In 1929 the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui noted that ‘[a]nti-imperialism… does not annul class antagonisms nor suppress different class interests.’1 In 2017, as Syria smoulders still beneath the barrel bombs of Assadist tyranny, we can say with some justice that ‘anti-imperialism’ seems to take no notice of class at all.
After all, Bashar al-Assad is nothing if not the supreme class enemy of most of the Syrian people. He succeeded his father Hafez — the butcher of Hama — as president more than sixteen years ago, and his inheritance was a totalitarian police state in which all political dissent was savagely repressed by means of torture, imprisonment, mass surveillance, enforced disappearance and the like. Soon after taking power, Assad the Younger began to ‘liberalise’ the Syrian economy, much to the delight of financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund. Among other things, he opened up sector after sector — most notably banking — to private capital, granted exploration rights to foreign-based oil and gas multinationals and imposed austerity measures that hit the poorest hardest. The effects of such ‘reforms’ as these have been observed in many an ‘advanced’ Western ‘democracy’ — mounting unemployment, a rising poverty line, obscene wealth-concentration — but in Syria they were magnified by cronyism Platonic in its purity (Assad’s first cousin Rami Makhlouf is a multi-billionaire said to control 60 per cent of the Syrian economy) and vastly more ruinous owing to a severe drought that lasted from 2006-10, the most extreme to hit the region in close to a millennium. Likely worsened by a combination of anthropogenic climate change and the regime’s ‘criminal mismanagement of land, water and food resources’, the drought caused crop failure on a massive scale and displaced hundreds of thousands of farmers and agriculturally-dependent rural villagers.2
Hereditary dictatorship overlaid with neoliberal economics against a barren backdrop of food and water scarcity: it is little wonder that a popular uprising against Assadist rule effloresced when it did in spring 2011 (incidentally, just a week or two after a fawning profile of the tyrant’s wife Asma appeared in Vogue magazine). Nearly every single day during March and into April of that year, Syrians of all stripes gathered peacefully in their thousands in numberless cities up and down the country. Before too long Assad’s security forces began, with sickening inevitability, to suppress the demonstrations. On ‘Great Friday’ — April 22 — more than a hundred protesters were killed in Daraa, the birthplace of the revolution, and three days later the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) moved to attack and occupy the city. Sieges of Homs and Hama followed, and it soon became clear to the Syrian people that they would have to militarise their resistance to the regime. So it was that ex-officers of the SAA established the federal Free Syrian Army in July 2011.
A year and several battles and massacres later, Assad’s counter-insurgency had become a war, and the tide of blood hasn’t looked like abating since. Syria today is totally fractured. Its economy and infrastructure — such as they were — have all but disintegrated, and much of the country is effectively under foreign occupation. Thanks in large part to mass defections from the SAA (one of the surest indices of Assad’s low standing among his people), Assad-controlled regions have for some time now been presided over by a dizzying mosaic of sectarian militias from across the Middle East and beyond, as well as Iranian troops (including Revolutionary Guards), fighters from Hezbollah and, since September 2015, the Russian Air Force and Spetsnaz. Meanwhile Daesh holds fast to large swathes of eastern Syria, and a coalition of Western states led, of course, by the incubator of Daesh is engaged in a years-old bombing campaign of its own.
The sheer scale of the devastation wrought by more than half a decade of multi-frontal fighting beggars belief. At the outset of the crisis, the country’s population stood at around 22 million. By the end of 2016, well over half that number of people had been killed or dislocated. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that close to 5 million refugees have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that there are 6.3 million internally displaced persons. And working on the basis of estimates from the UN special envoy to Syria and the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, it would be entirely reasonable to put the death toll so far at fully 500,000 people. Only those possessed of a flippant disregard for facts would doubt that Assad bears most of the blame for these stark statistics. According to one estimate, cited with approval by such authorities as Idrees Ahmad and Leila al-Shami, approximately 93% of violent civilian deaths since March 2011 have occurred at the hands of pro-government forces. It is also said that tens upon tens of thousands of people — many of them dissidents — have been tortured or killed or both in the regime’s prisons since the war began.
For their part the Syrian people have demonstrated remarkable resilience, creativity and courage amid the strife that has shattered their lives. In the de facto autonomous cantons of Rojava, for instance, which came to prominence in the West following the Siege of Kobanî in 2014, a far-reaching emancipatory project saw much of the majority-Kurdish population reorganise its economy and society around communes and co-operative associations in line with the Bookchinian principles of democratic confederalism. Less well-known but without doubt even more extraordinary than the Rojava project are the hundreds of ‘self-organised, democratically-selected revolutionary councils’ that have kept civil society alive in Arab areas by co-ordinating the resistance and providing essential public services in the teeth of heavy aerial bombardment by the regime and its Russian ally.3 In light of this the Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz was absolutely justified in declaring — shortly before his arrest by Assad’s mukhabarat and subsequent death in detention — that ‘[w]e are no less than Paris Commune workers. They resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half’.4
For all its imperfections, and despite the fact that it has largely been spared by Assad and Putin, Rojava continues to attract uncritical leftist admirers in their droves. But the relative indifference shown by the very same leftists to the autonomous social formations that have emerged from the blood and rubble of hellscapes like eastern Aleppo is emblematic of the failings — both moral and intellectual — of the so-called anti-imperialist Left in respect of this conflict as a whole. The shameful reality is that since 2011, too many of us have effectively chosen to throw in our lot with Assad by declining to apprehend the contours of the conflict through the all-important lens of class, preferring instead to apply a pre-formed template that attributes all culpability for any war anywhere to Western imperialism.
Thus we poured scorn on the suggestion that Assad gassed 1,400 innocents at Ghouta in 2013, seemingly unaware that he had deployed chemical weapons against his own people on at least two previous occasions. We spewed apologetics of varying distastefulness in which we implied that Assad was a bulwark against U.S. global hegemony, forgetting that his regime had colluded with the CIA in the torture of terror suspects at ‘black sites’ on Syrian soil. And like good Orientalists, we dehumanised the native Arabs as passive faceless victims or else organ-eating jihadists, apparently believing them incapable of organising, agitating and resisting in the ways that they have done.
In short, we who can be deemed — by reason of our self-professed radicalism — to have had constructive knowledge5 of Assadist tyranny and popular opposition thereto showed ourselves to be utterly contemptuous of the facts on the ground, of sober class-based analysis and of the existence, agency and unthinkable suffering of the Syrian people. Now we are contrite, but after the destruction and fall of Aleppo and half a million dead, such hand-wringing as this is utterly meaningless.
Not only has our ‘anti-imperialism’ been devoid of all class character but it has also long since become unmoored from any objective definition of imperialism itself. This has led us to limit ourselves to no more than tepid condemnation of the Russian invaders, without the brutality of whose air power ‘the regime would not be able to advance a single handspan’, in Aleppo or anywhere else.6 Indeed, Assad’s government was by all accounts close to collapse in September 2015 when it beseeched Vladimir Putin to revive its ailing fortunes. Within a few months — perhaps as a token of its gratitude — it was preparing to hand over the Syrian energy sector to Russian corporations, and not long after that it granted Moscow license to expand its military facilities at both Tartus and Khmeimim into permanent bases.7 What is this if not imperialism? And why do we leftists continue to minimise or ignore it? Why too the disproportionate focus on coalition air strikes when the Russian Air Force is systematically flattening hospitals and aid convoys? It seems that Orwell was right when he wrote that ‘[s]o much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.’8
Of course, none of this is to absolve the United States or its allies of the atrocities that they themselves have committed in Syria over the last few years, or to endorse (further) military action by Western powers in the Middle East as a whole. It is neither to deny that the world’s foremost imperialist organisation — the U.S. government — has definite strategic and economic interests in the region — of which the destabilisation of Syria is one and has been for years — nor to claim that the USG would knowingly take a course of action that was inimical to such interests (in other words, Obama’s policy on Syria, when viewed in the round from the perspective of power elites, cannot have been as ‘disastrous’ as we are led to believe).
Instead it is simply to attack the lazy, degraded, free-floating, ‘Oedipal’9 anti-imperialism of many on the Left for precluding a proper understanding of the conflict and the struggle of the Syrian people for freedom that is at its heart.
5. In the legalistic sense, per Peter Gibson J in the English case Baden v Societe Generale pour Favoriser le Developpement du Commerce et de l’Industrie en France  BCLC 325: ‘the court will treat a person as having constructive knowledge of the facts if he wilfully shuts his eyes to the relevant facts which would be obvious if he opened his eyes’.