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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.