Bush’s agenda and to let go of it “third-worldist prejudices.” He finished his piece: “So I will not support an antiwar movement, even if it includes many good people…I will support Iraqi democrats, even if they are few in number and their prospects difficult. I am antifascist before I am antiwar. I am antifascist before I am anti-imperialist.”

We all of course know by now the results of the war in Iraq. Iraq and the rest of the region still have not recovered from the effects of the war and the sectarian violence, instability, death, poverty and misery of the Iraqi people has not yet stopped. The famed left-wing intellectual Tariq Ali tells of a conversation that he had had with an anti-Saddam Iraqi intellectual that conferred to him that he feels that despite his everlasting hatred of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime, he still believes that the average Iraqi was far better off under Saddam then in the present day.

However, despite criticism of some on the left, the anti-war movement managed to flourish and sported some massive demonstrations that rivaled the ones in opposition to Vietnam. Sadly, however, in today’s left the Mitchell Cohens of the world have come to dominate the debate. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx wrote that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” In Marx’s time Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon III) was the farce to Napoleon’s tragedy. Today, if the Iraq war an its left proponents are the tragedy then certainly those leftists who advocate regime change in Syria are the farce.



The Specter of the “Assad apologist”  

Much like the arguments we heard about Saddam Hussein before the Iraq War, a whole industry has emerged to portray the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to be a cartoonish and uniquely cruel leader. This portrayal has dominated much of the main-stream media coverage of the Syrian conflict. While there is no doubt that Assad is, in fact, an extremely brutal and ignoble leader, the lessons of Iraq should have taught us to be warry of simplistic moralist arguments for removing Middle Eastern leaders. Regardless, a large and dominant stratum of the left has decided to do just that.

Much like Mitchell Cohen before them, the left’s modern day pro-regime change crusaders make a mostly moralistic case for regime change. They continuously focus on Assad’s (admittedly abysmal) human rights record and try to strongly emphasize the existence of a (tiny) portion of the Syrian opposition which they claim harbor the values they would like to see replace Assad. However, unlike Cohen, they have gone further and turned their criticism into an internal moral crusade to purify the left of supposed “Assad apologists.” While the likes of Cohen and Walzer were interested in debates about the merits of war and were prepared to deal with ethical ambiguities, the contemporary pro-regime change left have made it their singular goal to find and attack people on the left whom they deem “Assadist” or insufficiently anti-Assad. In essence, they have transformed the debate from a debate about whether the war in Syria merits US intervention or whether we need to revive an anti-war movement into a more simplistic debate into simply whether Assad is bad or not. To make this leap they have reduced opposition to regime change to “Assad apologism.” In turn, many in the anti-war movement have turned to attempting to prove Assad’s innocence. While that is certainly distasteful, but they are in some ways victims of the environment in which they find themselves. When the only thing one can discuss is Assad’s morality, one is forced to defend Assad’s actions in order to make an anti-war argument.   

To answer me they might say “are you not erasing Syrian voices by encouraging this kind of debate among western leftists.” However, I would argue to the contrary that they are erasing Syrian voices. Trying to speak on behalf of all Syrians, especially when coming from the overwhelmingly western-based Syrian voices that they highlight is inherently problematic and inherently erases debates between Syrians over the future of their country. The conflict in question is, of course, a civil war which inherently means that there is extreme disagreement among Syrians about what needs to happen. There are, in fact, a sizable number of Syrians who do support the Assad regime for various reasons. As the prolific Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi put it in a recent interview, though he does support removing Assad: “it is not just the millions of people who are refugees and who are terrified of going back because they are afraid of the regime; there are millions of people on the other side who are terrified of the opposition.”

Further, many anti-war activists who have explicitly condemned Assad have also been tarred as “Assad apologists.” The likes of Rania Khalek certainly comes to mind. Khalek has been an outspoken critic of US Middle East policy and a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights. However, since she changed her views on the Syrian conflict, she has been continually censored by members of the pro-regime change left. While I certainly do not agree with her entire take on the Syrian conflict, it is worth noting that she is always careful to condemn Assad and attempts to make her arguments mostly on the basis of the facts on the ground. She brings up important criticisms of the mainstream media portrayal of the Syria conflict and particularly questions whether there is an alternative to Assad in Syria currently. While one might disagree with her take, how can one seriously call her an “Assad apologist”? Do her views on Syria seriously warrant the kind of censorship that the pro-regime change left have brought upon her? What does it mean when the left joins the choir of pro-war voices?

Crippling the Anti-War Movement

Stifling debate about Syria, however, is not the real problem with the pro-regime change rhetoric. I fully acknowledge that their criticism of Assad’s human rights record is justified. Rather, their real crime is how their rhetoric and the internal culture that they have created has stifled any possibility for real anti-war organizing on the scale that we saw in the early part of the 21st century against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To be fair to my comrades, many have condemned strikes when the US has done them, but their rhetoric, actions, and analysis the rest of the time makes anti-war organizing far more difficult.

Anti-war organizing is already one of the most difficult causes that one can take on. Anti-war activists are regularly smeared as being disloyal and of being apologists and useful idiots. This was certainly the case with Iraq and even further back during the opposition to the Vietnam War. Therefore, when there are elements within the traditional space for anti-war organizing on the left repeat many such accusations against their own they inhibit the possibilities for anti-war organizing. While anti-war rhetoric might be alluded to when intervention seems imminent, when the activities the rest of the time consists of condemning anti-war activists, the possibility of creating a movement that can truly challenge the status quo becomes incredibly difficult. What pro-regime change leftists are doing, therefore, is forsaking a vision of society at large and simply focusing their movement into the left itself.

There is an even bigger problem with the pro-regime change left rhetoric: they want to have their cake and eat it too. One can often hear from this section of the left that “we need to both end the war and get rid of Assad.” However, when one looks at the facts on the ground such a vision is simply contradictory (and not in a useful way). The fact is that Assad enjoys military superiority and popular support within Syria, and thus getting rid of him would necessarily entail an escalation of the war. Further, getting rid of Assad under present conditions will likely result in the Libyanization of Syria, meaning that the country will be mired in conflict for the near future. Alternatively, ending the war with as little continuous bloodshed as possible will necessarily mean a need for a negotiated settlement that takes seriously the desires of the Assad regime and his supporters (as much as we might not like it), as well as a disarmament of the opposition forces.

What the pro-regime change left has done is replace sober analysis with rhetorical purity. I have often heard pro-regime change leftists say that “the lives of Syrians matter more than your “anti-imperialist analysis”.” However, this strawman seems to me to ignore the material realities of how imperialism has prolonged the war and how increasing escalation has put Syrian lives in jeopardy further. In reality, moral grand standing cannot replace sustained strategic planning on how left movements can be productive in helping end the conflict. This to me must involve, diplomacy, de-escalation and dis-armament which also should be part of the larger objectives of a renewed anti-war movement. As another Dissent editor, the feminist scholar Ann Snitow, writes in the Iraq war compilation, “I’m one of those activists—and very out of favor we are now, in public discussions on both right and left—who think that the major work of the twenty-first century is not the war on terrorism but the establishment of a demilitarized internationalism.”  


Guy Mika is a masters student at Brandeis University doing work on the early 2000 anti-war movement. Mika has been involved in activism around issues of labor and Palestinian solidarity.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Myles Hoenig April 29, 2018 at 7:48 am

Good to see these thoughts in print. One can be against Assad but question the left’s campaign against him. Wanting facts to decide whether Assad used gas (at any time) is not being an Assad apologist, as quite a few on the left seem to come to that conclusion.
To those who come to conclusions that Assad used gas without the facts is taking Trump’s side. To those on the left who conclude that Assad was innocent, I ask the same question. On what facts are you basing your conclusions?
All US MSM states emphatically that Assad was responsible bc the US foreign policy makers say so. RT had a panel with the 11yo boy victim in the videos, his father and a doctor who just as emphatically say there was no gas attack. Media reports 40 dead. Others report zero dead.
When information is so polarized based on preconceived agendas, real facts are hard to come by.


Jesse Z. April 30, 2018 at 5:42 pm

RT had a panel with the 11 year old boy, kind of like how Nazi propaganda brought the Red Cross to meet with Holocaust victims for PR. It’s the same technique and people in the 1940s fell for it too.


Larry Cartier Center April 29, 2018 at 10:49 am

The so-called left has long ago sold out to Billary & 100% corrupt dems pretending Rethuglicans are any different from Republocrats. …thus polluter oil war crime profiteering has escalated under the Bush Crime Family & ReaGun since 1981….USA has murdered over a million people since the genocide in SE Asia was abated by vets&students for peace 1975. …Syrians murdered by USA weapons and proxies are a smoke screen for USA MURDERS ACROSS AFRICA. …when “the left” jails Billary for secrecy law crimes & frauds VETERANS WILL JOIN STUDENTS FOR PEACE instead idiots of all ages pretend Billary should be prez winning only 19 states Russia only provided a couple whores telling lies TrumpOLINI urinated on Obama’s Moscow bed….she paid 2 million donor dollars for such lies. …peace comes from peace coalitions NOT CRIMINAL CUNT FRAUDS like Billary


Reza April 29, 2018 at 2:01 pm

“Media reports 40 dead. Others report zero dead. When information is so polarized based on preconceived agendas, real facts are hard to come by.”

Based on this logic, and based on the fact that there are so many contradictory explanations about so many other things, we can conclude that:
we don’t know if there is global warming due to human activity;
we don’t know if tobacco is actually harmful;
we don’t know if excessive sugar consumption causes any harm;
we don’t know if earth is round or flat;
we don’t know if Bible’s words are meant literally or figuratively, or as allegories;
therefore, we don’t know if all humanity was (or not) born due to Adam and Eve having had intercourse (lots of it);
which means we are all possibly the results of incest;
which can explain why so many of us are so dim-witted that we can’t distinguish between facts and propaganda.
We can’t even know what a fact is and what the word “propaganda” means.
We basically cannot know anything.
So, why are these Russian trolls so certain about everything?


Jesse Z. April 30, 2018 at 5:48 pm

The fact that anyone would even consider RT as a valid and non-compromised source blows my mind. It is run directly by the Kremlin and has no independence. I am skeptical of Western Mainstream media, sure, but the fact that Western Media is biased does not negate the fact that RT is biased (and even worse overall as it comes straight from a far right undemocratic regime).

Others might point to ‘alternative’ news like 21st Century Wire (founded by an associate of Alex Jones) or other pseudo-conspiracy sites that make a mockery of any real journalism. The reality is, you can also be against foreign intervention in Syria without parroting blatant lies and engaging in massacre denial. The reason why the anti-war movement has faltered is because wide swathes of it are doing just that, and people have ethical issues with associating with such organizations.


Guy Mika April 29, 2018 at 2:30 pm

I think both of the sentiments in this comment section are exactly the kind of argument I was trying to get away from. Whether the gass attacks happened or not there is no question Assad is a brutal leader. However, the question I am trying to raise is why is Assad’s brutality the argument rather than the utility of intervention. That’s where Iraq comes in. I don’t think anyone disputes that Saddam was a horrible dictator however that didn’t mean that the U.S. should have removed him by force. That is a nuance that the left seemed to understand in the early 2000s that for some reason has slipped away from thev debate in recent years


Dr Paul April 30, 2018 at 1:09 pm

A thoughtful piece: for some on the left, Syria has become a — or, rather, the defining — touchstone of one’s left credentials. ‘You don’t support the Syrian Revolution? You’re an apologist for Assad.’ — that’s the sort of argument I hear. Anything less than full, unconditional, uncritical, support for the opposition to Assad means that one is an apologist for him and anything you may say on this and (for some people) any other subject is therefore invalidated. It thus seems impossible strongly to oppose Assad and Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria, and also to have grave doubts about the democratic credentials of much of the opposition, without becoming an apologist for the regime.

I have never supported the Assad regime, and I feel that it is responsible not just for a lot of the mass bloodshed over the last six or so years, but also for refusing to negotiate with democratic, secular elements when they first emerged. I have been very critical of pro-Assad types on the left, and have also criticised the Stop the War Campaign for their refusal properly to condemn all outside interference in Syria (criticising Moscow would lead to a major split in the StWC). Yet because I have few illusions in the democratic credentials of much of the opposition, and feel that were the opposition to overthrow Assad we would just get another Libya-style disaster, I am but a little less noxious in their eyes than the outright supporters of Assad.

We had this before in the Yugoslav civil wars, where many left-wingers variously backed one of the warring factions and condemned those who backed other ones. Those of us who refused to choose any of the factions were dubbed apologists of the opponents of whoever the accusers were backing. We really haven’t made any advance since then.


North Cascadian May 1, 2018 at 10:57 am

I remember the antiwar movement leading to the destruction of Iraq. I remember wondering how could we be committing such a bold morally depraved action of attacking a people who had done nothing to the American people at all. Who were the pro war people of America? Then the AIPAC meetings started in the spring of 03, and it all became clear. Zionists were prowar. Zionists wanted regime change in the middle east as part of the “securing the realm” of Israel. Th


North Cascadian May 1, 2018 at 11:03 am

This Zionist pro war contingent still wants the blood of the Syrian people and assad. They occupy left groups as well preventing them from addressing the real cause of this shit show in the middle east. Where are the calls for regime change in Israel?


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