The “Anti-Imperialism” Of Idiots

From People And Nature A guest post by Leila Al=Shami, first published on her blog.

Once more the western ‘anti-war’ movement has awoken to mobilise around Syria. This is the third time since 2011. The first was when Obama contemplated striking the Syrian regime’s military capability (but didn’t) following chemical attacks on the Ghouta in 2013, considered a ‘red line’. The second time was when Donald Trump ordered a strike which hit an empty regime military base in response to chemical attacks on Khan Sheikhoun in 2017. And today, as the US, UK and France take limited military action (targeted strikes on regime military assets and chemical weapons facilities) following a chemical weapons attack in Douma which killed at least 34 people, including many children who were sheltering in basements from bombing.

Cartoon by Yaser, criticising selective outrage which only applies to chemical attacks

The first thing to note from the three major mobilisations of the western ‘anti-war’ left is that they have little to do with ending the war. More than half a million Syrians have been killed since 2011. The vast majority of civilian deaths have been through the use of conventional weapons and 94 per cent of these victims were killed by the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance. There is no outrage or concern feigned for this war, which followed the regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrators. There’s no outrage when barrel bombs, chemical weapons and napalm are dropped on democratically self-organized communities or target hospitals and rescue workers. Civilians are expendable; the military capabilities of a genocidal, fascist regime are not. In fact the slogan ‘Hands off Syria’ really means ‘Hands off Assad’ and support is often given for Russia’s military intervention. This was evident yesterday at a demonstration organized by Stop the War UK where a number of regime and Russian flags were shamefully on display.

This left exhibits deeply authoritarian tendencies, one that places states themselves at the centre of political analysis. Solidarity is therefore extended to states (seen as the main actor in a struggle for liberation) rather than oppressed or underprivileged groups in any given society, no matter that state’s tyranny. Blind to the social war occurring within Syria itself, the Syrian people (where they exist) are viewed as mere pawns in a geo-political chess game. They repeat the mantra ‘Assad is the legitimate ruler of a sovereign country’. Assad – who inherited a dictatorship from his father and has never held, let alone won, a free and fair election. Assad – whose ‘Syrian Arab Army’ can only regain the territory it lost with the backing of a hotchpotch of foreign mercenaries and supported by foreign bombs, and who are fighting, by and large, Syrian-born rebels and civilians. How many would consider their own elected government legitimate if it began carrying out mass rape campaigns against dissidents? It’s only the complete dehumanization of Syrians that makes such a position even possible. It’s a racism that sees Syrians as incapable of achieving, let alone deserving, anything better than one of the most brutal dictatorships of our time.

For this authoritarian left, support is extended to the Assad regime in the name of ‘anti-imperialism’. Assad is seen as part of the ‘axis of resistance’ against both US Empire and Zionism. It matters little that the Assad regime itself supported the first Gulf war, or participated in the US illegal rendition programme where suspected terrorists were tortured in Syria on the CIA’s behalf. The fact that this regime probably holds the dubious distinction of slaughtering more Palestinians than the Israeli state is constantly overlooked, as is the fact that it’s more intent on using its armed forces to suppress internal dissent than to liberate the Israeli-occupied Golan.

This ‘anti-imperialism’ of idiots is one which equates imperialism with the actions of the US alone. They seem unaware that the US has been bombing Syria since 2014. In its campaign to liberate Raqqa from Daesh all international norms of war and considerations of proportionality were abandoned. Over 1,000 civilians were killed and the UN estimates that 80 per cent of the city is now uninhabitable. There were no protests organized by leading ‘anti-war’ organizations against this intervention, no calls to ensure that civilians and civilian infrastructure were protected. Instead they adopted the ‘War on Terror’ discourse, once the preserve of neo-cons, now promulgated by the regime, that all opposition to Assad are jihadi terrorists. They turned a blind eye to Assad filling his gulag with thousands of secular, peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrators for death by torture, whilst releasing militant-Islamists from prison. Similarly, the continuing protests held in liberated areas in opposition to extremist and authoritarian groups such as Daesh, Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham have been ignored. Syrians are not seen as possessing the sophistication to hold a diverse range of views. Civil society activists (including many amazing women), citizen journalists, humanitarian workers are irrelevant. The entire opposition is reduced to its most authoritarian elements or seen as mere conduits for foreign interests.

This pro-fascist left seems blind to any form of imperialism that is non-western in origin. It combines identity politics with egoism. Everything that happens is viewed through the prism of what it means for westerners – only white men have the power to make history. According to the Pentagon there are currently around 2000 American troops in Syria. The US has established a number of military bases in the Kurdish-controlled north for the first time in Syria’s history. This should concern anyone who supports Syrian self-determination yet pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of Iranian troops and Iranian backed Shia militias which are now occupying large parts of the country, or the murderous bombing raids carried out by the Russian air force in support of the fascist dictatorship. Russia has now established permanent military bases in the country, and has been handed exclusive rights over Syria’s oil and gas as a reward for its support. Noam Chomsky once argued that Russia’s intervention could not be considered imperialism because it was invited to bomb the country by the Syrian regime. By that analysis, the US’s intervention in Vietnam was not imperialism either, invited as it was by the South-Vietnamese government.

A number of anti-war organizations have justified their silence on Russian and Iranian interventions by arguing that ‘the main enemy is at home’. This excuses them from undertaking any serious power analysis to determine who the main actors driving the war actually are. For Syrians the main enemy is indeed at home – it’s Assad who is engaging in what the UN has termed ‘the crime of extermination’. Without being aware of their own contradictions many of the same voices have been vocally opposed (and rightly so) to Israel’s current assault on peaceful demonstrators in Gaza. Of course, one of the main ways imperialism works is to deny native voices. In this vein, leading western anti-war organizations hold conferences on Syria without inviting any Syrian speakers.

The other major political trend to have thrown its weight behind the Assad regime and organize against US, UK and French strikes on Syria is the far right. Today, the discourse of fascists and these ‘anti-imperialist leftists’ is virtually indistinguishable. In the US, white supremacist Richard Spencer, alt right podcaster Mike Enoch and anti-immigration activist Ann Coulter are all opposing US strikes. In the UK former BNP leader Nick Griffin and Islamophobe Katie Hopkins join the calls. The place where the alt-right and alt-left frequently converge is around promoting various conspiracy theories to absolve the regime of its crimes. They claim chemical massacres are false flags or that rescue workers are Al Qaeda and therefore legitimate targets for attack. Those spreading such reports are not on the ground in Syria and are unable to independently verify their claims. They are often dependent on Russian or Assad state propaganda outlets because they ‘don’t trust the MSM’ or Syrians directly affected. Sometimes the convergence of these two seemingly opposite strands of the political spectrum turns into outright collaboration. The ANSWER coalition, which is organizing many of the demonstrations against a strike on Assad in the US, has such a history. Both strands frequently promote Islamophobic and anti-Semitic narratives. Both share the same talking points and same memes.

There are many valid reasons for opposing external military intervention in Syria, whether it be by the US, Russia, Iran or Turkey. None of these states are acting in the interests of the Syrian people, democracy or human rights. They act solely in their own interests. The US, UK and French intervention today is less about protecting Syrians from mass-atrocity and more about enforcing an international norm that chemical weapons use is unacceptable, lest one day they be used on westerners themselves. More foreign bombs will not bring about peace and stability. There’s little appetite to force Assad from power which would contribute to ending the worst of the atrocities. Yet in opposing foreign intervention, one needs to come up with an alternative to protect Syrians from slaughter. It’s morally objectionable to say the least to expect Syrians to just shut up and die to protect the higher principle of ‘anti-imperialism’. Many alternatives to foreign military intervention have been proposed by Syrians time and again and have been ignored. And so the question remains, when diplomatic options have failed, when a genocidal regime is protected from censure by powerful international backers, when no progress is made in stopping daily bombing, ending starvation sieges or releasing prisoners who are being tortured on an industrial scale, what can be done.

I no longer have an answer. I’ve consistently opposed all foreign military intervention in Syria, supported Syrian led process to rid their country of a tyrant and international processes grounded in efforts to protect civilians and human rights and ensure accountability for all actors responsible for war-crimes. A negotiated settlement is the only way to end this war – and still seems as distant as ever. Assad (and his backers) are determined to thwart any process, pursue a total military victory and crush any remaining democratic alternative. Hundreds of Syrians are being killed every week in the most barbaric ways imaginable. Extremist groups and ideologies are thriving in the chaos wrought by the state. Civilians continue to flee in their thousands as legal processes – such as Law No.10 – are implemented to ensure they will never return to their homes. The international system itself is collapsing under the weight of its own impotence. The words ‘Never Again’ ring hollow. There’s no major people’s movement which stands in solidarity with the victims. They are instead slandered, their suffering is mocked or denied, and their voices either absent from discussions or questioned by people far away, who know nothing of Syria, revolution or war, and who arrogantly believe they know what is best. It is this desperate situation which causes many Syrians to welcome the US, UK and France’s action and who now see foreign intervention as their only hope, despite the risks they know it entails.

One thing is for sure – I won’t lose any sleep over targeted strikes aimed at regime military bases and chemical weapons plants which may provide Syrians with a short respite from the daily killing. And I will never see people who place grand narratives over lived realities, who support brutal regimes in far off countries, or who peddle racism, conspiracy theories and atrocity denial, as allies. 14 April 2018 (posted here 15 April)

Leila Al-Shami is a British Syrian, who has been involved in human rights and social justice struggles in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East since 2000. She is co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.

More on Syria and Iran

A new edition of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, was published in February this year.

Iran: sedition, revolt, revolution and social disintegration, by Torab Saleth (March 2018)

Syria: the revolution is alive, but buried under rubble (December 2017)

The voices of Syria’s revolution (July 2017)

■ Syria. “Tyrants across the world know now they can maintain power through mass slaughter”. Interview with Leila al-Shami (December 2016)


  1. What a steaming pile of shxte I have just read. As a so called British Syrian, the writer of this garbage ignores the stark rise of ISIS under the careful watch of the 'concerning' West. And the sheer fact of the matter is that ISIS was growing and growing despite the West being in Syria to stop them. In comes Russia and all of a sudden ISIS are bursted like a cheap balloon. Coincidence? No chance.

    Btw, the writers claim that 94% of the victims of the Syrian conflict were caused by the SAA and its allies is highly highly debatable indeed. In fact only a dummy would believe that. Do you think the SAA were fighting choirboys ffs? For example, it's estimated that over 100,000 Syrian troops have been killed by the jihadis; that should reduce the writers biased estimates if anyone has a simple grasp of maths.

    P.s the West fake outrage concerning the disputed chemical attack shouldn't mask the anger the West has that their plan(regime change) has been blew out of the water by those pesky Russians. Not only that but their show of strength not only demonstrated how weak they are it has exposed them for the gangsters and cowards they are and were.

  2. An excellently written and sourced article which lays bare the nexus of far right and far left support for the the 21st century's first mass murderer in state; President Assad. I am not sure if Wolfe Tone deserves the opportunity for debate due to his casually racist dismissal of the "so-called British Syrian" who I have no doubt is a genuine Syrian but let's examine one of his laughable statements. The Russians only appeared in Syria in December 2015 when invited in by the Assad regime staring defeat in the face. They took advantage of the vacuum created by the shameful failure of Western Democracies to impose the red lines over chemical weapons after the Gouta sarin gas attack in August 2013. The Russians played a minimal part in the defeat of ISIS with the heavy lifting being done by the brave Kurdish YPG with airpower support from Western powers (not without some appalling human cost in Raqaa after Trump came to power as the author mentions). The Russians preferred to help Assad smash non-ISIS opposition.

    I would advise TPQ readers who are sickened of the garbage which Wolfe Tone and his ilk spews out so inarticulately about Syria to check out the links to the refutation of the lies spread about the White Helmets which the author provides.

    Good to see Syrians bearing witness to the destruction of their nation unmoderated by the Nick Griffins, Vanessa Beeleys and Wolfe Tones of this world.

  3. wolfe tone isnt spewing out garbage barry and id say TPQ readers, like more and more people, are beginning to see what NGOs and pseudo-charities like the shite helmets and shamnasty international are all about. here is a big hint for you barry about the chemical attacks and indeed most of what we've been looking at on de telly for donkeys years (only 2 and a halk mins long) -

    we're beginning to see thru it all (as indeed are ordinary people all over the world) - but ur either in denial barry, or are indeed a fully paid up member of the internet disinformation wing of the shite helmets.

  4. Barry,
    What do you mean by the "opportunity to debate"? If someone says something you deem offensive should they be automatically disregarded? Am a bit biased i automatically disbelieve western governments due to their constant lies. I doubt Putin or Assad would be better although they trouble me less as i don't live under them. On good morning joe on msnbc a commentator with connections to the cia said it is well known in intelligence agencies that that the cia and Saudi Arabia were massive influences in the uprising against Assad and foreign jihadis were hugely significant. Should people like him be ignored? This fella certainly wasn't far left or far right.

  5. David

    If Wolfe Tone and Grouch could back up their arguments with proper evidence as opposed to resorting to racist prejudice, personal insults and Holocaust denial calumnies then they would be worth debating with. The ability to write good prose would help also.

  6. batty gilhooly - u must be feeling the heat to come out with this cracker -" racist prejudice, personal insults and Holocaust denial calumnies" - which makes me think you are indeed a shite helmet.

  7. and batty - im just after noticing this - "The ability to write good prose would help also." this coming from the man for whom grammarly was invented.

  8. Barry, Sorry but I refuse to get into debates with folk who are mentally unstable as one wrong word could push them into a dark place and all that.

  9. Barry,
    Am not sided with anyone and i don't know the history of debates between yourselves, just thought it a strange choice of words for a debare forum. What do you make of Peter Hitchens, very British establishment, pointing out to this week host Andrew Neil the inconsistences of the Syria narative and the fact that the army of islam, who controlled the town which the attack apparantley took place, had themselves been accused of a chemical attack in Damascus? Although this proves nothing it surely opens up debate. Let's deal in what we know now to be fact regarding propaganda of western powers, gulf of tonkin, operation northwood ( although Kennedy blackballed it, it shows the thinking of intelligence agencies) the ambassador of kuwait's daughter
    pretending to witness events in a hospital when she was miles away, wmds 12 year later against the same dictator. How many times can we swallow their lies and resulting war crimes just because the story is constructed against vicious men?

  10. This is a great piece of writing that raises serious questions about the regressive left and how they end up in bed with people like Assad or Saddam. At the same time I think David Higgins is right when he points out that we can believe absolutely nothing that the Western leaders tell us about Syria. There have been too many lies from them over the years. Assad is a war criminal but he was an okay war criminal when he was the US go to guy for torture not so many years back.

    The author loses no sleep over the latest bombing of Syria by the US lead attackers. Just as I lost none when Russia hammered ISIS. But I wonder if being nonchalant towards bombing either by Russia or the US is an attitude we can ultimately feel comfortable with.

    When Harris of Bomber Command was daily happily massacring German civilians in their thousands, many thought it was the Nazis getting it right up them. When we start realising what really happened courtesy of British war criminals, the one drawback of Nuremburg is that the gallows were only populated by Germans.

    Articles of this quality from a top drawer blog like P&N give us food for thought even when we find there is much in them we can disagree with.

  11. heres an ageing rocker who has copped on to the shite helmets. fair ball to him.

    as he says at the end - wake up and smell the fucking roses.


    lads, lassies - its time to do something about this crap, seriously, time to stop paying ur tv licenses at least and start protesting outside rte and bbc. time to get real with lying scum in main stream media- they are being paid huge money and know they're filling us full of shit day in day out. seriously, time to get real with media warmongering vermin.

  13. what do u make of this tribute to Aleppo's mighty warriors -

  14. this explains the shite helmets, shamnasty multinational and other ngo/charity scam merchants very clearly -

    ordinary paddies are up against these billionaire funded globalist scam artists in the referendum in may. it will be one of the greatest victories of ordinary people against the corporate oligarchy if we win.

  15. Matt Treacy says

    The infatuation of the infantile left with Putin and Assad is a strange phenomenon. It approaches Stockholm syndrome when one considers what Putin did to their beloved Soviet Union, and what the Assad gangsters have done for 50 years to the Syrian left. Only response seems to be Julius Streicher like abuse of anyone who points this out to them!

  16. Matt Treacy, it's not about left or right; it's about what's right and wrong. Please pay attention.