Much of the Western left is in political disarray over the situation in Syria—a few currents are still vigorously beating the anti-intervention drum, others are supporting the revolution but on the basis of questionable assessments of the situation, while yet others are just turning their attention elsewhere and ignoring Syria. But whatever their stance, very few left organisations have initiated or even participated in serious solidarity actions with the Syrian people.
The honourable exception is the French left, which has embraced the cause of the Syrian revolution in a unique fashion. While there are plenty of conspiracy theorists and pro-Assad websites in France, they seem to be more the creatures of the far right than offshoots of the left. Virtually the entire French left, from the French Communist Party (PCF) to the main Trotskyist groups to the Greens, are very clear about what side they are on in Syria: that of the Syrian people’s democratic struggle against the Assad regime. Most remain opposed to Western military intervention but make this a very subordinate theme of their campaigns which focus on their solidarity with the revolution and on condemning the regime’s crimes.
For example, in December 2011 solidarity organisations put together a Train for the Freedom of Syria, a group of 300 advocates who traveled to Strasbourg to discuss the Syrian situation with various figures in the European Parliament. A statement in support of the trip was signed by 173 prominent intellectuals and cultural figures; the authors’ English translation, slightly modified, reads in part:
The Syrian people have been living a tragedy for 20 months. They dare to express—peacefully and en masse—their demands for freedom, democracy, and liberation from the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad. This same dictator has responded with the fury of revolvers, rifles, machine-guns, canons tanks, helicopters, war-planes, war-ships, in addition to cluster-bombs and knives, targeting men, women, and even children. The calculus of death surpasses 40,000. … Defending the right to life in Syria is a humanitarian duty and responsibility for each and every one of us. …
Each one of us should ask: ‘If I do not speak out, who will? If I do not speak out now, then when?’ … We must … address the authorities in France, in Europe, and the world, which until now have shown only faults and failures. Bashar Al Assad is brutalising Syria to an extreme while peaceful demonstrators uphold its civility. Assad and his clan have no legitimacy but continue with their repression, against which the Free Syrian Army represents the front line of defence.
The world is not doing even the minimum possible. The United Nations is mute, impotent, incapable of any effective humanitarian reaction. The Security Council confines itself to recording the inexcusable vetoes of Russia and China, who meanwhile contribute to the armament of Bashar Al Assad and his clan. …
France must commit itself—concretely and passionately—to stand alongside civil society, the social networks, local coordination committees in villages, and neighbourhoods. The Syrian people need food, medicine and medical equipment, school supplies, mattresses, and blankets for the fast-approaching winter and an assurance of protection.
France, Europe, and the world must make an effective response to the stirring of the jihadist scarecrow, so precious to Bashar Al Assad. The jihadist presence is still marginal in terms of numbers, but presents a real danger if the Syrian people are abandoned to fend for themselves. The best weapon against radical Islamism is the support and solidarity of all those who support the Syrian struggle for freedom in the face of a torturous regime.
More importantly, the French left has taken action in solidarity with the Syrian struggle, advancing concrete proposals for the provision of aid, as indicated by this Facebook page, which spotlights demonstrations held by solidarity organisations in six provincial cities. And Syrian solidarity featured at the great gathering of the French left, the PCF’s Fête de l’Humanité, held in September.
As elsewhere, the driving force behind the Syrian solidarity movement is the local Syrian community, in this case especially the informational Web site SouriaHouria (scroll down for English text). But unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere, these activists are not on their own but closely linked to the left, as the extensive list of solidarity actions on their site indicates: On average there are two Syrian solidarity events taking place across France each week, including demonstrations, meetings, and cultural events.
Solidarity with the Syrian revolution in France dates back almost to the beginning of the revolution. In July 2011, 10 prominent cultural figures associated with the Avignon Festival issued a declaration titled “Syria—Towards Freedom” and organised a mass solidarity meeting in Paris. One of the founding signatories of this declaration was former PCF senator Jack Ralite, who has remained an outspoken stalwart of the solidarity movement up to the present. They reissued their declaration a year later, observing that in the intervening year “the macabre balance sheet of repression has grown almost tenfold. At war with his own people, Bachar al-Assad knows no limits.”
On March 17, 2011, as part of a Global Day for Syria, demonstrations took place in Paris and several other cities, with the Paris demonstration attracting several thousand supporters. In April, the principal human rights organisations and the professional association of lawyers in Paris initiated the Vague Blanche pour Syrie (the White Wave for Syria), a coordinated series of demonstrations across France launched April 17, the anniversary of Syrian independence, with a demonstration led by the mayor of Paris. It was endorsed by 148 prominent cultural figures, including actors Juliet Binoche and Jane Birkin, musician Youssou Ndour, and filmmakers Costa Gavras and Jean-Luc Godard.
In September the principal anti-globalisation organisation in France, Initiatives Pour un Autre Monde (IPAM), called for the creation of a support collective for the Syrian people. This was endorsed by a broad spectrum of left organisations, including the PCF, the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), the trade union group Solidarity, and a number of North African organisations, including the important Mouvement du 20 Fevrier of Morocco.
While this activity is impressive, it has its limitations (which are to some extent those of the French left)—declarations and the formation of solidarity networks abound, but this has not led to sustained organisational activity, and the solidarity movement remains fragmented, with most public actions relatively small, embracing only a few hundred people. The programme of the movement has never been really thrashed out, leading to inconsistencies—it condemns Russian and China for blocking a Chapter 7 U.N. resolution but doesn’t seem to have thought about how one would be enforced if adopted; the movement vigorously pushes for humanitarian aid from France and the E.U., but isn’t clear about how the conditions for delivering that aid could be created.
However, the movement has spawned significant non-governmental aid work, especially in medical aid, including the first of a series of aid convoys directly to Syria. At the same time, some new political discussions are opening up—for example, the Greens in a recent document seemed to be talking about defining conditions for French military aid to the Free Syrian Aarmy (transparency, chanelling of weapons to democratic and non-sectarian groups).
But whatever the French left’s limitations, it is inspiring to see left forces that have not forgotten the centrality to socialist values of solidarity with the oppressed.
Brian Slocums is a retired social scientist and was a militant in the Canadian and British Trotskyist movement over many years. He is now politically unaffiliated but retains a firm commitment to socialist values, while accepting the need to rethink the means through which they can best be realized.