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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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.