Supporters of the armed insurgency in Syria have deployed the Western left’s pro-Palestine discourse to justify overthrowing the Syrian government. This tactic has confused and fractured the Palestine solidarity movement.
The colonization of Palestine, unlike the war in Syria, is a straightforward issue. Palestinians were minding their own business when Jewish settlers, with the support of Western imperial powers, embarked on a colonial project that continues to ethnically cleanse Palestinians.
Those who support regime change in Syria often equate the Syrian army with the Israeli army and the rebels with Palestinians. But the Israeli army is a colonial occupier that is systematically stealing land from the indigenous population.
The Syrian army is indigenous and has been fighting an insurgency made up of Syrians and tens of thousands of foreign fighters from all over the world backed by many of Israel’s allies. The left need not support the Syrian government or its methods, but it should certainly oppose the attempt of imperial powers to use reactionary forces to collapse the Syrian state, as the US and its regional allies tried to do.
One of the most commonly invoked talking points by rebel supporters involves Yarmouk in southern Damascus, where the Syrian government is currently carrying out an operation to rout Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS).
Most of Yarmouk’s inhabitants, which prior to the war included the largest number of Palestinian refugees in Syria and an even higher number of Syrians, have fled the area since conflict erupted in the camp between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command. Yarmouk fell to Aknaf Beit al Maqdis, the Hamas affiliate of the FSA until IS seized it from them in 2015. Some remnants of Aknaf went on to cooperate with the Syrian government against IS by joining the National Defense Forces, and they even fought to help the Syrian government retake Salma in northern Latakia.
While IS leaders in Yarmouk and the adjacent neighborhood of Hajr al Aswad asked to negotiate a deal with the Syrian government where they would leave to go to Eastern Syria, the government refused, not wanting to have these hardened fighters reinforce their jihadist comrades in Eastern Homs or Deir ez-Zor. In March of this year IS took advantage of a deal where other insurgent groups like Ababil and Liwa al Islam left Qadam in Southern Damascus and seized more territory, killing over 50 Syrian soldiers as well as several Syrian TV journalists.
Israel’s supporters also claim that Palestinians are victims of Assad to distract from Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians.
Even anti-interventionists, such as Al Jazeera pundit Mehdi Hasan, have invoked Yarmouk to highlight the regime’s atrocities against Palestinians and lecture the American left about its “shameful silence when Israel is not to blame.”
But among Palestinians there is no consensus about the war in Syria. Palestinians are divided between the opposition and government while others remained neutral. Thousands of Palestinians are fighting alongside the Syrian Arab Army in the battle to retake Yarmouk from IS.
It matters what you’re fighting for
Palestinian resistance groups are fighting for liberation from foreign occupation. But in Syria, Islamist insurgents are not fighting for a more democratic, free and equal society. They are not fighting for liberation or to offer anything better. They are fighting for sectarian and reactionary goals that would be far worse than the current system. While the regime is flawed and should change, it is far superior to alternative of the insurgents.
The behavior of the rebel groups has resulted in the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah adopting the war on terror rhetoric that the West and the Israelis use against them. The regime’s counter insurgency tactics have been brutal, often excessive and indiscriminate. This is terrible and is why we should have been calling to end the war years ago, not to perpetuate it and lead to more brutality. But it is also important to examine and recognize the ways in which the behavior of the armed insurgency inside Syria created the conditions for this.
One of the most common Israeli justifications for attacking Palestinian civilians during its brutal wars on Palestinians (and before that in Lebanon) has been to claim Hamas prevents civilians from fleeing and uses women and children as human shields to protect its weapons and rocket launchers.
But there is zero evidence that Hamas has used Palestinians as human shields or blocks them from fleeing Israeli bombardment. Ironically, it is Israel that has a well-documented history of using Palestinian civilians, including children, as human shields on a number of occasions. In what is referred to as “the neighbor procedure,” Israeli soldiers force Palestinian civilians to approach armed suspects and homes potentially rigged with explosives to protect the lives of soldiers.
Meanwhile, in Syria, the Syrian government and its allies have often argued that the armed insurgents use the civilian population as human shields in the areas they control, leading to accusation by rebel supporters that the Syrian government is using Israeli tactics to discredit the opposition. The problem is that the insurgents in Syria, unlike Hamas or any other Palestinian group, do in fact use civilians as human shields and they do so proudly, sometimes even videotaping themselves in the act. For example, Jaysh al Islam, the Salafi-jihadist group that controlled the city of Douma until it was retaken by the government in April, publicly bragged about parading caged civilians from the minority Alawite sect in the streets as human shields, which the group filmed and posted to YouTube.
Moreover, during the government’s operations to retake eastern Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, the insurgents, much like IS, withheld food from the local population and shot at civilians as they tried to flee to the safety of government-held areas.
If Hamas behaved this way, it would be right to condemn them for it. Syrian insurgents do all of these things and their supporters try to shame people into overlooking this criminal behavior by cynically comparing them to Israelis.
This is not to say the left should support Hamas. As a liberation movement, Hamas has the right to fight the Israeli occupation. But the Hamas government is reactionary and oppressive. Even more oppressive is the Palestinian Authority, a dictatorial system established by Israel and America so that Israel would have a puppet ruling the Palestinian people.
Another claim promoted by the regime changers is that the Syrian government, like the Israeli government, is engaged in ethnic cleansing. While the Israelis have been ethnically cleansing Palestinians to replace them with Jewish settlers, in Syria the rebels’ supporters insist that the ‘evil’ Alawite Assad regime is exterminating and ethnically cleansing Sunnis and replacing them with Shias from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. This is a totally false narrative and actually gets it backwards.
The Syrian government has a great deal of support from Sunnis, which make up the majority of Syrians. While it’s true that Assad is from the Alawite sect it’s also true that support from most Sunnis in urban areas is critical to his remaining in power.
The Alawite versus Sunni narrative fails to take into account that the Syrian Army is majority Sunni.
While the government and its supporters are diverse, the insurgency is a Sunni supremacist phenomenon that has engaged in ethnic cleansing and extermination of non-Sunnis as well as Sunnis who don’t agree with them.
The armed opposition never obtained popular support because it was sectarian and had an Islamist agenda, which is anathema to the vast majority of Syrians. They fear the rebels more than they oppose the government.
It is also a lie that Sunnis are being replaced by Shias. There is no evidence of this on the ground in Syria and the main source of this claim is Salafi Jihadi groups and external opposition propagandists. Idlib, currently under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham – the latest iteration of the al Qaeda franchise in Syria, became home to thousands of Chinese foreign fighters who joined the jihad in Syria and moved into the homes of Syrians who fled. Calling themselves the Turkistan Islamic Party, they helped spearhead the seizure of Jisr al-Shughour. So if anyone is comparable to Jewish settlers in Israel, it is the foreign insurgents who took over Syrian areas, not the Syrian government.
Attempts to equate the war in Syria with Israel’s conquest of Palestine have been detrimental to the Palestine solidarity movement, which a couple of years ago was rising in popularity. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, was making huge strides, particularly on college campuses across the US. Nearly every month a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter would succeed in passing a resolution to boycott companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
But arguments about the Syrian civil war were injected into Palestine activism. These arguments escalated into fights that damaged the movement. Many SJP chapters split over Syria, to the delight of Israel’s supporters.
Israel is in a de facto alliance with the Syrian opposition. Furthermore, many of the countries that intervened to prop up the armed insurgency in Syria, including the US and UK, are key supporters of Israel.
If the Syrian opposition’s alliance with Western imperial powers and Israel isn’t enough to dissuade Palestine solidarity activists from casting their lot on the side of the insurgents, perhaps the media coverage will.
On the issue of Palestine, we know that mainstream Western media coverage is biased in favor of Israel. Yet on Syria we are supposed to accept every claim from these same outlets and organizations that whitewash the atrocities and agendas of the US-backed insurgents in much the same way they whitewash Israel’s crimes.
Palestinians have a right to resist Israel’s occupation of their land but the pro-rebel crowd argues that by extension Syrians have a right to resist the government and therefore we should support the armed insurgency in Syria. But it matters what an insurgency is fighting for.