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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.