History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings

Libya, Syria, and the Oversimplification of the Regime Change Narrative

Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim

Libya, Syria, and the Oversimplification of the Regime Change Narrative

The Anti-Imperialist narrative

Regime Change is a word that often comes up in analyses of the Middle East and has been misused spectacularly in the purported cause of anti-imperialism while only serving selfish, cruel elites. After the United States’ disastrous invasion of Iraq, premised upon the forcible removal of its brutish Baath regime, as well as the NATO bombardment of Libya to remove Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, a beguilingly simple narrative appeared to anti-imperialists the world over. The United States was trying to destroy revolutionary, anti-imperialist regimes—the infamous neoconservative pamphlet by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) was only, after all, a fairly recent document—and it was spawning and manipulating anti-regime groups in these countries to do so. With Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein gone, anti-imperialist focus swung around to Syria, whose Baathist regime was at least verbally an opponent of the United States and particularly its closest ally, Israel.

Indeed, anti-imperialists fretted, did we not remember Afghanistan, where the benignly invited Russian invasion was ousted by bloodthirsty mujahidin forces that the West termed, at the time, “freedom fighters”? Did we not recall the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, all for the fiendish purpose of expanding NATO under the pretext of humanitarianism (“ha!”, a skeptical antiimperialist may sneer), at the expense of its pro-Russian regime? Or how about Chechnya, where radical forces revolted against the sovereign Russian federation under the guise of autonomy? Pah! Such narratives may have fooled the majority of the media-brainwashed Sheeple, but not skeptical, sophisticated and discerning anti-Imperialists like ourselves. Regime change is the Perennial Agenda, and the so-Called “Arab Spring” simply its tool if not outright creation. (1)

Holes in the Anti-Imperialist Narrative

These “alternative” narratives, very alluring popular among the alternative media (both left and right, both of them self-identifying as opposed to expansionist empire), are of course over-simplified, distorting rubbish. But let us assume for argument’s sake that they are true. In Libya, for instance, the Western air campaign was a major factor in the ouster of Qaddafi. Assuming that these are simply cunning astroturf programmes designed to overthrow a grimly determined Axis of Resistance, we still cannot adequately answer the following questions:

-Why did the Western-backed rebels in Libya fall apart in short order?

-Why did the United States, having favoured Islamist mujahidin in Afghanistan, invade Afghanistan in 2001 and proceed to occupy it on precisely the premise of opposing Islamism?

-Why did the imperial powers, having apparently whipped the world into a state of outrage by framing the Resistance Axis for the Syrian chemical attacks in 2013, fail to overthrow the Resistance regime? Why, in fact, did it reach out to the Resistance and make a deal (suitably criticized by the Israeli Settler State) with Iran within two years?

Anti-imperialists typically have ready-made answers to these questions, usually to do with the radicalism and inherent fanaticism of the reactionary forces that the United States and Imperial Powers concoct against the Resistance. In Libya, the bungling idiocy and irrational factionalism of the rebels is a typical excuse for explaining away the chaos. After all, didn’t Iraq fall apart after the American invasion? It’s clearly an example of American policy backfiring: Blowback, etc.

Some especially Intrepid Anti-Imperialists will go so far as to tell you that this is not Blowback, but in fact exactly what the Imperialists planned: organized chaos to necessitate repeated intervention. Here, typically, Afghanistan is brought in as an example. The mujahidin factions, Taliban emirate, and Al-Qaeda group (used interchangeably, since they are of course to the Discerning Anti-Imperialist for practical purposes one and the same) were known to be fanatics, and it was known that they would haul back Afghanistan into the Pits of Reaction and Fanaticism, thereby necessitating American intervention (the fact that the second half of this statement, assuming that Irrational Islamic Fanaticism and Reaction is the problem, coincides perfectly with neoconservative, Imperialist and interventionist dogma, is lost on these anti-imperialists, who are perfectly willing to agree with Imperialists in the short run if they think it will hurt them in the long run.) The more direct, blunder voices in the Anti-Imperialist sphere will remark that the brutality of Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi, and Najibullah was a Necessary Evil, and the only glue holding these otherwise anarchic, chaotic and irrational countries together.

What the Argument misses

This is a delectably alluring argument, delectable because of its apparent continuinity (contradictions are not readily acknowledged in the Anti-Imperialist Sphere) (2) and alluring because, even though it mimics Imperialist propaganda in its characterization of the Irrational, Fanatical Natives (a mimicry that Anti-Imperialists will never, of course, acknowledge), it ultimately blamed Imperialist Forces like the United States and thereby redeems itself for its momentary flirtations with imperialist rationale.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that these arguments, though not always (though often) wrong in of themselves, miss massive slices of the picture. They miss the fact, for instance, that religiously based politics if not outright religious politics have a long, indigenous history in the region quite separate from—and usually, if not always, opposed to—imperialism. (I partly addressed this in my previous article.) (3) They miss the fact that Qaddafi had an eight-year détente with the West prior to his overthrow, that dyed-in-the-wool imperialists like Tony Blair agitated on this anti-imperialist beacon’s behalf, and that even when the West did intervene against Qaddafi, it intervened on a certain side of a multipronged, complex insurgency. They miss the fact that the most direct and arguably important government involved in Qaddafi’s removal was not a Western, or pro-Western, regime, but the Sudanese government, which had itself been on Western blacklists for decades and itself threatened with an invasion in the mid-2000s, during which that anti-imperialist bastion Qaddafi hosted Sudan’s rebels. (Of course, pro-interventionist Westerners rarely mention Sudan’s involvement either, though for quite different purposes: it hurts the argument that you are selflessly overthrowing a dictator when the dictator next door is playing a major role; either way, this ignorance of Sudan’s involvement is another common point for both interventionists and anti-imperialists) (4) .

They miss the fact, and this is particularly important, that the Libyan opposition, itself locally divided and in some cases completely mutually independent of each other, never mind the West, had different external backers. To be sure, during 2011 there was a somewhat hysterical reaction and exaggeration of the threat Qaddafi posed to his opponents (5) —even the usually excellent Al-Jazeera station rode into this trap—but that does not mean, as Anti-Imperialists would have us believe, that the anti-Qaddafi movement was a monolithic bloc of pro-Western fanatics out to hurt a maligned leader, or that its dynamics were applicable elsewhere to, for instance, Syria. The anti-imperialist narrative refuses to countenance any context or complexity beyond the February-to-October 2011 period, which forever enshrines Qaddafi as the perennial anti-imperialist victim and his opponents forever as an imperially-controlled bloc of NATO mercenaries and fanatics.

For one thing, this narrative, at least as much as any anti-Qaddafi propaganda, misses the complexity and context of Libya before, after and even during the 2011 war. For one thing, the rebel groups were a disunited, heterogenous bunch who cannot be easily dismissed as fanatics, imperial tools or mercenaries. The West (here more Britain and France in the first place, and the United States only tangentially) were supporting a particularly, perceived “liberal” and pro-Western faction in the opposition, led partly by Mahmoud Jibril; in this they were supported by the United Arab Emirates, which was at least as suspicious of the “Islamist” factions in the rebellion as it was of the regime itself. It is the UAE that has been the major international backer of Khalifa Hiftar, the renegade Libyan general who has attempted with Western support to stamp himself as Libya’s new ruler. This group was also generally allied, not because of ideological or strategic purposes but simply by convenience and mutual interests, with the Zintan-based militias from the western ranges of the Nafusa Mountains.

Opposed to this group was a collection of Islamist factions, usually remnants of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (which antiImperialists, like Imperialists, happily term as Al-Qaeda, and which was subjected to torture by the anti-Imperialist leader Qaddafi with the knowledge and compliance of the Imperialist leader Tony Blair) or groups linked to the Muslim Brethren or the Sanousi order, particularly strong in the eastern Cyrenaican region, and Misrata in the western region. A similar pattern has repeated next door in Egypt, where the UAE and Saudi Arabia resolutely backed Abdel-Fattah Sisi over the elected Islamist leader, Mohamed Morsi, who was favoured by Turkey and Qatar.

Finally, the local aspect and dynamics of different conflicts are entirely lost on the Anti-Imperialist dogma. In the Libyan case, even a simple Turkey-etc versus UAE-etc dichotomy can be an oversimplification because of its focus on geopolitics and ignorance of local realities (it is not entirely clear, for instance, that Zintan and Misrata are ideologically different areas), yet not even this minimum geopolitically-focused tip of the iceberg is available in Anti-Imperialist analyses, which blithely puts Turkey (because NATO) and Qatar (because oil) in the same bloc as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the West. It also takes no small sadistic pleasure in misattributing the post-Qaddafi violence to the utterly idiotic claim that only his iron fist could have held an unruly land together. (6)

This is the shallowness of the Anti-Imperialist Doctrine on Libya. Its analyses on Syria in particular is even worse, for at least in Libya the West did support a significant part of the opposition and help topple Qaddafi. In Syria—rhetoric notwithstanding—the West has attacked literally everybody apart from the government, even the rebels that anti-Imperialist dogma insists are Western hirelings. The major conflict between Turkey and Qatar, with their typical sympathy for the Islamist-dominated Syrian mujahidin (7) , and the West and the powerless exile SNC; the complete lack of coordination between the Syrian mujahidin on the ground and the generally pro-Western Syrian exiles; the heterogeneity in Syria’s rebel spheres; the fact that the White House has blocked every attempt to diplomatically or financially isolate the Assad regime; heck, the fact that Assad was a longtime collaborator in the same Imperialist War on Terror that the Imperialists hate so much when it comes to Iraq; the fact that Iran, supposedly the strategic target of Syrian Regime Change, has been merrily funnelling tens of thousands of auxiliaries and troops into Syria under the Americans’ nose, just as it did in the Iraq occupation where it was also painted by the Anti-Imperialists as a victim of American intrigue; the fact that it has overwhelmingly been airstrikes, to which the Syrian mujahidin have no recourse, that have levelled entire Syrian cities and towns on a level that Qaddafi could never have dreamt of—none of these facts matter, if they exist at all, to the Discerning Anti-Imperialist’s dogma.

I’ve written elsewhere on the major fallacies in Afghanistan discourse, so I won’t spent much time here; but it is true that a bizarrely simplistic, ignorant revision of the Afghanistan conflict has been a key building block of Anti-Imperialist dogma as much as imperialist propaganda. This included the often-exaggerated American support for the Afghan mujahidin—exaggerated by pro-Americans because it inflates their sense of contribution to the Soviet Union’s demise, and exaggerated by anti-imperialists because it fits so neatly into their dogma—as well as the idea that the Americans had any control over the Afghan mujahidin factions, the vast majority of which were localized, and the more internationally linked of which were largely confined to Pakistan, which was and remains suspicious of American intentions in the region. It also includes a complete distortion of the catastrophic 1990s civil war as the inevitable outcome of American-induced fanaticism, another revision that completes exaggerates American influence in Afghanistan during this period, and which ignores the fact that various remnants of the mujahidin fought with each other and made unlikely deals, including with Russia, for purposes that had nothing at all to do with America. And it offers absolutely no clue—indeed prefers to ignore outright—the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the Taliban-dominated insurgency therein, relegating it—again just like American interventionists and neoconservatives, except that they blame Pakistan and other regional states only, while Anti-Imperialists blame regional states and America’s 1980s role—to currents of fanaticism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is for such reasons that Anti-Imperialists, echoing imperialists to the letter in their rationale, howl Al-Qaeda at the sight of a mujahid fighter in Syria. The legacy of propaganda runneth deep.

Distortions with the Same Logic

Idiotic innuendo and conjecture has been a common tool of Anti-Imperialist dogma as much as imperialist dogma. In the imperialists’ case, they may point at a picture of (for example) Jerusalem mufti Amin Husaini, an early Palestinian leader against Zionism, with Adolf Hitler and claim that Palestinians are crypto-Nazi antisemites; this argument has, indeed, been done to death by hardcore Zionists. In anti-imperialists’ case, they may point to a picture of Ronald Reagan sitting with various mujahidin leaders to claim that the United States supports regime change by fanatical Islamists against progressive Anti-Imperialist governments, even as the United States has killed literally tens of thousands of Islamists in the interim period.

Just to point out how ridiculous this binary worldview is, imagine how ridiculous the following arguments are:
1) Because the Iran-contra programme involved Israeli weapons being sold to Iran by American neoconservatives, Iran and Israel are secretly best buddies whose mutual ire is just an act.
2) Because the United States and Russia both support the government of Uzbekistan, the United States and Russia are and have always been on the same side.
3) Because Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill allied with and sat next to Stalin against Hitler, America and Britain are actually pro-Soviet communist governments and the Cold War never happened.
4) Because Qaddafi helped undermine Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir in the mid-2000s, with the support of the West, he is obviously a Western puppet and he was, actually, never overthrown at all in 2011 since that would make the Binary Dichotomy of Imperialism crash.

Anybody, including, hopefully, Discerning Anti-Imperialists, would know that these are moronic generalizations that completely distort historical events based on false binaries. Unfortunately, many Discerning Anti-Imperialists have followed the exact same logic in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, not only making vacuously pompous fools of themselves in public but doing actual harm by spreading blatant lies.


The idea of a centrally coordinated Imperialist conspiracy against them is an attractive proposal to various tyrants of the world, including those who collaborated and rubbed shoulders with Imperialists whenever it suited them. But this argument’s many omissions include local dynamics, which are heterogenous and varied from place to place, never mind country to country, and it cannot easily or coherently explain away these omissions or contradictions that confound its ignorant premises. Moreover, these premises are as often as not based on the exact logic, spectrum and sometimes even rhetoric of the imperialist powers that the Anti-Imperialists claim to see through; they simply position themselves at the apparent, though rarely actual, opposite end of this spectrum, disagreeing with whatever an imperialist power claims to have said irrespective of the actual facts on the ground and even more so the gap between the imperialist power’s actions and its rhetoric. The superimposition of a clumsy regime change across vastly different contexts and regions is as distorting, dishonest and incoherent as that of the imperialists that it claims to oppose.


1. See among others Tim Anderson, Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, Rania Khalek, Nir Rosen, John Pilger, Seymour Hersh, and Robert Fisk, a large proportion of whom used to command some admiration for their purported commitment to justice. See outlets like Al-Masdar News, Mint Press News, Russia Today, Press TV, and frequently the London Review of Books, Counterpunch, The Real News, Democracy Now, Mondoweiss, and Jacobin.
2. The dreaded Wahhabi, Salafi, jihadist, radical Islamist, etc is a particular staple that both imperialists—when dealing with groups as varied as Daaish, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Ahrar-ul-Sham, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Hamas, and Muslim Brethren—and anti-imperialists, mostly when dealing with the same factions when they threaten a purportedly anti-imperialist government, employ. Imperialists usually include Iran and Hezbollah in this bracket too, however (substituting Wahhabi for Khomeinist and Salafi for revolutionary), which anti-imperialists rarely do.
3. See; this deals with the Arab-majority world, and I plan to add sequels for other Muslim regions.
4. Asim Fathelrahman Ahmed, “Sudanese Role in Libya 2011,” African Perspectives, Vol. 11, Issue 38, 2013.
5. Maximilian Forte provides a good account of anti-Qaddafi propaganda in his otherwise disorganized, distorting and meandering Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2012), which for the most part is precisely the sort of incoherent “anti-imperialist” drivel that this article aims to debunk. I do generally favour the 2011 campaign against Qaddafi, but it is—unlike the case of Assad—true that there was considerable propaganda against him that exaggerated his threat.
6. The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, edited by Peter Cole and Brian Quinn, is an excellent collection of essays on the Libyan revolt. Another solid source is Cherif Bassiouni’s book on Libya, though I have been unable to read more than a few excerpts as it is very difficult to procure.
7. The word mujahidin is typically reserved for the Afghan guerrillas in the 1980s, but I think it can be easily applied without fear of contradiction to the Syrian guerrillas as well. “Jihadists” is a common pejorative, but I should clarify that this is not what I mean here; similarly, I do not mean it in an uncritically admiring way in that all opposition are mujahidin or behave as mujahidin ideally should. I do not, for instance, condone or support groups like Nusrah Front (Jabhat-Fath-al-Sham) or their ideological positions even though they would self-identify as mujahidin and even though they are more locally rooted than a blanket denunciation may indicate. For an analysis of the “jihad” aspect that I do not necessarily endorse but which has some revealing facts and is generally fair, see Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad (London: Hurst & Co, 2015). It should be noted that even not-necessarily Islamist groups have often identified as mujahidin, such as the FLN-dominated Algerian moudjahedine from the 1950s.


3 responses to “Libya, Syria, and the Oversimplification of the Regime Change Narrative

  1. Samir October 3, 2016 at 1:16 am

    Great Article! You did a wonderful job here addressing the modern myth making and the perniciousness of leftist idealouges. I’m going to share some thoughts here, forgive me.

    Mainstream commenters seem dead set at seeking this current crop as neo-Soviet level liars and idiots, this article seems to show why. Yet I wonder if this article isn’t tackling a straw man version of ‘anti-Imperialism’. You have tackled the amateur fanboyism (is that a word?) of twitter but what of true academic skeptics of the United States and Western military intervention? There is truth to the argument that not enough time has passed for a true understanding of the current wars. Scholars studying the consequences of intervention or hamfisted ideological readings of local conflicts (an actions resulting from that) are right to be skeptical. Decades later and there is still great harm being revealed, cleavages in society not yet healed. Yet just as a historian should refrain from commenting on recent events, these academics should realize their ivory tower speculating is often public and an be basis for actual propaganda that is taking lives everyday.

    Anti-imperialist bravado might be a fragile shell for existential terror of Alawite elites raised on a world view resting on classism and communalism for example. This would be terribly ironic given that such impulses are the basis of capitalist loathing of communist insurrectionists which leftists claim to be heir to. The war on terror argument is also deeply ironic because it is an explicit outreach to Western powers. It is an attempt to reverse the clock to the last decade where “war on terror” rhetoric allowed any despot to crush religiously inspired opposition with approval of a West that was rightfully seeking all avenues to prevent terror at home.

    This binary worldview you demolish is that of the propagandists of social media seeking to keep a regime alive with little regard to the truth of their commentary. It is the Donald Trump way- lie today and live to fight another day. This can easily be seen in the way that so called anti imperialists use the “but….Al-Qaeda!” slur against their opponents. As discussed earlier, such people may think nothing of railing against the West but then offer their partnership in attacking its enemies. Enemies whose existence was the basis of Western intervention and occupation in the 21st century that they claim to stand against. It is thus an offer to be a ally, bodyguard, and informant for the so-called imperial forces of the world. You can (and did) also mention the actual cooperation on matters of intelligence and torture between these regimes and western powers which true human rights activists decried. Not to mention the use of terrorist groups and reactionary elements as proxies when there was a matching of interests.

    Anti-imperialists in the last decade often lauded fanatical Islamist opppsition to Western powers in the “War on Terror”. They spun them as the anti-colonial forces of the day against the modern day colonialist Neoconservatives. Idelogues like George Galloway ingrained themselves in Western Muslim communities offering the false promise of addressing their grievances as just, due to them matching the agenda. Leftist rhetoric was the basis of articulate Islamists like Anjum Chaudhrey an even Awar Awlaki whose rants against RAND mimicked such thinking albeit with their own theological spin. Even terrorist groups used such validation seeing colonialism as the ‘second crusade’ and the war on terror as the ‘new crusade’. Such apologetics were finally demolished when ISIS took power and demonstrated how thoroughly reactionary they were- now as they face defeat they try to fall back on the position they are a ‘resistance’ preventing Western occupation, yet this is discredited by the facts their grotesque actions goaded the intervention in the first place from war weary Western publics, and their ruthless killing of rebels and civilians who did not match their beliefs despite sharing their cause of toppling the regime.

    My point is that Anti-Imperialism and claiming being the heir to anti-colonialism has never been a ideologically consistent position. It is a legacy anyone can adopt. From fringe Westen politicians like Galloway, to discredited Arab nationalists, to ‘democratic’ Islamists like the MB or AKP, to fanatical nihilist terrorist groups like ISIS, to of course so called Anti-imperialists and regime apologists. All share using the language of being anti-colonial and casting their opponents as Western lackeys to make themselves seem credible. This ‘lacki-ness’ can be willing in termsg like ‘sell out’ or the ‘Uncle Tom’or unwitting in the case of the mental gymnastics anti imperialists perform to include Islamist groups who are regularly droned and targeted globally by Western powers for having caused great harm to Western nations. The more rational will call them useful idiots, the others will call them full blown allies if the West.

    Basically it is all about what “anti-imperialism” means to the individual. This is the animating force behind this conspiracy driven drivel to have such global appeal. Anti imperialists who are outsiders and from “imperialist” countries see in the argument that the West is not serious in fighting terror as the favoured despot is; it appeals to their sense their leaders are incompetent and not patriotic. Leftist historical readings that seek to expose Western brutality often rooted in racism and gross dehumanization is not seen by this lot to be something to reckon with, it’s not something their parents’ generation and grandparents’ generation enabled, but rather the actions of “elites” who never change their evilness as time passes and who they stand against. For anti imperialist with origins in the Global South the argument that Western regime change is seeking to destabilize their societies and must be resisted by the despot is appealing to their sense of injustice and longing for equality- they see the imperialist West as being the root cause of their misery. The fact both these camps contradict each other is not addressed at all. That is human nature however. Both share the fact they do not actually care about specifics or facts but rather obsess about being on the ‘right side of history’ for once and seek their respective salvations.

    • ibrahimmoiz October 3, 2016 at 5:35 pm

      This is an excellent set of points and one that is beyond the particular scope of this article. When I say anti-imperialist in this article, I mean the general crop of self-identified anti-imperial commentariat in popular “alternative” outlets. Hardly a homogenous group, but I find that their arguments tend to converge on what I’ve tried to capture, and expose, in the first few paragraphs of this article.

      The point about communalism and classism is well-made. I think that, in terms of the ruling clique of Syria – which is dominated by Alawites, though of course does contain members of other groups as well – this is an excellent summary of this worldview, which helps isolate them from the majority in the country as well as “validates” their treatment of the majority (and to be fair, not only majority – plenty of minorities have been caught up as well). To legitimize themselves, they have to convince not only the populace but themselves that they are Da Resistance TM and that the various opposition forces – whether it’s Sunni Islamists, or liberals with pro-Western views, or just independent revolutionaries – are tools of imperialism and infected with radical extremism that seeks to wipe them out.

      The pre-Baath Alawite community as a whole was generally confined to pockets of the northwest coast, practically a rural mini-state within itself, not very prosperous, and not dominant in political life in the hinterland (Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, etc) until well into the French occupation – indeed Bashar Assad’s grandfather was known to have urged the French empire to stay, which is a neat irony considering the Assads’ claims to being guarantors of Syrian patriotism. Military conscription (which, very short-sightedly and stupidly, many Sunnis in the 1950s bought their way out of), the Baath party and finally the Baath regimes culminating in Assads’ rule brought prosperity and real central political influence to this community. In order to maintain that (because, of course, the Alawites are no more politically homogenous than any other community), the regime has had to convince them that the Sunni majority are inherently susceptible to fanaticism and “Wahhabism” (partly a loanword from the regime’s ties with Tehran) and an existential threat to them, which the genocidal rhetoric of certain extremists only reinforces. The regime’s rather empty, but no doubt appealing, claims to Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism no doubt also legitimizes them.

      It’s funny, but I’ve often heard pro-regime commentators such as Leith Fadel and his father Ziad Fadel refer to the opposition as (paraphrased) cutthroat Wahhabi peasants and mercenaries ungrateful for the regime’s economic development – a neat mixture of classism and communalism right there.

  2. Samir October 3, 2016 at 1:18 am

    Did you get my comment?

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