Developing Situation, Developing Attitudes
The general response of much of the Western left to the Syrian crisis seems to have turned full circle since the beginning.
To begin with, there was a guarded support for the initial popular protests and demonstrations as a continuation of the ‘Arab Spring’, but this became ever more tentative as the Libyan uprising reached its bloody climax. Wary of the mounting threat to its power, the Syrian regime engaged in strong suppression, murdering protesters and imprisoning many more; at this early stage it was described as a ‘crackdown’ on protests rather than an uprising, much less a revolution. During this time we were still learning of the various groups that were emerging in Syria, and so fears of sectarianism or Islamism were not voiced particularly loudly; these would come later as excuses for inaction were running out.
Shocked by the murder and sheer brutality of the ‘crackdown’, disillusioned soldiers defected from the army and formed a defensive militia, the Free Syrian Army, their stated mandate initially being the protection of protesting civilians. Shortly, they began to mount defensive and then offensive manoeuvres against the regime’s forces; an armed resistance had formed, and its intention was to remove the Assad government from power.
Support for the Syrian uprising amongst the Western left remained, but it was now outpaced by anti-intervention rhetoric; material assistance for the rebels, in any shape or form, would be only abetting the nations who provided it as they jockeyed for geopolitical position and control. The role of the left was therefore to continue to offer ‘support’ for the rebels’ cause without endorsing any move by imperialist foreign powers to intervene (any highlighting of the Russian and Chinese assistance of Assad as evidence of foreign meddling or imperialist influence, in contrast to the aims of NATO, was not generally entertained for long). Reports of government atrocities and attacks were often deliberately placed in doubt by a disingenuous questioning of every account’s veracity, even when this defied simple reasoning, the implication being that Syrian rebels may have faked the shattered bodies of protesters buried in their blood-soaked flags, or falsified whole sections of towns destroyed by artillery (Phyllis Bennis, writing on Red Pepper, says that ‘anti-Assad propaganda remains dominant’ – as if after the thousands dead, tortured and fled we would need to lie about him!).
All throughout this time many leftist sources in the West argued that assisting the rebels would ‘militarise’ the situation, to the eventual gain of the imperialist powers, and that the best recourse lay in the ‘third way’, offering ‘support’ for the ongoing strikes and protests but opposing any military move that might make use of Western assistance. (‘Support’ here did not mean physical assistance through arms, logistics or equipment, but general solidarity — benign wishful thinking to boost the protestors’ cause. But this kind of support is not much use against tank shells; instead, it is a strange kind of solidarity that, in practice, is near indistinguishable from actual indifference.)
Although it was clear from the outset that no one wanted direct Western military intervention – not the rebels themselves nor reluctant Western leaders – the debate quickly presumed that this was all that was being mooted, essentially answering a question nobody asked and obfuscating the issue of material or military assistance. When talking about Western involvement, words like ‘support’, ‘assistance’ and ‘intervention’ were often used interchangeably and without explicit definition, so that opposition to one was assumed to mean opposition to all.
The conflict intensified as the embattled regime dug its heels in and the rebels, clear that they would be spared no quarter, became ever more resolved to topple Assad. The long-awaited United Nations (UN) endeavour, the ‘Annan Plan’, failed ignominiously, as did the UN-brokered attempt at a cease-fire.
In both cases the UN failed to recognise the reason why, that is that the regime wants to kill people as a means of maintaining control by fear and collective punishment and in the hope that, if enough civilians are killed in certain areas, the general population will themselves eliminate the uprising, or at the very least be scared off from joining it. Certainly the rebels realised that the repression would not end there. Let us not forget that, as a young man, Bashar would have watched his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad kill some 30,000 people in the city of Hama, using tanks and bombs, for standing up to his rule; having seen the lack of penalty for his father, it was no doubt easy for Bashar to re-enact the carnage on that city exactly 30 years later.
The government was by now quite openly deploying indiscriminate heavy artillery and air attacks. The murderous shabiha militias, a mix of viciously pro-Assad fighters and suborned thugs, now worked in tandem with the government forces to commit some of the conflict’s most notorious massacres, including that at the now-infamous village of Houla (despite the overwhelming testimony of survivors the credulous line that the massacre had been conducted by the rebels themselves was strung out for weeks in the mainstream press, only now being quietly laid to rest following a damning and definitive report by the UN). The pressure on Western powers to support the rebels increased considerably, as did the rhetoric against such assistance from much of the left.
The abiding concern was still that by arming the rebels the West would be facilitating the downfall of Assad and ensuring the accession of a pro-West, pro-imperialist government that would pave the way for belligerence against Iran and open the floodgates to rampant neo-liberalism and monopoly capitalism. The difference with the earlier position was that now the rebels themselves were increasingly being painted as reactionary, unstable, un-revolutionary, or extremist. If the rebels were accepting assistance from the West, then they were now ipso facto pawns of the West, and therefore of imperialism, and as such should be actively opposed rather than supported.
Where this failed to convince, other excuses against assistance were proffered. Prophecies of sectarian pogroms and Taliban-esque Islamists taking power now became prominent in arguments against Western assistance. The presence of some foreign fighters, including some who had participated in the downfall of the Ghadafi regime, led to some sources portraying the entire armed uprising as a kind of illegitimate terrorist endeavour (thereby echoing the official line of propaganda being promulgated by Syrian state-run media). In more academic circles doubts were cast as to whether the uprising could be considered revolutionary in any sense anyway, as it had not mobilised enough from the working or industrial class and was looking decidedly bourgeois. Others doubted that it could be considered ‘popular’. All in all, the uprising, now tied in with an armed resistance, was now not to be backed.
The general summary of these reactions is that, from the beginning, much of the left used every excuse fathomable to avoid the unpleasant truth that a) Syrian civilians are being killed in their thousands and b) if the people of Syria are to stand up to the slaughter, they are going to need military assistance, that is, Western assistance. A quite reasonable wariness of imperialism has been allowed to outweigh the far more pressing urgency of stopping state murder on an industrial scale. Much of what I have read and heard online and in print from leftist circles has ungallantly ignored (or at the very least sidelined) the human devastation, the thousands murdered (30,000 by some recent estimates), the mass of refugees fleeing Syria or their mistreatment in neighbouring countries, the complete destruction of towns and villages, the widespread use of torture, including on children – and replaced it with cosy, unconcerned, semantic arguments over what constitutes a revolution, which neighbouring country is most in the pocket of the U.S., or who is supposedly fighting whom in the ‘proxy war’.
There is no sense of urgency. Lofty attempts are made to complicate what, on the ground, is actually a very simple situation, that of state murder and collective punishment and a popular resistance against it. The intention of all this is to essentially filibuster the question of outside assistance until either the uprising falls exhausted under Assad’s military machine, or devolves into a sparse, fractured insurgency reminiscent of Lebanon’s deadly civil war.
The Western left’s initial position, that giving technical or military equipment to the rebels would ‘militarise’ the situation, gave scant regard to the violence that was clearly going on; certainly any scenario that involves an army with guns murdering others is militarised already, by definition. Assad had already shown by then, to the tune of several thousand dead and many others tortured or imprisoned, that he had no qualms about harming the unarmed; indeed, that was his purpose. If the right to self-determination, surely one of the fundamental tenets of leftist thinking, means anything, it must mean the right to defend oneself from a rapacious, indiscriminately-murdering fascist force; therefore, to have the means to assist these people at your disposal only to deny them is to admit either support for the aggressor or indifference to his victims. The only other defence is that of much of the left – that you are opposing assistance on the pious basis that to do so would compromise your stance against imperialism, a position that is easy to hold when one is not being bombarded by artillery.
But what of the plans of imperialists? The insidious, self-serving nature of Western interventions, particularly those of the U.S., needs no introduction and is well-documented. We know from the U.S. embassy cables released on Wikileaks that the U.S. has been meeting and funding pro-democracy opposition groups for some time before the Arab Spring, hedging their bets with them whilst also engaging (somewhat ineffectually) with the Assad government. One can rest assured that if the U.S. offers any assistance to an opposition movement it will certainly be angling for a future that sees its own interests protected and promulgated, be it the expansion of its hegemony in vital parts of the world or merely the promotion of its own brand of neo-liberal hyper-capitalism that it exports and insists upon wherever it can.
But achieving these ends is by no means inevitable, and even if it was, it is still a good deal more attractive than being slaughtered. Also, they would at least have the benefit of occurring in something approaching a democracy, where imperialistic desires could conceivably be defeated or curtailed; here we have the advantage of already knowing the U.S. techniques.
The level of control the U.S. is assumed to have in this situation has, however, been overstated, sometimes to the level of paranoia. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) seems to be often described simultaneously as too fractured to be reliable and yet somehow coherent (and credulous) enough to be co-opted by the U.S.; it is also described as a political force when it is really a military force that, by its own admission, has no political intentions outside of the ousting of Assad. Writing in response to some pieces indicative of the typical reaction of the left from noted anti-imperialist John Rees, the blogger Richard Seymour was given the closest thing to an online pillorying for suggesting, on his Lenin’s Tomb blog, that ‘the armed contingent is too diverse, too localised and too disarticulated to be a proxy army, or simply a force of reaction as some claim’. This point and others he made in that same article are demonstrably true, but were shouted down for not supporting the orthodoxy.
The U.S. has a long history of using purported humanitarian concerns as a pretext for invasion or regime change, all in the hope of replacing whatever government displeases them with one that is more conducive. The left have traditionally identified these pretences and exposed the ulterior motives at play.
But I argue that the case in Syria is different – there clearly is a great humanitarian concern, and if the Syrian people are to experience any end to Ba’athist repression then the regime must go, and if the Syrian people can bring this about quicker with NATO support, then we should press for it now; we can worry about energy contracts after the overwhelming ugliness of the regime has been removed.
One reason that some on the left oppose the Syrian uprising is that they believe that Syria, under the Arab socialist Ba’ath Party, is a pillar against U.S. hegemony that needs to be defended against capitalist-world interests (for examples of this, see the collected statements of George Galloway, although I flinch to think of him as ‘left’). These thinkers are reluctant to see Assad or the Ba’ath Party go, as they fear a profligate, U.S.-controlled puppet-state taking its place, to the detriment of the region and anti-imperialism in general. Now, the idea of keeping Assad in power as a bolster against NATO interests is just an extension of the dangerous premise ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and ignores the nature of the Ba’athist regime; it seems baffling that, for all the atrocities and the thousands dead, Assad should still not be seen as the greater enemy currently threatening the Syrian people. Supporting resistance to Western imperialism is admirable, but not if it involves allowing mass murder – to do so would be essentially asking the Syrian people to die for our beliefs. It may be considered noble to sacrifice oneself for a cause, but it is contemptible to expect others to do so for you.
Another source of reluctance, that Ba’athism is a kind of useful experiment in socialism, is also misleading. The land reforms and nationalisations that characterised its initial implementation of Arab socialism are long forgotten, as is its definition as a ‘socialist state’ in the 1973 constitution. Economically, the regime uses state capitalism to benefit only those in the ruling cadre, and any lingering vestige of social considerations have been swept away by Assad’s neo-liberal reforms in the last decade. The protests that sparked the crackdown were, like those in other Arab Spring countries, as much a reaction to growing inequality as political suppression.
For all its talk of nationalisation, state supermarkets and consumer price caps, Ba’athism is essentially fascism, and Syria, under Assad, is a fascist state. As usual, it is as telling to see which words are not used in debating Syria as those that are. It is interesting that many commentators have avoided using that word, ‘fascist’, to describe the Syrian Ba’athist regime, yet that is essentially what it is: a nationalistic, authoritarian, militarised one-party state whose leaders foster a large personality cult and are not indisposed to meting out violence on those that dissent or oppose them (it was even able to allow the extremely fascistic, swastika-waving Syrian Social Nationalist Party into its coalition, before even they turned against it). This differentiation is crucial, as would the left be so opposed to supporting the uprising if the regime was openly described as a fascist regime? That would indeed be a tall ask. And yet, each time the opportunity to describe it as such is missed it allows Assad to coat himself with another layer of legitimacy.
There are doubts as to whether the uprising can be considered ‘popular’. Evidence for this would be that strikes and labour movements have not played as large a role as in other Arab Spring countries such as Tunisia and Bahrain. But this is hardly surprising, given that Syria has some of the worst workers’ rights in the world; collective bargaining hardly exists, and strikers can face severe penalties, including hard labour sentences. Even the act of organising is difficult, as all workers’ groups are mandatorily enrolled in the state-run General Federation of Trade Unions, which holds the power to nip any inconvenient motions in the bud.
What popular revolution looks like.
If popular support dwindles, it will be because the regime’s tactics are working, terrorizing people into rejecting the rebels and the uprising for fear of the government’s vengeance. It does not help that the Syrian uprising feels so desperately alone, without much in the way of even supportive statements or solidarity from the rest of the world (and certainly not enough in the way of material support – rebel fighters have had to withdraw from some parts of Damascus due to ‘lack of ammunition’). After the intervention that led to the ousting of Ghadafi, many Syrians doubtless hoped a similar response would come to their assistance; they pressed on with their revolution, but have found themselves without the decisive military support they need to win.
With regards to the idea that the uprising need not be supported as it is not a ‘revolution’, one can straight away say that in order for there to be a true socialistic revolution the Syrian people need to be in an environment where they can meet, discuss, protest and organise without being murdered or arrested en masse. The first strike removes the dictator and the suppressive security apparatus; after that, the people are free to open a debate on socialistic progression, form unsuppressed worker movements, and organise properly. The notion that the armed resistance should not be supported simply because it is not explicitly socialistic (the FSA’s purpose is primarily to remove the Ba’athists) is too callous to be entertained.
One of the more ‘practical’ excuses for not supporting the uprising is wariness of the Free Syrian Army, the main force fighting Assad. Increasingly, the coverage of the conflict has started to dwell more on the occasional excesses of the rebels (such as the summary executions of captured combatants) than the overwhelming atrocities being committed, as an end to themselves, by the regime’s forces (tellingly, the usual verification disclaimers often disappear when the subject is rebel atrocities rather than government ones). Aside from the absurd need to ‘balance’ a clearly unbalanced situation (coverage does not suddenly become ‘impartial’ by exaggerating rebel barbarities, or by dubiously construing both sides as equal forces), this bias serves to placate the consciences of those who have decided not to support the rebels.
In evaluating these atrocities we must again look at the language being used. The ‘Free Syrian Army’ is a specific body with its own command structure, tactics and objectives. The ‘armed Syrian opposition’ refers to anyone outside of the government forces who has taken up arms, be it against Assad or not; other than the FSA, this includes local militias, Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and any groups of jihadis or foreign forces that are not under FSA control. Too often, the former term is used as an umbrella for the latter, which it is not; arming the FSA does not mean arming al-Qaeda. And in a country where the rule of law has disappeared in many areas, criminal acts and personal revenge attacks should not be assumptively blamed on the FSA unless there is evidence for it.
This is not to say that the FSA has been faultless. We know that some FSA rebel atrocities have occurred – Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Council have documented cases of summary executions, kangaroo courts and prisoner mistreatment and have rightly impressed the need to recognise and denounce these crimes, as a measure of moral consistency. However, unlike the regime’s forces, these clearly reprehensible acts are the exception, rather than the rule, and go against the wishes of the FSA command (Amnesty International have welcomed the calls for restraint, particularly those recorded in videos, that the FSA leaders such as Abdul-Razzaq Tlass have issued to quell such cases. The importance that we in the West place on such incidents has not been lost on those who seek our assistance).
A valid counter would, of course, be to point out the FSA leadership’s sluggishness in dealing with these violations. But if the West were to engage with the rebels, there could at least be an opportunity to impress extra vigilance against such vigilantism, especially as a precondition for continuing assistance; let the prerequisite for our support be adherence to our rules of engagement, openly-reported and transparent. This would be more likely to happen if any Western assistance was overt and openly admitted, as the politicians authorising it back home would have something to lose; at the moment, what little Western assistance there is is being given tacitly and quietly, not least because Western governments fear condemnation, much of which would come from the left. All in all, rebel violations should be a cause for concern and a point of order between the West and the FSA, but should not eliminate our support for what is essentially the only supportable force fighting to end a regime that is hell-bent on mass murder.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
All those things we fear – the abuses, sectarianism, reprisals, Islamic radicalization – will only get worse as both sides become more embattled and desperate. The greater engagement we would get with the rebels through supporting them would allow us a hand in curtailing and discouraging those aspects of their action that disturb us so. It would also help prevent problems after the fall of the government, as if and when the regime does fall, the country may very well need assistance in containing sectarianism or militant Islamism. In a recent interview with al-Jazeera, Malik al-Kurdi, deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army, impressed this need for assistance: ‘The crisis in Syria is turning into a civil war. If the international community does not intervene to find a solution, the situation in Syria will become so difficult. The problem is not the collapse of the regime. We probably need another two months to take the regime down. The problem is what comes afterwards.’ He acknowledges problems with separatist groups and within his own ranks, and emphasizes that they need support: ‘We need the world’s help right now – and after the regime has fallen.’
The inability of the FSA to fully equip its men has led to disillusionment with its leadership and resentment amongst its ranks. The lack of weapons has led to the use of home-made arms that are doubtless less predictable and more dangerous to use (we can also expect a greater use of improvised explosive devices, as these, unlike ’professional’ weapons, can be home-made).
As the FSA’s resources, and therefore their effectiveness dwindles, new rebels are increasingly being drawn to groups like al-Qaeda, who seem to be better supplied than them, or the al-Nusra Front, who have openly admitted an Islamist agenda. Their influence is increasing as people lose faith in the poorly-equipped FSA, leading to worrying issues of security, as witnessed by al-Jazeera journalists in Syria. This state of affairs, where people desperate to fight Assad are turning to notorious terrorists for assistance, should highlight the need to bolster the legitimate opposition, as allowing extremist groups such as al-Qaeda to gain ground can only lead to more sectarianism and more indiscriminate killing; again, it is Western inaction that assists this.
Syria is increasingly portrayed as a kind of volatile powder-keg of belligerent sects, with Assad acting as the ‘glue’ that holds them all together; surely, removing him would unleash chaos? The uprising however, is not sectarian in intent or composition. The FSA is naturally composed mainly of Sunnis (who make up 70% of the population) but encompasses Syrians from all over, even including some Christians and Alawites; of the groups fighting in Syria it is surely the least sectarian, due to this diversity. Our media is too quick to portray Arabs as a kind of belligerent species that will resort to violence at the drop of a hat, with religious variations being exaggerated until one assumes that any Shia and Sunni would automatically hate and attack each other at the first chance. Certainly, if left to fester under the sole influence of radicalists, the uprising and any post-Assad situation will take on an Islamist or sectarian nature. This can be countered by the plurality of democracy, the kind of society that the uprising is striving for and will only get if properly bolstered, lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the strategic choice is between democracy and dictatorship, and that despite the fear-mongering over Islamists they should not dominate the debate.
The left must also guard against one of the main prejudices that often hang over events like this (thankfully, it is not one that originates from the left, but one that is evident in wider society; however, the left is not immune to it). It is the impression that this is somehow ‘normal’ for Arab politics, all par for the course for the Middle East; it is not normal, anywhere. There should be no such thing as moral relativism, it is only a platitude to excuse our inaction, a shroud to cover our indifference; it is also an indication of anti-Muslim prejudice. If one employs the thought experiment of imagining this crisis occurring in a non-Muslim Christian country, then the current position seems unthinkable – imagine your reaction if it were Manchester or London being bombed, instead of Homs or Hama! Or if it were the arrondissements of Paris where children had their throats cut, or where fathers were forced to watch their daughters raped, before being raped themselves (as the regime has been documented as doing).
What argument for inaction could you accept then?
Similarly, the left should also reject the response that it is just a ‘Syrian problem’, or, as Mehdi Hasan wrote for the Guardian, that ‘the sad truth is, it is not our job to topple Assad’ – it may not be our ‘job’ but it should certainly be our concern; the ideals of the left, to promote freedom from tyranny, social and political equality, and a just society are empty if it is not.
A common feature of some leftist commentary is the assertion that the resistance is already being covertly controlled by the U.S., either directly or through its allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia (both no doubt interested in reducing Iran’s strength in the region). We do know that the FSA has received some arms and money from the Gulf, and that Britain and the U.S. have admitted offering ‘non-lethal’ support, and the resistance may have been crushed already were it not for the support and shelter it has received from neighbouring Turkey.
What the ‘Friends of Syria’ have not offered, however, is decisive support. There have been no heavy arms for the rebels, no ‘safe zone’ for the civilians. The fact that the FSA is currently so under-equipped leads one to question the sincerity of the U.S.-led support; similarly, the lack of any move towards a buffer zone, even after 30,000 dead, shows that there is no real political will to intervene even for humanitarian purposes, let alone to support the uprising.
What would be the response from Assad’s allies if NATO were to intervene? And what would the effect on casualties be? We know that the Assad regime has received support from Iran, and that Russia has continued to send arms to it, including helicopters; the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has also been sending fighters and advisers. In a way, the situation on the ground has already escalated, and the rebels are already having to deal with these elements. The real issue is whether outside players, Iran in particular, would escalate its involvement if NATO were to use airpower, either for a no-fly zone or an assault on Assad’s air capabilities. In the case of a no-fly or buffer zone, this would be unlikely; the NATO action would be seen as a defensive and humanitarian gesture rather than an offensive manoeuvre and would have input from Turkey and the Gulf States to boost it politically. Turkey may well be the one to lead on this, as the burden of Syrian refugees is forcing its hand towards intervention; along with France it has been making the right noises but is awaiting U.S. support.
The case is less clear if airpower was used offensively against the Assad forces; Iran is no stranger to puffed-up bluffs of belligerence, but it might just stand by its threat to send its own airforce in if Assad was attacked. The best chance of defeating Assad without regional escalation, it seems, lies with the armed Syrian uprising itself.
Would any of these measures lead to more casualties in Syria? With the majority of daily deaths now being due to indiscriminate air and tank attacks, it seems likely that any imposition of a buffer zone would save lives; however, offensive air attacks would undoubtedly endanger civilians (as was seen during the offensive part of the Libyan intervention). Arming the uprising with more decisive weapons will probably ramp up the violence, but if assistance is to be of any meaningful military use it must be decisive; it is the elongation of this conflict that is costing lives, rather than the firepower of the rebels. Certainly the worst eventuality would be a Syria where no-one steps in, left to suffer a deadly, internecine war of attrition while the world trips over its own feet in its haste to disassociate itself.
How much support is there for outside support or intervention? As mentioned before, there is no desire for any outside invasive force from any wing of the Syrian opposition, but that does not mean there is no call for any assistance. Certainly, the FSA wants to receive as much support as possible, their concerns being practical and military; their primary problem is their current lack of resources. The Syrian National Council, after some initial ambivalence, has asked for international intervention on a humanitarian basis; meanwhile, the opposition coalition of the National Co-Ordination Committee has firmly opposed any such move. Of the protesters and activists who have embodied the non-military uprising, their attitude towards intervention is displayed in the titles given to their days of unrest: 28th October last year saw the “Friday of No-Fly Zone”, 16th March was the “Friday of Immediate Foreign Intervention”, and 10th August was the “Friday of “Arm the FSA with Anti-aircraft Weapons”- no ambivalence there, it seems. The deciding vote must lie with the embattled people of Syria, for while there may be some amongst the opposition who do not want to see increased support or intervention, one thing is clear: each time we see a tear-stained face asking why the world is doing nothing, we can be sure that it is action and not rhetoric that they are clamouring for.
The Left and Pragmatism
It must be understood that the Syrian conflict is not going to go away. Should the uprising fail, Syria will be subjected to an almighty clampdown, as only a brutal, authoritarian state can do (and already did, in Hama 30 years ago, continuing with mass arrests, torture and murder even after all resistance had been crushed). Should it peter on in a weak, unassisted way, the regime’s victims will merely pile up high enough to block the sun. If it does triumph, it will need assistance in keeping Syria stable. The one thing that should be clear is that Assad and his government cannot stay in power. Already illegitimate enough by years of intimidation, suppression and rigged ‘elections’, the act of conducting warfare against one’s own people is enough to remove any shred of legitimacy or validity; there could be no future engagement with such a body, and it would be contemptible to insist the Syrian people remain under such misrule.
The Western left, if it stands for anything, has to stand for basic human dignity and freedom from tyranny, control and repression, especially when conducted by a state against its own citizens. The left cannot afford to be tied to barbarism; in any case, it should be incompatible with one’s essential humanism to accept a regime such as Assad’s in favour of even an imperialist-influenced democracy. If it helps, you can call it the lesser of two evils. It is not a case of being right or wrong, merely of recognising that the struggle against fascism in all its forms is essential, and that if lives are to be saved from a repression that will not stop, then support must be given to those opposing Assad. One can worry about their inadequacies, and take issue with their direction, but if they are all that is standing up to the murderous regime then they must be assisted against the greater danger.
Let us make it clear that such ‘assistance’ should not mean any kind of Western invasive force — on this everyone on the left is agreed, and nobody, including those fighting for their lives in Syria, is advocating that. ‘Assistance’ here means anything that can help the rebels in their struggle against the Assad forces short of Western armies- that’s time, money, equipment, communications and logistical help and humanitarian supplies. But primarily, it also means decisive weapons; there is no point in pretending that an armed uprising can go far without reasonable armaments.
There is a lot that could, and must, be done. The French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has raised the possibility of setting up no-fly zones over certain areas, an idea that Turkey has also floated; those still reticent about the FSA should seriously consider this as a humanitarian endeavour. Similarly, any attempt by Western governments to provide humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees sheltered by bordering countries should be encouraged and indeed insisted upon. We should, of course, try for a peaceful removal of the regime at the same time, however dictatorial regimes rarely acquiesce easily and Assad, sheltered politically by Russia and China (those two bastions of human rights!), shows no sign of this. A focus on dialogue is admirable, but ignores the nature of regimes such as this, that, like Ghadafi, will not cede power without a fight. Assad has been able to stop his murderous campaign of collective punishment and seek genuine dialogue with the uprising at any time, but he has refused- complete annihilation of all possible opposition is the regime’s plan, just as it was in 1982. This highlights the difference with the deposed leaders of the Arab Spring; Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh and even Mubarak stepped down when the internal pressure (particularly from within their own military ranks) became too much, and long before their respective uprisings came anywhere close to the present situation in Syria; the Ba’athists, like Ghadafi, refuse to concede an inch of their power and are well-experienced in the brutish methods of maintaining it by force. In the meantime then, Orwell’s dictum stands: ‘Despotic governments can stand moral force till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.’
Bickering and swiping will not help. In a response to the Richard Seymour piece mentioned earlier, an article on the ‘What’s Left’ blog facetiously mocked the idea of supporting the Syrian uprising: ‘If supporting Syria’s rebels meant anything at all, Western leftists would be making their way to Turkish border towns to offer their services to the Free Syrian Army.’ It is to our great shame that we have not. What we can do, however, is shift the political mood here in the West to one that is conducive to allowing our governments to provide meaningful assistance. Currently, our governments are free to coast through this situation as there is little perceived support for the Syrian cause, and therefore no incentive to get involved in any meaningful way.
There have been many on the left who have already voiced their discomfort with the ‘mainstream‘ left reaction and have raised concerns similar to those raised here; Nikolas Kozloff on al-Jazeera (also highlighting Hugo Chavez’s support for Assad), Jess Hill on GlobalMail.org, Richard Seymour, Alex Callinicos writing on SocialistWorker.co.uk and articles on OpenDemocracy and NewLeftProject.org have all showed support for the revolution or have expressed discomfort with the left’s response (even if they don‘t all agree on the way forward). This debate should continue, but it must also consider pragmatic ways forward and look at the balance of consequences, between allowing the opposition to be actually backed or remaining inactive.
The left is still reeling from its inability to prevent the war in Iraq, and it is conceivable that this has led some on the left to disengage with foreign policy for fear of re-living the impotence of the last decade. Unfortunately, one does not ‘make up’ for Iraq by stultifying the legitimate and popular efforts to remove another (also Ba’athist) dictator, and supporting the overthrow of Assad does not invalidate one’s opposition to the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein a decade ago. The stonewalling, and then opposition to the Syrian uprising is sadly indicative of a shift of priorities in internationalism amongst some members of the modern left, with the focus moving away from support and solidarity for foreign causes to mere opposition to U.S. and Western policies. It has moved from being proactive with foreign causes and movements to merely reactive to whatever NATO is doing, with debate only seeming to exist as responses to Western policy. A symptom of this has been a limitation of the topics at the forefront and a lack of interest in areas and issues where NATO and the U.S. in particular are not involved; without any imperialist policy to react to, there is too often nothing to say.
This reluctance to ‘make the first move’ may be a defensive habit the left has developed as a result of seeing supported causes ‘go bad’ (a mindset that could be traced back to dismay and disillusionment over the Soviet Union), a consequence of misleading moral relativism, sheltered pacifism (anyone promoting total pacifism in a situation like this should observe a fox in a henhouse), or it could be a lethargy brought on by an inability to change things; either way, it is costing the lives and efforts of uprisings such as those in Libya and Syria, and also the standing of the Western left itself, whose support for uprisings like this could once be counted upon but now, it seems, must be carefully courted. As a result, the left often fails to provide any cogent or pragmatic ways of dealing with events such as Syria, as it dithers and agitates over U.S. policy; in the meantime, more focused actors literally get away with murder.
Lack of pragmatic support for popular uprisings and tacit admiration for speciously-socialistic dictators will be to the left’s undoing. We run the risk of alienating the most vital movements going on today for the sake of the temporary discomfort of realising that sometimes, in special circumstances like these, NATO’s assistance can be useful and even necessary, even if it should be used sparingly. It would therefore be very much harder, when the bloodied movements win their hard-fought struggles (as eventually they must) to engage and work with them for true socialistic progression; for who, having spent their every effort opposing assistance to a movement, could then look them in the eye and ask to be a part of their future?
Joe Morby is a freelance writer based near London. His areas of interest include imperialism, revolution, race and Latin American/ Caribbean socialism. He read Physics at the University of Bath.
Further reading from The North Star: