Standing with Syrians: An Open Letter to an Anti-Imperialistby Philip Rizk
Eva is a real person whom I have known since 2007, as described in this article. But in this text Eva stands for many politically engaged individuals, whether outspoken or silent supporters of the Syrian regime and its allies. I will not re-post her photo here. In a world flooded with images, it is important to maintain our ability to imagine a moment.
For the past couple of years I have meant to write you, but I simply could not find the words. Then, on December 13, an old post of yours came up on my Facebook feed with a photo of you next to a smiling Syrian military officer in Aleppo.
I remember when years ago you risked your life for the people of Gaza, when you risked your life for others, joining ambulance drivers to the most dangerous areas in the hope that the Israeli military machine might spare the lives of civilians because a white Canadian activist accompanied them. You stood on the side of the oppressed. I never lived through the brutal Israeli military assaults on Gaza that started shortly after I lived there. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do what you did; for this I respect you deeply. During those weeks you certainly saved countless innocent lives when the far more powerful Israeli military relentlessly ravaged the Palestinian population, at times snuffing out the souls of entire families hiding in their homes because they had nowhere else to flee, or gassing the internally displaced in U.N. shelters. Later you wrote the stories of the people you met, as is so often said by the privileged like you and me, “to give a voice to the voiceless.”
I am a filmmaker; I work with images. The way I read it, the photo you posted from Aleppo was intended to display the kindness of the Syrian army and more importantly to prove that you, as in Gaza, were there in Aleppo as a witness to what was happening—as noted in the caption on November 5, “prior to full liberation.” More on this image later.
After you left the Gaza Strip, you made your way to Syria. There your thinking took a drastic turn: you chose the side of the victor. You ignored the most vital factor of the reality in Syria: large sections of the Syrian population had chosen to rise up, as in Egypt, Tunis, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the region, for freedom and dignity—much as Palestinians have risen up against their occupier since the colonization of their land. Yet, unlike the Palestinians who face a U.S.-backed Zionist occupation of their land, Syrians were facing a Russian-Iranian backed dictator. The danger of a black-and-white way of thinking has made you fall into a trap of letting ideology alone determine your political stance. Shaped by cold war politics, of first-world guilt, due to U.S. imperial domination, you bought into a narrative—like a large section of the left in the West and East—that the U.S. is always the greatest criminal and therefore one must defend the other side.
By no means do I support the U.S.’s role in the bloodshed and turmoil of the past years in Syria. But that certainly does not lead me to support Russia and its ally Bashar Al-Assad. The greater power’s position on a conflict alone cannot determine whose cause is just. We must listen to the people. We need to address this paradigm of the “people”: who are “Syrians”? For it is precisely here that you have allowed ideology to take priority over your sense of justice, and this is what surprises me most about you, Eva. But for a moment, let us take a step back, I will speak about the Egyptian revolution, which I lived through and participated in—not to make a one-to-one comparison—but to put this conversation into much-needed context.
In Egypt, in all stages prior to, during, and after the revolutionary period of 2011–13, a majority of people backed the status quo. They would say, “Mubarak wasn’t a good president but at least he brought stability”; “Better Mubarak than [they] whom we don’t know.” Many Egyptians did not believe reports of torture at the hands of the police and military, they claimed images of military violence against the revolution’s protests were Photoshopped, they too claimed we were traitors, funded by the West, merely because we opposed “our glorious military.” In various phases of the revolution, our biggest threats were not the secret police’s wide net of informants and agents, but “honorable citizens” who believed they were serving their fatherland by handing us over to the police, neighbors reporting on neighbors, family members on family members. Patriotism, after all, sinks deep into the psyche. Many Egyptians are still in prisons today or have faced death due to these “honorable citizens.” I am certain that some of our accusers didn’t truly believe what they were saying but held such opinions because they so desperately wanted to be able to believe in a government that would respect and protect them, a government that would do what was best for the nation. We know from experience gained while protesting, imprisoned in police stations, in custody of the state security, or before the courts of justice that in Egypt—sadly, today as before the revolution—that “elected” leaders care only for the longevity of their power, not for the population they “represent.”
I am certain that there are countless Syrians in a similar predicament, especially in regime-held areas, who are afraid to say what they truly believe because they do not have the luxury of that choice. Some believe the regime because their experience of the past years is so much worse than what they lived before it; others, out of fear of the unknown, prefer the evil of the Assad regime to evils they don’t know. Yet, most importantly, there are millions who oppose this regime, and they have risked their lives for the sake of a better future for generations to come. But to them you do not listen, because—as you explained to me in one of our last exchanges of messages in the summer of 2014—“The ones who stayed in Syria are largely those who don’t support this ‘revolution’ and the ones who left, vice versa.” When I replied to your claims by talking about the Syrians I know who had come to visit Cairo from Syria in 2011, all of whom went back, you ended that exchange abruptly, saying, “I am not going to waste a whole lot of time. However, if you were to go to Syria and talk with average Syrians, you’d find a different picture.” That is the last time I had a political exchange with you, because you made clear to me that you did not even consider my opinions because I had to speak to Syrians “in Syria” to have a valid opinion. In line with such an argument, you wrote off everyone who had left Syria as lying idealists. You dismissed the opinion of a majority of the five million political refugees, Eva, on the basis of your “on-the-ground reporting” in the bosom of the offices of a murderous government officials. While ushered through the corridors of the Syrian regime, you wrote off the views and opinions of Syrians threatened with arrest, torture, or death for living in the areas the regime had withdrawn from and was bombing.
I wonder what would have happened if the Egyptian revolution had turned violent to the extent Syria has, if the Egyptian military junta had not sacrificed Mubarak for the sake of the longevity of the regime itself, and if Russia had come to the aid of the Egyptian regime, while the U.S. opposed it. Would you have been “reporting” on the Egyptian revolution, would you have turned me and Egypt’s revolutionaries into U,S.-backed, jihadist-loving, Gulf-funded terrorists? The only journalists who did that in Egypt were part of the Egyptian propaganda establishment. The question is valid because Bashar al-Assad, who you claim to be a “legitimately elected president,” holds a very similar track record to Mubarak and Sisi. Egypt and Syria’s military regimes were founded in similar times in the 1950s and ’60s, were both backed by the USSR, which helped each establish an effective police state with competing reputations for the torture apparatuses that they run. The comparison between Syria and Egypt is valid because, had the Egyptian revolution gone the way of Syria’s, Egypt’s revolutionaries would also have found themselves fighting on the same side as many Islamists.
Despite your years among those opposing in this region, you have not learned realpolitik—you cannot always choose those you fight alongside. Despite the Qatar-funded, Islamist agenda of Hamas, you defended them when they opposed the Western-armed and backed Israeli occupation and murder of Palestinians. I remember how adamant the Syrian activists visiting Cairo from Syria in 2011 were to clarify that their struggle was non-violent. This was a distinction we never made in Egypt and in retrospect I can see why they did that at that point: the Syrian and Egyptian scenarios differed vastly. The Syrian uprising quickly became militarized, a playing field for global interests, U.S. and Russian but also Iranian and Turkish, Saudi, and Gulfi. Like in Egypt, we know that soon after the uprising began the Assad regime released fundamentalists from prisons en masse—thus supporting the growth of Islamist forces in an attempt to undermine the civilian-run revolution. Despite this clear risk of militarization, Syrian activists rose up against a military regime that, much like in Egypt, has robbed the nation, exploited the poor on behalf of its inner circle, and for years locked up and tortured its opposition—including Palestinians in Tel al-Zaatar in ’76 and in Yarmouk camp today. Once people have risked everything for revolution there is no turning back, even if you find yourself battling side by side with militias you do not identify with, who you do not support, trust, or even want to exist. In a situation of war, you do no have the privilege of choosing those who fight your enemy. You didn’t always in Gaza in 2009 and Syrians didn’t in 2012 as the foreign-backed militias gained strength and began to attack and weaken their powerful initiatives of self-organization in areas Assad had withdrawn from all over the country. You are right in claiming that these so-called “moderate,” often U.S.-funded, often al-Qaida-affiliated Islamists are not to be cheered; they have pillaged, they have stockpiled food while civilians go hungry, they have threatened, arrested, and killed their critics. But you do not note that the Syrian regime and its allies strategically prioritize targeting less Islamist-dominated territories (like Eastern Aleppo) before Raqqa. For the counter-revolution, the civilian revolution poses the bigger threat and must be wiped out first.
Why have you never reported on the battles of Syrian revolutionaries against the Islamist forces amongst them? One of the reasons so many of the non-militant revolutionary initiatives were short-lived is that they fought a battle on two fronts: against the regime and against militant Islamist groups. Many of those who have stopped fighting in either armed or non-armed struggle, and left Syria due to the nature of these militias, are precisely those you accuse of being Western-backed activists. And yet you ignore the fact that despite the terrible rise in power of the Islamists there are still Syrian revolutionaries who have remained, some who until recently took the risk to protest openly the presence of the Islamists in their midst. In Ma’arat Numan, in the countryside of Idlib (the biggest remaining opposition area), locals protested for 214 days straight against the presence of the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front)—as well as the policies of Assad—December 4 was only the most recent time that the Assad/Russian bombs targeted their market, killing dozens. In Ma’arat Numan they protest; elsewhere civilian activists have paid with their lives for doing so.
Why have you never reported on the horrors of Assad’s torture chambers, Eva? Because a majority of Syrians anyone will meet today have themselves passed or know of someone who, since the start of the revolution, has passed through these torture dens. If one denies the arrest and disappearance of hundreds of thousands, and the structural torture in Assad’s prisons, then there was no reason for a revolt to begin with. You are claiming that millions of Syrians are merely imagining the risk of death for the sake of a political opinion.
How can you simply neglect to report the killing spree Assad and his allies have been on since the start of the uprising?
In response to these questions, you claim that the mainstream media is lying to us. I am no fan of commercial media outlets, but there are also plenty of non-mainstream media outlets—like the ones where you publish—and countless Syrian journalists and citizen journalists reporting “on the ground.” You are claiming that every journalist—except for a select few who propagate the Assad regime’s information—are liars. I have lived under military dictatorship in Egypt my entire life, but you are telling me to trust no one but the military dictator.
Finally, I want to return to the issue of images. In recent times we have seen more and more Photoshopping of images, I am certain it happens on all sides; propaganda is nothing new. We live in an era in which our screens are infiltrated with images; we can no longer base our decisions solely on the images produced by either your hated mainstream media, or by the Assad regime’s propaganda. In December at the height of the siege and bombing campaign on Eastern Aleppo, we did not see so many images. I wonder, is it surprising that there are no journalists embedded with the Iranian militias? Or that there are no videographers to document retribution killings at the checkpoints? But more importantly, why must more images be produced—of blood, of human remains, of bombed homes—when the world has been silent about the atrocities in Syria all these years? Finally, why must we see images in order to believe?
In a world gone mad, literally drunk on images, we must have a radical capacity to question the images we choose to form our worldview. This radical criticism entails making decisions based on the structural logic of the forces involved. For six years the regime and its allies have been arresting, torturing, and bombing hospitals and schools and residential areas, structurally starving besieged communities as retribution against a population that stood up for itself and opposed this brutality. The Assad regime and its greater allies—Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah—and shadowy friends—China, Israel, and recently Egypt—as well as the powers with their own non-Assad-aligned interest in Syria—the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Europe, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Gulf states, and the U.N.—all stand accused in the demolition of the lives of Syrians. If you turn away for a moment from the burning frontlines, you will see that each of these sees their own goldmine in Syria—regional demographics through population re-settlement, control over natural resources or trade interests or sectarian geopolitics. No longer is there only one single imperialism to oppose. We must reclaim the terminology of “anti-imperialism,” and use it to assess any forces that practice a military strategy based on imperial logic. All of these powers are far from having an interest in human beings. And finally, as people who criticize and oppose the agendas of these forces, we must realize that choosing only one side to stand against makes possible a strategy of divide and conquer. You and I, Eva, once stood on the same side of the wall; today we stand opposing each other. This is one of the greatest successes of the powers involved in this game: to pit not only Syrians against Syrians, but Palestinians against Palestinians, protesters against protesters.
Today I stand with the besieged citizens of Idlib, and the small but powerful spirit of the Syrian revolution still existent in corners all over Syria—not next to a smiling army officer.
PHILIP RIZK is a Cairo-based film-maker and writer. He is a member of the Mosireen video collective.