Why does the left find it so difficult to take a position on Syria?

It is now the responsibility of the left to support the Syrian people, but be critical friends, remaining true to their principles.

The left in the West are confused and split over Syria. Some on the left support Bashar al-Assad and see him as some anti-imperialist vanguard, whilst others wholeheartedly back the rebels, ignoring the Salafi religious extremists that have infiltrated the movement.

The idea of supporting the anti-imperialist global South has long been prominent amongst left-wing thinkers, but since the Arab spring it has led some to support the likes of Gaddafi and now Assad. The thinking goes a little like this: Bashar is kind of bad, but the West is worse; if Bashar falls then the West benefits, therefore the Syrian people should accept him as their leader.

The problem with this is that it totally ignores and belittles the movement on the ground and the struggles the Syrian people have faced over the years. The left-wing activists that perpetuate these ideas in the UK fail to see their arrogance. They seem to think that their paradigms for looking at the global struggle should be adopted by those people that are currently the victims of oppression. If Syrian regime thugs are shooting someone in Damascus, then we have no right to say that they should not resist because we believe it will benefit the West!

The idea that Bashar is some sort of anti-imperialist vanguard is absurd. Bashar Al- Assad is no pro-Palestinian; the bombing of the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus set that straight. The Syrian regime was involved in the extraordinary rendition programme, torturing people for the West, something the supporters of Bashar Al-Assad conveniently ignore. Bashar may be anti-Israel but Israel would much rather have Bashar in Syria rather than some of the rebels. It is a case of better the devil you know. 

An uncomfortable moment for the rebels was when Israel bombed Damascus, it divided the left further and put into perspective the important role Syria plays in supporting and ensuring weapon supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah, celebrated by the left as an anti-Israeli, anti-imperialist and grassroots movement has now entrenched itself firmly in the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah wants to keep the Syrian regime in power so weapon supply routes from Iran and Syria can be kept open. If the Syrian regime falls, Hezbollah may not fare so well the next time Israel decides to attack. The left must now turn its back on Hezbollah and see it for what it is: an Iranian proxy that is no longer fighting for the freedom of the Lebanese people, but is helping keep a dictator and a vicious regime in power.  Palestinians have been burning aid given to them by Hezbollah, a clear sign that they recognise the hypocrisy in the organisation’s stance on Syria.

The pro-Western Arab states have long been uncomfortable with Iran and its perceived growing influence (mainly paranoia on behalf of the Arab states); Syria has become a battle ground for the West, with Sunni Saudi and Qatar fighting a proxy war with Shia Iran. Sectarian tensions fuelled by the West where the only benefactors seem to be arms companies. The recent EU decision to lift the arms embargo, allowing the West to arm the Syrian rebels puts the anti-imperialist left in a difficult position. Those in the left that support the revolution have to accept the uncomfortable reality that the revolution is in real danger of being co-opted by the West as well as being bankrolled by it. The revolution will owe the West for its support.  

Sectarian killings have increased in Syria. As this conflict continues, Syria will make Iraq look minuscule on the sectarian killing scale.  Salafi groups are, just like in Iraq, trying to ignite a sectarian conflict whilst implementing their strict literalist interpretation of Islam on the people. Where do the Syrian people stand in all of this? In the middle of the mayhem as world powers try to fight it out using Syria as their battlefield. 

The left is in a predicament. In this clip, we can see George Galloway’s express support for Assad based on the reasoning that you can know a lot about a person by looking at their enemies. A flawed methodology to judge a character, surely the tens of thousands murdered should be the factor we use to judge Bashar Al-Assad and not his so-called enemies.

Regardless of the foreign players involved, it is not them who oppressed the Syrian people for decades; it is not them who picked up people off the streets and made them disappear; it is not them who instilled fear in the population via the thugs of the Mukhabarat (secret police); it is not foreign powers who shot protestors in the streets, the regime is responsible for everything that has led up to this point. There may be many foreign powers involved in an attempt to hijack the revolution, but supporting a tyrant is indefensible. It is ethically and morally wrong. We can be critical of the rebels, highlight the extremist groups, warn of the dangers of sectarianism, oppose foreign intervention, but there is no excuse for supporting the regime, whether it is some perceived “wider agenda”, so-called anti-imperialist credentials or religious affiliations. Many have dug their own political graves over the issue of Syria. History will look back and see that the world powers used Syria as a battleground to further their own interests and those that supported Bashar or the West will be condemned for the bloodshed that ensued. It is now the responsibility of the left to support the Syrian people, but be critical friends, remaining true to their principles. Yes to revolution, no to foreign intervention of any kind. It can be that simple.

 

Syrian army soldiers assess a damaged street in the town of Qusayr, in Syria's Homs province. Photograph: Getty Images
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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.