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
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war