The Arab and Lebanese Left: From Political Economy to Islamophobia?

Homs, Syria

By Elie Chalala

I am amazed by the intellectual decay of recent leftist analysis regarding the Syrian revolution. I am not referring to the immorality of their positions when they apologize for an Arab Pol Pot in Damascus, but rather their logic. They offer only impoverished intellectual explanations for the supposed "enemies" of the Syrian regime like the extremist Islamic jihadist groups or the so called takfiris.

The days have past when Arab and Lebanese leftist analysis was inspired by the political economy, radical schools of thought ranging from classical to structuralist Marxism, dependency and world systems theories, as well as the works of world renowned Arab theorists like Samir Amin, just to mention a few. Instead nowadays, leftists who used to apply and glorify the explanatory powers of these theories have dangerously shelved back critical analysis and incorporated islamophobia into their arguments. Their present analysis has become almost devoid of any reference to civil society, political and economic development, or any indigenous Syrian conditions. They fail to mention, for example, the sectarianism and corruption that fostered a hotbed for jihadist groups. 

While the Syrian revolution is not faultless, one cannot escape the facts that both the jihadist groups and the Assad regime inflicted military and political harm on its fighters and image. Yet, the revolution’s critics on the left draw surprisingly superficial conclusions. This is especially apparent when they blame the revolution for the militarization of the conflict (al-askara). It is absurd to overlook the fact that the regime's own military response to the peaceful protests lead to the arming of the opposition in self-protection. It is equally troubling how the left missed the causal link between the violent response of the regime to peaceful protests in 2011 and the rise of the jihadist groups at the expense of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). 

The rise of jihadist groups is readily evident; thus the immediate question becomes "how do we explain this phenomena?" There are two types of explanations: the sinister or conspiratorial account, on one hand, and the political-ideological one on the other. The advocates of the first are mostly pro-opposition groups; they make the case that jihadist groups are planted by the regime inside the opposition as many of the extremists were once in Syrian prisons and set free into Iraq to join Al Qaeda groups against the U.S. forces. They argue that by encouraging these groups' infiltration into the Syrian opposition, the regime will distort the FSA image as a moderate force and scare away Western support. I believe there is some truth to this, but it is not the whole story. 

The second explanation, circulated by mostly Lebanese and Syrian leftists, is as far from being leftist as the takfiris's distance from being Marxists. They claim takfiris are evil, intolerant, and wish ill to everyone unlike them. Very few would dispute the criminal conduct of Jabhat al-Nusra and The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known in Arabic as داعش) , which are both affiliated with Al Qaeda. Their political explanation sheds the blame on outside meddling. It is Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and even Turkey who created and nourished these organizations by funds and arms. They say this assistance to the opposition is counter-productive and fuels extremism. Watching Lebanese television programs broadcast their absurd and theatrical analysis, the viewers see leftists question the Qatari and Saudi democratic credentials in an attempt to expose the reactionary nature of their monarchical regimes, portraying the Syrian regime as a foil. They ridiculously paint Assad as enlightened leader. In fact, the leftists construct a straw enemy for whatever claims the Qataris and the Saudis are making rests on the fact that the Syrian regime is committing genocide against the Syrian people and they would do whatever they could to defeat the regime by assisting the opposition and not to "spread democracy" in the Levant. Further, Qatar and Saudi Arabia do not deny that they are motivated by sectarian affinity with the Syrian opposition. However, a comparative analysis between the Assad regime and the Qatari and Saudi systems is disingenuous at best, thus serving no purpose other than defending the Assad killing machine.

Nowhere in the leftist discourse about the Syrian regime have we seen references to the regime's unfurling: its neoliberal policies, for instance, that sacrificed the interests of the peasants, workers and the middle classes in the Syrian countryside and the suburbs of large cities like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Instead, we are told of one of the most contemptuous jokes in the pro-Assad leftist propaganda -- the persistent propagation of the claim that Syria is the only secular Arab regime. While, in fact, Syria has been the most sectarian, surpassing even its Lebanese neighbor. Rather than examining sectarianism as another source of popular discontent, some Lebanese leftists have turned this political epidemic into one of the regime's assets. 

They also ignore the nepotism, plunder and corruption, which alienated a broad majority of the Syrian people from their government. And it is this alienation that paved the way for jihadist groups. The leftists easily gloss over more than 50 years of repression, the obliteration of civil society and the destruction of political life that left a majority of the population caught between a dead and meaningless ideology like Baathism supported by a sophisticated network of prisons of torture and death on one hand and jihadist groups of all shapes and stripes ready to exploit the vulnerabilities of the Syrian people. While this is hardly ideal for most Syrians, no one bothered to ask if the regime’s bloody legacy is actually an antidote to the criminal exploitation by the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

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