If you ever happen to be in the presence of a left-wing, anti-war organization of some kind, try this bit of stage magic. Ask any given member what they would like to see happen in Syria. I can tell you what their answer will be almost 100% of the time.
Half of them will say, “the victory of the revolution.” These are usually the well-intentioned ideologues who think they know something about Syria, but merely regurgitate banal tropes. The other half will say “peace.” These are the so-called liberals who have not bothered to do any serious learning about Syria.
What you will almost never hear any of them say is the answer that most Syrians would give if they could articulate it: “the victory of the rebels over the Assad regime.”
Therein lies the left’s gross failure. It is not merely its inability to answer questions on Syria correctly. The left does not even know what the right questions are to begin with. This is why leftists often do not realize they are failing Syria at all. Even as they compete with other left-wing groups for the best position on Syria, they foolishly think their particular organization has the most ideal policy and popular support from the Syrian people.
The New Left
When the popular uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad broke out in 2011, I had the good fortune of reading the writing of my Syrian friend of twenty years, Robin Yassin-Kassab—co-author of the book Burning Country. From the beginning, and partly through the valuable insights of Syrians like Robin, I could see the direction that both pro-revolution and anti-revolution narratives were taking.
To put it simply, the Syrians who rose up against Assad saw their struggle as a simple one for freedom and dignity, while their enemies presented it as complicated by neighboring states that had purportedly reduced the revolution to an armed proxy war.
When I became aware of this, I started writing a blog, News of the Revolution in Syria, because I could see that much of the left instinctively accepted the anti-revolution narrative by default. They were capitalizing on some unfortunate realities in Syria, in order to tarnish the revolution’s principles. In some cases, they were actively promoting counter-revolutionary narratives—like the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition in the United Kingdom, whose mantra “stop bombing Syria” is really just a euphemism for “stop bombing Assad.” All along, I could see that even those on the left who believed they were beyond such moral depravity were still accepting parts of this reactionary message.
As a result, Syrians have been understandably appalled at the left’s behavior. Nonetheless, much of the Western left has failed to notice these moral failings. Those who have somehow noticed it usually seem to think they are immune to criticism, if only because they have “already done enough for Syria.” If anything, they have certainly “done enough” to harm Syria, either through their pacifism in the face of mass murder, or by spreading false narratives about the nature of the war.
Like the Syrian revolutionaries, I am also appalled by the behavior of leftists. I continue to fear for the left’s future, and the gaping hole in its “anti-war” commitments exposed by the Syrian conflict.
Where It Went Wrong
As Syrians know, and have for long told us, Russia and Iran have been behind Assad’s efforts to crush the revolution from the beginning. Through an arms embargo, the Americans have also played their part in this plot, by prohibiting Syrians from acquiring the weaponry they need to defend themselves against slaughter.
In effect, these parties are all contributing to regime preservation in Syria in one way or another. Leftists have, however, ignored this reality, and have, instead, constructed an image of the conflict in Syria as one where the Great Powers simply act to bring proxy states to the infamous negotiating table to “talk peace.” Not only is the popular uprising against Assad and agency of Syrians entirely erased in this assessment, it misconstrues the role of external powers in the conflict as well.
It requires some careful analysis to see where the interests of Russia and the United States differ—the sort of analysis leftists tend to eschew today. The former is benefiting from Assad’s continued rule, while the latter is responding to its previous imperial over-reach by handing Syrians over to their oppressors. With a handful of exceptions, leftists have failed to comprehend this, and are stuck in a world where everyone is bombing Syria “equally.” This is why, we are told, we might as well concentrate on stopping the UK from bombing ISIS, even if in reality that contributes almost nothing to the safety of Syrians.
But, these are not the only aspects of leftist failure on Syria. The wave of disinformation that comes directly out of Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow is often enthusiastically echoed among Western leftists. In fact, this disinformation is occasionally treated as more reliable than information from the Syrian opposition.
Allegedly “alternative” media outlets—like Mint Press News, Sputnik, and Global Research—have contributed to the Assad narrative by explaining how the “West made ISIS what it is,” or how the “Israelis run ISIS,” or even how the “Saudis and Qataris fund ISIS.” The trite methodology of deliberately seeking out purportedly “anti-Western” sources in order to discover the real truth behind Syria is damaging, and in many cases simply leads people to read the likes of Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk—both of whom present either partially concealed (or straightforwardly lunatic) versions of the Assadist narrative.
The Effects of Leftist Failure
Today, nearly all leftist groups in the West support “Hands Off Syria” demonstrations—so-called “anti-imperialist” protests led largely by supporters of Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. These protests shot off in the wake of the Ghouta chemical attacks in 2013, and continue well into the present.
The “anti-imperialists” spearheading these demonstrations simply do not realize they are disrespecting Syrians by pretending the essential threat against civilians is U.S. action against Assad, instead of Assad himself. They simply ignore the fact that Corbyn is himself sympathetic to Assad, and has implied that the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is a credible and acceptable force without whose support we could not attack ISIS. Worse yet, as they continue to protest the hypothetical prospect of a U.S. intervention in Syria, they seem to forget the fact that the United States has been intervening in Syria for years.
99% of Corbynites simply will not engage with the demoralizing nature of these facts, including those who recently shouted down an anti-Assad protester who challenged Corbyn over his inaction in Syria at a Stop the War conference in London. Instead of listening to this protester, conference attendees simply yelled “no more war” in response—a profound irony given that this is exactly what the protestor was calling Corbyn out for failing to do.
Corbyn’s supporters do not care that he has tended to express sympathetic views toward Iran, or that he welcomed Russian intervention on behalf of the Assad regime in September 2015, as long as “they are there for peacekeeping purposes.” All they care about is fulfilling the vague ideological lines they believe they must hold onto in order to truly be “antiwar” and “pro-peace.”
Consider, for example, a Middle East and North Africa solidarity conference I attended at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on March 12, 2016. During the conference, one speaker pointed out how much the left had failed Syria. This prompted Judith Orr of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to say she did not know what the speaker meant, since she and others like her had written many articles on the Syrian revolution. This response, and the SWP more generally, reflect the failure of left groups quite well. Their insular approach ensures the left will remain unaware of its wrong doing.
Instead of attending anti-Assad protests to witness the messaging first hand, these leftists consistently promote the work of Assad apologists, like Cockburn and Fisk, and even spread absurd conspiracy theories, like the one that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is “seeking an alliance with ISIS.” In late 2014, for example, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21) published an article by Andy Cunningham that said we should not support the FSA because it might let Islamic extremists win power.
Across the Atlantic, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has been far better on issues related to Syria—though far from perfect. To its credit, the ISO has organized marches and demonstrations against Assad and Russian aggression, and coordinated with other Syrian solidarity activists. For example, Stanley Heller, an ISO member, wrote an excellent piece in the publication, Socialist Worker, that outlines what we must do to show solidarity with Syrians, from protests to challenging the Assadist narrative in the West. Heller and other constituents of ISO have, in large part, enthusiastically echoed the message of Syrians like my friend Robin, which is not something groups like RS21 have done.
Still, even the ISO appears to be trapped by some of the same mentalities plaguing other far left groups. A piece by Ashley Smith in the Socialist Worker is a good example of this. It opens strongly, quoting extensively from Burning Country, but then goes on to say that because Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to arm the rebels, and because these countries are never going to defy the United States, the Syrian rebels must forget about them and look to the international working class for help—a privileged suggestion that seems very detached from reality.
The ISO also has continued to support PKK/YPG attacks on Turkey, which weaken its ability to support the Syrian revolution against Assad. The ISO blindly treats Turkey as a wholly bad actor in Syria (and in many ways, it surely is bad), even though the country has helped the FSA retake nearly 400 square miles around Jarablus. The ISO insists that Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra, and even Ahrar Al-Sham, are as reactionary as the regime.
Many Syrians, however, view these groups as preferable to the Assad government, even though they do not ultimately want to be ruled by them. Unlike the ISO, Syrians refuse to fall into the trap of treating rebel factions as legitimate targets, particularly after their success in helping temporarily break the siege of Aleppo in August 2016.
A Dark Future for Leftists
I have not bothered to talk about the worst of the left, the Tariq Alis or the George Galloways of the world. But, they will be what is thrown at the left when Syria is either liberated or lost.
The world is not forgiving when the left makes mistakes; leftists do not have the money to buy good PR. When the left made the error of supporting Stalinist tyranny in the 1930s, it produced a generation of anti-communists. Even those like the Trotskyists, who opposed Stalin, were not immune to this backlash.
The left must self-correct, first by understanding that it has an absolute obligation to show real solidarity with the oppressed—instead of rehashing cumbersome rhetoric. It must look at Syria the way besieged Syrians and their supporters do. This is not likely to happen, however. If the left had genuinely cared about Syria at all, it would have been principled from the start.
I fear for a future in which the one who calls for a better world is the one who is most vilified. Indeed, by failing Syrians, the left has ensured it will be treated like the people it has abandoned today. In this dark new world, the struggle for freedom and dignity will be that much more difficult to win.