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  March 12, 2018

Debate: Syria, Ghouta, and the Left (2/2)

In a complex proxy war that has killed so many, where should leftists and people of conscience stand? In the second part of their discussion, independent journalist Rania Khalek and scholar Yasser Munif debate the ongoing siege of Eastern Ghouta and the wider Syrian war
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Rania Khalek is an independent journalist and co-host of the weekly podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. Her work has appeared at The Nation, FAIR, Vice, The Intercept, Alternet, Salon, The Electronic Intifada, Al Jazeera and more.

Yasser Munif Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College. He is the co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity for the Syrian Revolution.


AARON MATÉ: This is part two on Eastern Ghouta and the Syrian War. My guests are Yasser Munif of Emerson College and the co-founder of the global campaign of solidarity for the Syrian revolution. Also joined by Rania Khalek, independent journalist, co-host of the podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. Now, she's speaking to us from Beirut, so her connection at times might be a little bit choppy.

Yasser Munif, a lot that I respond to, let me ask you first, I mean. in a war where there's sort of no good side, what Rania says there raises a question for me, which is that, on the one side you have this authoritarian ruler, really repressive, versus a foreign funded right wing Islamist militants who pose a threat especially to minorities who are threatening to overtake Damascus. Is the authoritarian repressive ruler, which at least is the sovereign government, and there's some form of state structure, is that not preferable to the foreign backed militants?

YASSER MUNIF: No, I don't think so. I mean, I don't agree with that international relation kind of language and state sovereignty. I think that's really not very relevant, to me, at least as electives. I think that the Syrian regime lost its sovereignty and that we should, instead, look at the sovereignty of the people and the popular uprising. So, in that sense, I don't think that the Syrian regime is... It doesn't have any right to invite any foreign force to fight on either side, whether that's the Iranian or the Russian because it's a brutal and genocidal regime.

But I wanted to respond to this idea of the people’s protest. I mean, I was in Syria. First of all, I lived in Syria for many years. I don’t Rania did. I witnessed the brutality of the Syrian regime before 2011, and it's the way that it crushed the leftist forces and the secular forces. So, this idea of the beginning of the protest, was not secular or leftist, I mean, show me a country in the Arab world where the left and secular forces are powerful and represent the masses. They don't exist, for a simple reason, because the Arab dictatorship crushed them very early on and funded the Islamist forces. When the Syrian regime crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980, they founded the... that later on became the...force.

I mean, it's very convenient to start history from 9/11, but that's not how history or society works. I think it's a very truncated and simplistic version of history that Rania's presenting. I mean, where is the less powerful in the entire world? In the US, or in Europe? Why is she expecting a powerful left in the Arab world or in Syria? I think that's a very orientalist and islamaphobic version of history. I went to demonstrations in Syria. There were thousands of people protesting and some of them were Islamist. Muslims have the right to dignity and freedom and democracy like anyone else. I think Rania's narrative is very similar to some of the right wing and fascistic narratives about Muslims and Islamists, confusing and complicating all these different categories, in a convenient way to make it easy to equate Muslim people, who are pious to the Jihadist, to ISIS, to Al-Qaeda.

So, if we want to really understand why the left doesn't exist in the Arab world, we should understand the brutality of the Syrian regime and Arab dictatorship. The Arab dictatorships really prevented any emergence for political spaces or the functioning of any political party in an independent way. We have to remember that Syria was almost a democratic country, with multiple parties in the 1950's and I urge her to go and read about that. There were tens of political parties in the 1950's, there were hundreds of publications, independent publications, and when the Ba'ath came to power in 1963, they crushed all that. It built a security apparatus, and different branches of the security and the military to crush all that political culture, and Leftist them and secularism. And then, blaming the people of Syria for that, is really bewildering and absurd.

AARON MATÉ: ...sorry, go ahead. Finish your thought.

YASSER MUNIF: I think that the entity to be blamed is the Syrian regime and it's brutality and dictatorship.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, let me go to Rania Khalek for a response.

RANIA KHALEK: I mean, it's just really stunning, you're completely erasing the consequences of US intervention in Syria. You are having an argument with the Syrian regime. I'm not the Syrian regime. I am talking about US intervention and you completely erase it. What is the preferable alternative? Currently, as we speak. Do you believe that the Al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria, and the FSA groups that fought alongside ISIS and Al-Qaeda, are those preferable alternatives? Because that is the reality on the ground.

What is the preferable alternative, as it stands right now, to what exists in Syria? Which is, yes, a very flawed system. But a system that isn't genocidal, like these extremist groups that are the alternative. The alternative is the black... flying over Syria. And before you do answer that, I just want to say, that there is something that the left should support in Syria and that is de-escalation of violence. And the rhetoric that Yasser is using, the blaming everything on the Syrian regime and signing statements that call for intervention as he has done, lead to one thing and that is a furthering and a prolonging of the violence.

Our goal should be ending this war. And unfortunately, that means that you have to accept the fact, that the state stays intact and retakes control of areas. But the state, in my opinion, retaking control of areas and being able to have law and order in Syria, is a far better outcome than a bunch of armed insurgent criminal gangs, as they've behaved, as criminal gangs, being in charge of different areas, and using civilians as hostages, and holding them hostage to their whims, and imposing awful Right wing ideologies on them. That is where stand on that issue and there are things that can be done, that are being done to de-escalate the violence in Syria. And that includes reconciliation agreements with the government.

Yes, the world should do something in Syria. What it should do, is it should be encouraging the armed groups to pursue reconciliation agreements with the government, under international supervision, that includes amnesties and a gradual process of handing over their weapons back. And re-integrating these areas into the state. And I've seen this. I've visited parts of Syria, where these reconciliation agreements have been put into place, where people have put down their weapons and stayed and received amnesty. And where others have decided to leave and go live with their weapons and continue fighting. But in these areas people have been able to return, displaced people have been able to return and life has been able to go back to some semblance of normality that is better than what has existed for the past seven years.

That is what we should be looking towards doing. Trying to make places safer for people. Not looking for ways that we can overthrow government and leave it to the people of Syria to deal with reconstructing the government and the areas that have been crushed. I just don't think the US has any place in Syria after what it's done the last seven years.

AARON MATÉ: Yasser Munif, if you could respond to that. That point that, in continuing to encourage a continued battle, we're denying peace to all those Syrian residents who have returned to government controlled areas. I just saw pictures of masses of people in Aleppo, which was the site of such horrible fighting, a few years ago, going to a big public garden. If we continue to call for intervention and continue conflict, are we denying them the right to live in peace?

YASSER MUNIF: I mean, the left has no business choosing between a brutal, genocidal Syrian regime and Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The situation is much more complex than that. We don't have to defend or choose between either/or. This kind of binary that some of the left has created is very disturbing, and very violent, and justifies the violence of the Syrian regime. There is a Syrian revolution in Syria and that's what we need to support.

RANIA KHALEK: Where, where? I'm sorry, where? Yasser, where? Can you tell me where, tell me where this revolution is? Where is it? Where is this revolution? What is the alternative to the Syrian government? Right now, I want to know where. Who can I, as a Leftist in America, who should I be supporting? Where? Give me the name of a group, an organization. Where?

YASSER MUNIF: I could conveniently ask the same question in Palestine. Where is the Palestinian resistance and revolution? And yet it exists and we know that it exists. It's not in the mainstream media, it's not.

RANIA KHALEK: No, but you can't compare Palestinian, you can't compare it to Palestine! Palestine is not the equivalent of Syria. It's not. In Palestine, you have people fighting a settler, colonial government, a settler, colonial system that's stealing their land, in Syria you have armed Jihadist groups, armed by outsiders, by foreigners, that have been destroying the country the last seven years.

And you refuse to even admit or talk about, you papering over that as if it's not an issue as if people haven't been killed by these groups. As if people haven't been chased out of Syria by these groups. You're acting as if they don't exist, and it's not a big deal, what the US did isn't a big deal. ISIS and Al-Qaeda aren't a big deal.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, let's -

RANIA KHALEK: I don't understand, what is the alternative?

AARON MATÉ: Let's let Yasser respond. Alright, go ahead.

YASSER MUNIF: I was in Syria, in the opposition and the government region. In the government's region, if you are stopped at a checkpoint, you can be easily killed if you have medical devices. Going through these areas. In Manbij, where I was, we were able to protest against ISIS, before it became a major force in 2014. So, I don't think it's very productive to compare even those very brutal and criminal factions, ISIS and Al-Qaeda and the Syrian regime.

The reason why we have the political Islam and the Jihadist, and Islamists in Syria, is due to the brutality of the dictatorship in Syria that has been going on for forty years. That prevented any kind of political discussion or the emergence of any political alternative, besides radical Islam. Syrian regime, as I said, has been funding Salafism for the kids. That's what we're getting now. The Salafist...

AARON MATÉ: Yeah, so let me ask you. On this question of alternatives. So, right now, in Idlib province, you have what the US calls the largest Al-Qaeda safe-haven since 9/11. So, if not Al-Qaeda and not the Syrian government, who is there to control that region?

YASSER MUNIF: I think that we have to really think about the complexity of the region and try to prevent talking about very simplistic kinds of scenario or narrative. The situation is not simple in Syria. And so, the left has to produce that kind of complex narrative about Syria. It's complex because there are multiple actors intervening in Syria. There is the West, that would prefer Assadism without Assad. And there is Iran and Russia, that prefer to have Assad in power because they have been supporting him and they know that he is their guy.

There is not really a major difference between the West and the Russian and Iran on that matter. One wants Assad without Assadism and the other wants Assad with Assadism. And the left has to produce another solution than that, meaning that you have to look at the corrective movements that do exist... and the popular counsel that do exist, and the resistance tableau that do exist, and have been resisting the Syrian regime and it's violence for seven years now. There are thousands of voices that are speaking about those grassroots movements and grassroots narrative. It's important that we listen to them, and not dismiss them.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, so we have to wrap, so let's go to final comments. One minute each. Rania, you go first.

RANIA KHALEK: Well, I want to use this to actually respond to the idea that somehow the dictatorships of the region are completely responsible for developing Jihadism in the region. I actually hold the West responsible for a large portion of that, West, with its allied Saudi Arabia, for spreading that ideology across the region. Salafi Jihadism is something that's foreign to Syria. Syria has a very secular, progressive minded population than some of the other countries in the Middle East.

So, it's a very foreign element there and to the issue of accusing me and some of the left of Orientalism, for being against Salafi Jihadist groups and ideas, there is a very good reason to. These groups are racist and sectarian. We're not talking about the US context where people are Islamophobic if they think Muslims are coming to take over. But in the Middle East you really do have Salafi Jihadi problem that threatens people for secular, that threatens people even for religious beliefs, who just don't happen to be on the side of Al-Qaeda. That severely threatens minorities like Christians, and Druzes, and Shi'a populations and wants to commit genocide against them.

People in the Middle East actually have something to fear from these groups. So, it is not Orientalist to suggest that there is an Al-Qaeda threat. And it's not Orientalist or Islamophobic to be anti-Al-Qaeda, to be anti-ISIS, and to be anti-Salafi-Jihadism. That's the most absurd argument I've ever heard. I think at the end of the day, what our priority should be, in Syria is de-escalating the violence as I mentioned before and also as Americans to understand what our government has done, and to be be against that sort of intervention in the region. Enough with these regime change operations that keep bringing more chaos, and more destabilization, and more lawlessness and state collapse to the region that's causing all this suffering. Enough with that. That should be, as Americans, our first priority. At the very least, we should be able to agree on that.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, Yasser Munif, you're final comments as we wrap.

RANIA KHALEK: I think that what Rania presented is really Orientalist. I mean, in this narrative of the binary, either/or, either them or us is coming from the Bush playbook. I mean, the idea that the Syrian regime is better than Al-Qaeda and ISIS is really disturbing. And presenting that image to the US audience is very disturbing. I come from Syria, I lived in Syria and Iraq for a long time, I care about Syria, I have family in Syria. I have friends who were killed by the Syrian regime in Syria and I think it's very important to really talk about the complexity. That's the duty of the left, and we don't really have the luxury of choosing between ISIS and Al-Qaeda and the Syrian regime. We have to

RANIA KHALEK: I'm sorry, I have to -

YASSER MUNIF: The complex narrative -

RANIA KHALEK: Yasser, I just want to, Yasser, I just ask you something. On that one point, where you're saying that ISIS, you can't compare, that they're the same, or something, or that the Syrian regime is worse. What do you tell people like me? I'm a woman, I'm an Arab woman from a minority sect background. Do you really believe that for someone like me, ISIS and the Syrian regime living under those two things is no different?

YASSER MUNIF: What do you say about the thousands of women who are tortured and killed and raped in the Syrian prison? What about those people? And again, this is again an Orientalist image of the Syrian regime. I don't want to really choose between either/or. I don't think we have the luxury of choosing between either/or, as an Arab and as a Syrian. We have to develop a full-circle project that concerns this binary, that is opposed to Western intervention, to dictatorship, and to Islamist Salafi forces. That narrative is not easy to develop, but that's what we should fight for and that's what we should look for in Syria.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, we'll leave it there for now, but hopefully we'll continue this dialogue in the future. I want to thank you, both of you for engaging in it. Yasser Munif is an assistant professor of sociology at Emerson College, co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity for the Syrian Revolution. And Rania Khalek, independent journalist, co-host of the podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. Thank you.

YASSER MUNIF: Thank you.

RANIA KHALEK: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us, on The Real News.


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