Of particular significance was the location of the democratic uprisings – the U.S. has previously attempted to “bring” democracy to two countries in the Middle East, succeeding only in causing more chaos in a region where America sponsors one of the world’s longest-running military occupations. Comparing the scenes of valiant Egyptians repelling security forces to liberate Tahrir Square to staged images of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdaus Square by marines and Iraqis (who subsequently covered his face with an American flag) yields a rather stark critique of American militarism and the U.S. empire as a whole.
Until recently, U.S. policy in the Middle East has eclipsed progressives’ hopes that a real democracy will eventually take root. Looking across the region at American political practices, we see the following: support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, where it has instituted a modern-day apartheid regime; coercion of dictators in the region (like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan); and the brutalization of mass populations of innocent civilians. As progressives, it is our duty to oppose America’s unjust imperial ambitions. Revolutions targeting corrupt Western-backed dictators — like in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain — must be advocated wholeheartedly.
The uprising now known as the Arab Spring marked a new beginning for U.S.-Middle Eastern relations, emerging as a foundation for global democratic solidarity.
When the revolution spread to places like Syria, however, it introduced a conundrum for the left — while Assad’s resistance to Israel and the United States was a progressive stance globally (because it confronted empire and limited our country’s ability to wreak absolute havoc on the world), his corruption, repression, and violence toward his people introduced a local progressive view that required support for the people’s organic uprising. A growing split in the progressive movement had begun.
Divergent articles from the left claimed, for example, that the West was taking advantage of the protests, while others still argued that the situation in Syria was the result of armed insurrection supported covertly by foreign powers including the US, Turkey and Israel. While awareness of the Syrian government’s corruption and repression was common knowledge, until days before the start of the uprising many continued to claim that Assad maintained majority support and was immune to any uprising. Even the popular publication Vanity Fair produced a shameful story about the liberal and beloved nature of Syria’s first lady, calling her a “rose in the desert” (when the rose’s thorns became too visible, the magazine quickly removed the article from their website).
The left was suddenly at a loss for what to do, for it was now an enemy of the United States that was under attack.
While the mainstream was quick to pronounce the hypocrisy of articles like those above while ignoring the demands of Syrian protesters, the reality is in fact much more complicated than the “good people, bad regime,” formula we so commonly adhere to. The history of U.S. involvement in the region is too rich to close our eyes to the reality of imperialist aspirations in the region and the covert (and not-so-covert) ways the U.S. and its allies have tried to destabilize their foes.
The United States has for many years given financial support to Syrian opposition groups. In addition, reports are gradually emerging of a preponderance of arms among certain Syrian opposition outfits, a claim bolstered by heavy fighting in many areas, especially along the borders. Syria has accused Turkey of allowing arm shipments while Debka, an intelligence outfit based in Israel, has claimed that NATO is involved in arming training camps for Syrian revolutionaries. Smuggling weapons is not a very hard thing to do, especially when you have a border dominated by Syria on one side and a U.S.-controlled, highly militarized Iraq on the other.
U.S. involvement in destabilizing the Iranian regime offers a better documented trail of covert war. A string of continuing assassinations on nuclear scientists in Iran emerged a few months ago, while 2007 revelations in the New Yorker by American defense officials revealed covert funding to ethnic separatist rebel groups in Iran, a campaign which has subjected Iran to years of strife at the hands of militias and terrorist bombings.
The reality of covert warfare is undoubtedly complicated. Yet despite the present possibility of U.S. intervention in Syria, protesters continue to die every day at the hands of security forces merely because they dare to ask for freedom. It is impossibly hypocritical to denounce Syrian protesters but support their comrades elsewhere merely because of their autocrat’s stance on Israel (and it is insulting to suggest that the protesters sacrificing their lives for freedom could somehow reverse this stance once in power and support Zionist terror).
Additionally, accusations that Syrian protesters are armed rely on power-serving notions of a sort of dichotomy between nonviolent and armed resistance, as if the ability to die not holding a gun makes a protesters’ cause more legitimate than if he or she falls wielding a weapon. This dichotomy, which penalizes armed resistance to a regime that wields institutionalized violence more brutally than any group of protesters could ever dream of, is exactly the kind we criticize when we remind Israel that it is their institutionalized occupation that is chiefly responsible for Palestinian violence. How dare we suddenly become champions of nonviolent resistance when the murderous government happens to dislike Israel, too?
As progressives, we must support struggles for freedom everywhere, while being conscious and aware of the possibilities and dangers of imperialist intervention. Has the U.S. been covertly involved in undermining self-determination across the region? Yes, most certainly. Are a large number of Syrians divided about what future they want for their country? Definitely. Are protesters being gunned down on a daily basis for expressing their opinions? Yes, and we have a duty to support their struggle as they define it and in the ways that they call on us to stand with them.