Those of us who concern ourselves with the Syrian revolutionary war will be more than familiar with the old line, almost solely repeated by leftists and ham anti-imperialists, that they simply just can’t support the Syrian rebels because they’re ‘supported by imperialism’ or, in its even more crude and directly antagonistic form, that they’re ‘proxies of imperialism’ or stooges of forces that they’ve deemed to be be in the wrong ‘camp’, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. The logic of this is inherently irrational and/or downright perfidious.
Firstly, it’s usually wielded not as any kind of genuinely analytical point, but rather merely as a means to deny support for and even just interest in the Syrian rebels and the revolution in general. It’s a position shaped by counter-revolution, eurocentrism and isolationism rather than any form of progressivism. In different circumstances, this intercedes with sectarianism, different forms of chauvinisms and Islamophobia, which is apparently rendered acceptable within the remit of this kind of ‘anti-imperialism’ and the context of Syria.
Secondly, it is qualitatively and quantitively misleading and, in certain circumstances, meaningless as a description of the kind of support the rebel forces have received from countries deemed to be ‘imperialist’ over the course of the Syrian revolutionary war. While it’s completely true that certain rebel brigades have received weaponry from countries like the US, the actual function of the US has been an arbiter of what the rebels can and cannot receive from other countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya.
For example, as has been well established, the US currently enforces an embargo on rebel forces receiving anti-aircraft MANPADS, weapons which could be used to overcome Assad’s air force, which apart from being the main means used by the regime to terrorise civilian areas thus creating the massive refugee problem, has consistently given the regime the upper hand on the battlefield, but which could also in other circumstances, in the mind of the US, be turned against its regional allies, namely Israel.
But all of this obscures the fact that the vast majority of Syrian rebels have not been armed by ‘imperialism’ in any way, shape or form. When Barack Obama began to fully concentrate US attention on the rise of Daesh, not in Syria, as it happens, where the US watched as they overran the poorly-equipped rebel positions, doing literally nothing when the rebels launched an offensive against them that wielded successes until the over-stretched rebels were caught out by the Assad regime when its forces, backed by Hezbollah and Iranian-funded ultra-sectarian Shiite militias like Badr and Asayib Ahl al-Haq took Yabroud, he rebutted the idea that the US hadn’t supported the rebels enough by dismissing them as ‘farmers and pharmacists’.
In a sense, the president was not wrong. The rebels are mostly comprised of civilian volunteers who took up arms following the regime’s militarised attempts to crush the civil uprising, while the core contains tens of thousands of defected Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers. The vast majority of the weaponry these forces use is that which the defectors managed to bring with them from the SAA and that which has been taken on the battlefield or as a result of raids on military bases.
I remember speaking to a friend who has fought with a Free Syrian Army brigade in and around the Damascus area. We got onto the subject of how the revolution was perceived in the west among ‘my friends’, by which he meant fellow leftists. I told him straightly that many of them were convinced that people like him were proxies of imperialism and were being armed by imperialist forces – inshallah, came the partially sarcastic reply.
And this brings me on to the next point. What exactly would be the problem with Syrian rebels receiving weapons from ‘imperialism’? The only people who find it problematic are people for whom sourcing weaponry will never be a problem. That might sound a cheap point to make, but it is nevertheless a cheap point worth making. For many people, ‘imperialism’ is a word they so often use but rarely ever comprehend its meaning in practice in contexts beyond either hysterical, facile denunciations and sloganeering or often equally as facile academic detachment.
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