This article is adapted from a presentation given at a recent forum on 10 years of the Syrian Revolution. View the panel here.
Solidarity with Palestine must be a central tenet of the politics of the left. Palestine is a case of modern-day colonialism, de jure apartheid, and ethnic cleansing that many of our governments are backing, thus demanding our attention and action. Our solidarity with Palestine must therefore call for an end to our governments’ complicity, push forward the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement called for by Palestinian civil society, while uplifting the long history of Palestinian resistance. But it cannot only do that. Our solidarity efforts must also engage with struggle in the wider Middle East/North Africa region, and analyze the way in which the fate of Palestine is inextricable from the political conditions across the region. In doing so, we see that struggles for freedom across the region are linked, and that our actions as solidarity activists must reflect that.
Through an analysis that connects Palestine to the broader Middle East region, activists in solidarity with Palestine can learn new methods of solidarity and ways to further propel our movements. For example, we learn that solidarity with a people in struggle is not contingent only on their direct opposition to US imperialism or intervention, but on the basis of their own struggle against their ruling classes–and that in itself legitimizes their struggle. Thus internationalist solidarity means supporting revolutionaries in struggle against their counter-revolutionary actors, amplifying the demands of these revolutionaries, and memorializing their progressive efforts even as they face attacks from all sides. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Syria, where much of the left analyzed the circumstances of the Syrian revolution according to an outdated framework that mistakenly centered the United States. An antidote to this mistaken approach entails an examination of how and why the Palestinian and Syrian struggles are interconnected, how their visions for liberation overlapped at the start of the 2011 MENA/Arab Spring Revolutions, and how the Assad regime used Palestinians as a pawn while accelerating their oppression of the entire Syrian working class. A return to the connections between Syrian and Palestinian struggles for liberation can thus help orient solidarity activists, help us envision a future for Syria solidarity efforts, and allow us to re-energize already existing solidarity movements and efforts.
A Necessary Interconnection
The Syrian and Palestinian struggles are not just linked, but require each other’s liberation. Unfortunately more recently in our accounts of either struggle, the history of these interconnections are sometimes forgotten.
Firstly, activists and supporters of either struggle should remember that Palestine has for decades inspired revolts and uprisings across the region, especially during the First and Second Intifadas of 1987 and 2000. Protest movements in solidarity with these struggles sparked across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and the region’s regimes repressed them then just as they repressed each of the 2011 revolutions. The impulse for solidarity with Palestine could also be seen in the early days of the 2011 revolutions, with Palestinian flags waving alongside Egyptian, Syrian, and other national flags in Tahrir Square and other revolutionary squares. It was even more obvious on 2011’s Nakba Day, the day that marks the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine on May 15th each year. In 2011, inspired by the revolutions that engulfed the region, Palestinian refugees and others demonstrated at the border with Israel in Syria and Lebanon, and many crossed over into Palestine, feeling that their return and liberation was immediate and possible in that moment of regional revolt.
People across the MENA region see their suffering and plight exemplified through the Palestinian struggle—it represents resistance against the oppressive status quo of Israel in the region in the form of over seventy years of colonialism, a watchpost for US imperialism, and the complicity of the region’s regimes against the will of the vast majority of their peoples. The peoples across the region see their own oppression, which is also marked by imperialism and US-backed dictatorships and an imperial order, mirrored and exemplified by the situation of Palestinians. This is why Algerians, for example, who experienced one hundred fifty years of French colonialism, see their struggle as intimately tied to Palestine, both in the colonial past and in their current struggle against their military regime. It is why the Kurds of the region, who have been split up by borders and long denied their self-determination; and Egyptians, who have had US-backed dictators; and also Syrians, who have experienced seemingly unending dictatorship, have all been inspired to revolt by Palestine.
The Assad regime, under both Bashar and his father Hafez, tried to build a narrative about their regime as against Israel and the US, and have therefore been considered “anti-imperialist” by many members of what I like to think of as the old left—hoping that the new left will be better. Hafez even framed himself as a socialist; the reality was quite the opposite. The regime took part in the United States’s War on Terror and specifically its program of extraordinary rendition, with the US sending prisoners to Syria for the regime to torture for them.
Like many across the region, Assad used rhetorical support for Palestine as an excuse to deflect criticism from their refusal to address any of their people’s demands for economic or political or social justice. The regime essentially communicated to its population that they must wait for the liberation of Palestine before addressing impoverishment, massive unemployment, the lack of freedom of speech, and so on. Any criticism of the regime was met with proclamations for the need to defend so-called anti-Zionist Syria. Assad used this justification to militarize the country, under the pretense of war with Israel, though Syria actually had the quietest border with Israel for decades.
When the Syrian revolution began, the regime used this militarization to point its guns against its own people. Early in the 2011 revolution, the regime even framed Palestinians, claiming they were the ones instigating the protests and smearing the demands as illegitimate. Finally, Assad played into Islamophobic War on Terror rhetoric at a much larger scale to excuse its brutal massacres of Syrians as well as Palestinians in Yarmouk Camp, using the name of “fighting terrorism” to essentially get a free pass at massacring and besieging hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Liberation and Solidarity
When talking about the shared liberation of Syria and Palestine, it’s also important to note that the peoples of the region play an important role not just because of how they see themselves as tied to Palestinians, but because Palestinians also require an end to these dictatorships across the region in order to secure their own liberation. Palestinians have been so bifurcated by occupation, checkpoints, and segregated into Bantustans by the apartheid wall. They have been largely cut out from the Israeli economy giving them little ability to wage, say, a general strike that could affect the Israeli economy and force it to change its policies, and they face challenges to effectively mobilize in their own widespread revolt. For this reason, while Palestinian struggle is crucial, it is not enough to secure Palestine’s liberation on its own. Instead, regional uprising is even more necessary to break the bonds between Israel and its neighboring regimes. Ignoring the fact that the peoples of the region support Palestine, instead the Arab states have furthered normalization with Israel their own economic and political gain. These alliances between reactionary forces like Israel and Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt must be broken, and that can only be done by successful revolution across the region. So we must see revolution across the region as a prerequisite for Palestinian liberation, and we have to support these revolutions and figure out ways to amplify them, to actively support the revolutionaries in any way we can.
One thing that Syrians, and really the world, have learned from the Palestinian struggle is the idea of sumoud, or steadfastness. We know that this will be a long struggle. Palestinians have been steadfast in resisting Israel’s colonization, apartheid, and occupation for over seventy years. Many today may not realize that the global solidarity with Palestine only took center stage in the last fifteen to twenty years, and it took a long time of building across movements and highlighting the Palestinian struggle and putting Palestine back on the map to get to this point.
This is what Syria solidarity activists should work toward as well: making Syria solidarity second nature on the left by local and global campaigns that connect to other struggles in the MENA region, as well as to Black lives matter, Indigenous struggles, and so on. It is worth remembering that in the US and elsewhere, consciousness changed on the issue of Palestine through tens and then hundreds of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters on US campuses and their political education and campaigns, along with other campaigns that came from below, from mass marches, and building solidarity with other struggles. We have to rely on building with other struggles and not, at least not primarily, on appealing to politicians, who will not prioritize the liberation we need and want.
Something else we have learned from Palestine’s struggle is the centrality of the refugee and diaspora population in struggle. Like Palestinians, Syrian refugees are not simply a humanitarian cause, but also individuals with agency who should be involved in movements locally and globally, who have lessons from their revolutionary struggle, the successes and failures both, that can inform our other movements. They should be brought into these movements rather than sidelined by the left or other progressive movements.
Finally, each of our movements need to be in communication much more. We must study each other’s revolts and uprisings, from the Intifadas to Syria’s revolution and counterrevolution, so that in the next round of uprising we are more successful, able to avoid mass slaughter, and instead make our own demands a reality.