Daesh, the (pseudo) Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution

“The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny”.

My response: WHY for heaven’s sake does this even have to be stated?

The reason is because of the general failure to understand that ‘socialists’ who side with tyrants are not worthy of the name, and that the pseudo-left which has been dominant for decades needs to be called out. I wish the reviewer had used that term rather than seeming to accept that one can oppose democratic revolution and still be on the left.

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The following book review is published with permission of Syria Solidarity UK.

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Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, ed. Jules Alford and Andy Wilson, published by Unkant, London.

Review by Clara Connolly

This book should be required reading for every leftist, as an antidote to the growing mountain of ignorant comment on the subject of Syria. The title Khiyana (betrayal) is an accusing cry; the book is a trenchant denunciation of the Western Left for its abandonment of the principles of internationalism and solidarity in favour of an alignment with the ‘anti imperialist’ camp, a hangover from the geo-politics of the Cold War.

Assad An-Nar, like most of the authors, situates himself on the Marxist left, and his prefatory chapter could be considered a direct response to Tariq Ali’s infamous dismissal of the Arab Spring in What is a Revolution? (Guernica, Sept. 2013). He sets his critique in the context of the changing nature of revolution in an age of global neoliberalism, where post colonial states are collapsing because neoliberal policies have slashed the limited social protections they used to offer. In this world, he says, the principles of self emancipation and of collective and democratic struggle are ‘ideas in search of a subject.’ Ideas about democracy, socialism, and anti-imperialism used to run in the same direction, but now they are counterposed.

With the collapse of the progressive moment of secular Arab nationalism, Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood can rise beyond identity/sectarian politics in resistance to tyranny. Though not necessarily opposed to neoliberalism, they are the voice of those who are excluded from its benefits. Hezbollah’s current role in Syria shows that such movements can swing between revolution and counter revolution without moving in a socialist direction.

The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny. Instead the left has responded by either supporting their favourite dictatorships (the neo Stalinists) or by re-hashing theories of ‘permanent revolution,’ i.e. insisting that revolutions can only end in socialism or defeat (the Trotskyists). Yes, he says, a democratic revolution is possible in these countries, but the outcomes are uncertain; the socialist left, while recognising its marginal role, should not condemn itself to irrelevance by denouncing the struggles for democracy because they are not socialist. Instead he urges the left to make the ‘democratic wager,’ in hope that the outcomes lead to more collective forms of struggle. There is little to lose for socialists, he believes, since neoliberalism has led worldwide to the fatal weakening of working class self-organisation.

The subsequent chapters examine and demolish the standard left myths about the Syrian revolution: the ‘jihadist’ nature of the ‘rebels’; the selective anti imperialism which admires Rojava but has no time for similar experiments in local democracy elsewhere in Syria; the role of regional imperialisms like Iran and Russia in propping up a monstrous regime; and above all the lies and distortions peddled by the institutional left (Stop the War Coalition, and the éminence grise of left journalism like Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, and Seymour Hersh) who place the national interests of states they consider to be in the ‘axis of resistance’ above solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed in those countries.

In a short review I can refer only to two further articles in the core of the book; but I cannot resist a passing mention of the glorious satirical piece by M Idrees Ahmad, The Anti-Imperialist Guide to Inaction in Syria. Anyone familiar with debate on Syria will recognise the strategies he lists: ‘Don’t defend Assad, attack his opponents; sympathise selectively; functional doubt where straight denial is risky; defend peace and sovereignty; champion the minorities; talk about ISIS, not Assad; talk about refugees but not the cause of flight,’ etc. Most of these strategies are shared with the establishment and the extreme Right.

Mark Boothroyd describes the responses of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) to Syria, in a case study that echoes the critique in the preface. It has consistently viewed developments through its relation to the US and the UK. In a multi polar world system with competing imperialisms, it persists in viewing events through the prism of the Cold War. The agency of Syrians is erased altogether.

In 2013, STWC opposed the proposed intervention of the UK and when this proposal was defeated in Parliament, it claimed victory; but Boothroyd claims that if the West had really wanted to intervene in Syria it would have done so—its actual strategy is to let the country bleed. I think he underestimates the power of popular protest in democratic countries, and the degree to which STWC was able to tap into post Iraq war weariness. But he is right in pointing out that STWC has missed a trick in failing to expose the real cruelties of the Western role.

In its weaker response to the 2015 intervention against ISIS, STWC has consistently refused to allow oppositional Syrians on its platforms—who have opposed the Coalition campaign against ISIS as useless and counter-productive, but have also proposed more positive measures for the protection of Syrian civilians. Once again, its failure to listen to Syrians has weakened its moral stance even in its own terms—in opposing its own Government.

It could have been different, he believes: the anti war movement could have risen beyond its current ethnocentric, isolationist positions to meet the challenge of changing times, and been a movement to build solidarity with the revolutions in the Middle East.

In The Rise of Daesh in Syria, Sam Charles Hamad attacks the myth of Saudi funding and support for Daesh; instead, in a detailed study, he convincingly shows their deadly rivalry despite their similar ideologies. He demonstrates the origins of Daesh in post invasion Iraq, and its nurture by the sectarian regimes in Iraq and Syria. He shows, by tracing its sources of income, how it is self sustaining. Finally he argues that the current tactics of the west, in fighting Daesh from the air but hampering the oppositions in their fight against the sectarian regimes of Assad and Maliki, are counter-productive. And the left’s narrative is complicit in this.

The book, and particularly its opening chapter, is weakened by a failure to examine more closely such terms as ‘democracy’ and ‘emancipation,’ given their ambivalent history among Marxists; and to analyse the demands of the revolution—Freedom Justice and Dignity—in more detail. This is particularly the case since there is little discussion of class, and no accounts of the role of women in the Syrian revolution, nor of the role of Western women’s peace groups or feminists in relation to Syria. My own recent experience of organising solidarity events with Syrian women suggests that the hostility to, and silencing of, Syrian voices is much less prevalent among feminist organisations than in the left as a whole. The ‘democratic wager’ which is urged upon us might be weighted more favourably with the inclusion of women activists, within Syria and in the West.

Refusing to listen to the Syrians… ‘Stop the War’ reaches a new depth of pseudo-leftism

“Stop the War, which prides itself on being an anti-imperialist organisation, has an imperialist mind-set par excellence… Syrians are not allowed to have an opinion about their own country. Only Westerners are allowed to talk about Syria.”

The following is republished with permission of James Bloodworth of Leftfootforward.

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The Stop the War Coalition (StWC) have been accused of preventing victims of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from speaking at an anti-war event.

During a panel event on Monday evening to discuss the case against British military intervention in Syria, StWC included no Syrians on the speaker’s panel and reportedly refused to allow Syrians to speak from the floor.

The meeting was chaired by Labour MP Diane Abbott and featured chair of the Stop the War coalition Andrew Murray, former leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas, Labour MP Catherine West, Tory MP Crispin Blunt MP and SNP MP Tommy Shephard.

According to human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who attended the event, no Syrians were included on the panel and the Syrian activists who turned up to the event were threatened with arrest.

Speaking to LFF, Tatchell said:

“Some Syrian victims of Assad’s brutalities turned up but were not allowed to speak. They eventually shouted out in frustration, turning the meeting into momentary chaos, as they were jeered by some of the audience and as StWC stewards tried to eject them – allegedly threatening that they’d be arrested. The police turned up soon afterwards.”

Tatchell went on: “Near the end of the meeting, I personally appealed to Diane Abbott to let the Syrians have their say, but she refused and closed the meeting.”

Tatchell’s comments mirrored those of Amr Salahi, an activist from the Syria Solidarity Movement who was also present at the meeting.

“Andrew Murray said absolutely nothing about the people being killed in Syria on a daily basis in Assad’s airstrikes,” Salahi said.

“Murray said that ISIS had to be defeated militarily, and the way to do that was not for the West to get involved but for the Iraqi army and the Syrian army (i.e. Assad’s army) to be helped to defeat ISIS.”

He added: “The [war] was not discussed in reference to the Syrian people in any way. The only focus was on British or American involvement. Not a single Syrian was on the panel. There were Syrians in the audience and at the first opportunity they raised their hands to speak.”

However after raising their disagreements with the StWC panel over the organisation’s views of conflict in Syria, Salahi said the Syrians were prevented from speaking again.

“The first [Syrian activist] to challenge the panel told the speakers they were only looking at ISIS, while Assad was killing dozens of people on a daily basis. [The Syrian] then compared Assad to Hitler, and I told the speakers they were like the Neville Chamberlains of today. [Panellist] Crispin Blunt MP, a supporter of the Iraq war, answered that people in Syria were now looking to Assad to protect them from Islamist extremists. He was unaware that [the Syrian activist in question] had lived in regime controlled Damascus for more than three years since the start of the revolution,” Salahi said.

He added: “After this intervention, no other Syrians were permitted to speak. [The panel] kept opposing the possibility of Western intervention as if that was the only factor. Clara Connolly, an immigration lawyer and activist with Syria Solidarity UK, later told the StWC they were silent about Assad’s crimes but they didn’t care. I told the speakers they just wanted Assad to keep killing people. Clara kept trying to make the point to the speakers that they had nothing to say about what was happening on the ground. All she got in return was silence. Then some of the organisers went up to her and warned her that if she didn’t be quiet, she would be forced to leave.”

Peter Tatchell told LFF a similar story: “When it came to questions from the floor, other members of the audience were asked to speak but not the Syrians. Near the end of the meeting, I personally appealed to Diane Abbott to let the Syrians have their say but she refused and closed the meeting.”

Tatchell added that he was “shocked, surprised and saddened by Diane Abbott’s unwillingness to invite Assad’s victims to express their opinions”. He added that not listening to victims of Assad’s war crimes was “arrogant, insensitive and appalling. It has a whiff of ‘we know best’ and Syrian opinions ‘don’t count’”.

This is not the first time Syrians have been prevented from speaking at a StWC event on Syria. In September, in reply to a letter from Syria Solidarity UK asking StWC to include a Syrian in a separate panel event on Syria, StWC’s Lindsey German replied that it was “not appropriate” to hear from Syrians if they did not clearly oppose military intervention.

“Stop the War, which prides itself on being an anti-imperialist organisation, has an imperialist mind-set par excellence,” Salahi said. “Syrians are not allowed to have an opinion about their own country. Only Westerners are allowed to talk about Syria.”

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter