Syria's regime and a populist left

Syria under the rule of Hafez al-Assad acquired the image of a bastion of intransigent anti-imperialism that made it attractive to a section of the western left. The process reflected changes in regional politics whose effects are felt to this day, say Hazem Saghieh & Samer Frangie.

The unease of much of the western left in face of the popular uprising in Syria has taken several different forms. Among them are scepticism about its "revolutionary" character; the notion that it is rather a civil war in the making; and the belief that it is a "western conspiracy" against the "last bastion of resistance" in the Arab world. This unease - which contrasts sharply with the left's endorsement of the other Arab revolutions - has less to do with the facts on the ground than with the long, tortuous love-affair that has bound what might be called the "western populist left" to the dying Syrian regime.

This populist group, a brand of the third-worldist left, obviously does not represent the left as a whole, but it has emerged as one of the family's most prominent currents in relation to the Arab world. Its connection to the Syrian regime highlights both the flaws of its thinking and this regime's capacity to co-opt radical discourses for dubious aims.

The historic shift

After 1967, the western left became obsessed with the Palestinian cause. Perhaps a double atonement was involved: for the west’s colonial history in the region, but also for the  left's own affection for Israel in the twenty years since its inception, on the grounds that the country had a “socialist” character embodied by its kibbutz movement. This drive for atonement ended in 1993, when the Oslo accords were signed. The left then lost interest in Palestine, at a time when the Palestinian struggle was morphing into various forms of Islamism. The western left had (and has) many ways of excusing and justifying Islamism, but for a myriad of reasons can never join forces with it.

The shifting stance of the Palestinian revolutionary forces deprived the western left of the leading object of its revolutionary exoticism, a gap that the Syrian regime was soon to fill. Bashar al-Assad's Syria is not Islamist, and thus differs both from Hamas and from Hizbollah's Shi'a embrace of the principles of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardian of the Islamic Jurist, a model of clerical rule in the Iranian style). From a broader cultural standpoint, the Syrian regime came to represent an ''acceptable'' balance between uncompromising faithfulness to the western left's cause and a certain measure of progressive modernism that the left could support without embarrassment. Even though not all of the left accepted this switching of partners, the aura of Syria as a non-Islamist supporter of the Islamic resistance appealed to many.

The shift from pro-Palestinian to pro-Syrian inclinations did not cost the left much in the way of ideological currency. Indeed, these two Arab affiliates' stockpile of rhetorical instruments (from anti-imperialist to anti-Israeli) made the transition easy. The Syria of Hafez al-Assad, intent on holding multiple cards, was content to put this small leftist card in its pocket, while competing with the Palestinians over the real and bigger cards. At the same time, Damascus never hesitated to take advantage of any faltering over the Palestinian-Israeli peace track by propelling its own peace-track with the Israelis to the forefront. The exaggeration of the Syrian - or rather Assad’s - role detracted from Palestinian rights, and by its assent or complicity in it, the western left complemented what the western right had begun decades earlier.

The logic of solidarity

But the affinity of the western left with “Assad’s Syria” (a term that continued to apply after the succession of father by son in 2000) is multilayered, and contains elements that do not fit the usual populist formula. Syria was not an “oil regime," nor ruled by a “feudal” system or by “clients of imperialism.” Above all, and Hafez al-Assad's massacre in Hama in 1982 of those deemed to be "reactionary” Islamists notwithstanding, Syria did not give the world a figure like Saddam Hussein, who used chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds and liquidated political enemies en masse (including cadres of the Iraqi Communist Party).

“Assad’s Syria” also offered a contrast to Algeria's unravelling civil war of the 1990s and the bizarre embarrassments of Gaddafi's Libya. And when, under the heir Bashar in the 2000s, Syria partly adopted a neoliberal economic model, it was possible for the left to portray this deviation as a conspiracy against the Syrian regime, “whose steadfastness was being targeted.” There were even insinuations that the Sunni “business class”, first in Damascus and then in Beirut when Rafiq Hariri was prime minister, was the digger of this crooked road that would tempt Syria into collaboration with western capitalism.

All this allowed the left to see "Assad's Syria" as a worthy repository of its "solidarity".Insofar as the regime displayed expansionist inclinations of its own (towards Lebanon), this only confirmed that it was in “objective” conflict with the legacy of the colonial Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916; while the broad sectarian composition of the Syrian regime was overlooked on the grounds that a sectarian-based analysis would inevitably be seen as "orientalist".

The process was reinforced by two historic antagonisms within Syria and Lebanon that the left was eager to recycle, direcly or indirectly. The first is the notion that "Assad's Syria" embodied a progressive hostility to the legacy of a reactionary Ottomanism, with its landowners and outdated traditions. In this interpretation, the Sunni political classes that succeeded the colonial regimes in the Levant could be seen as “collaborators” with the latter. After all, the way they accepted the institutional framework of parliaments and the like suggested that they were in no way interested in a radical rupture with the west.

This pattern was ended only by military coups against the new elites, and the overthrow of such figures as Jamil Mardam Bey and Khalid al-Azm in Syria, and Nuri al-Said in Iraq. Several decades on, the triumphalist display of leadership by the businessman Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon could be seen as a sort of belated vindication of those elites, and this was enough to make him deserve a similar punishment.

The second antagonism involved Lebanon. Since most of the weight of Syrian policy since 1976 was focused on its neighbour and would-be vassal, a positive attitude towards Assad’s regime necessarily entailed a negative one vis-à-vis Lebanon, and vice-versa. Lebanon was no candidate for any socialist fantasy: it had no grand military schemes or industrial projects; its consensual, balance-of-power system insulated it from top-down ideological uniformity; large segments of the population persisted in gibbering in French, or remained strongly Christian; and Beirut, unlike “authentic” Damascus, was ever a hybrid place that looked outwards and accepted its entrepot role. 

The twice deceived

The western populist left arrived at its support for “Assad’s Syria” in a moment of deep political transformation marked by the end of the Nasserite project, the crisis of the "third-world state", the disappearance of the "socialist camp", the decline of the Palestinian revolution, and associated dreams of a total national-social liberation. In an era of disappointment where solidarity could only be expressed from a distance, “Assad’s Syria” - which gave rhetorical support to “resistance movements” in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine - brought hope of a possible reconnection with the region. This role was bolstered by the demands of political struggle with the United States, and silent acceptance of the intelligence and security roles of the new enemies of "imperialism”.

The authority and personality of Hafez al-Assad carried through the excusable necessities and paid the costly ethical price of its realism, including military rule, repression and massacre. When the reins were handed over to his son Bashar, the regime had only posture left to offer. Yet the attributes of the new leader (his youth, his London-raised wife, his years of study in Britain) were used to advance the claim that he too was "anti-imperialist", a secular president who could serve as (at least) a caricature of old struggles for liberation and social justice.

In this context, “Assad’s Syria” - the foremost of those regimes that did business with “imperialism" - inherited the orphans of the left, whose previous theoretical interest in such matters as the class character of the state and its apparatuses of oppression suddenly evaporated, leaving only its reliance on a semblance of "struggle”. The western populist left's love is revealed as the love of one who deceives himself before being deceived by the beloved. Amid the ruins of "Assad's Syria" and the left's own dreams, the retreat of both into a world of their own making is complete.

About the authors

Samer Frangie is an assistant professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. His research interests are social and political theory and political economy, with an emphasis on the middle east

Hazem Saghieh is political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat

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Hazem Saghieh is political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat


Samer Frangie is an assistant professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. His research interests are social and political theory and political economy, with an emphasis on the middle east