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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

The left’s glaring inconsistency in discussing Syria

The left still has a number of unavoidable blind spots when it comes to the Syrian civil war, argues HA Hellyer
Syrian president Bashar Assad delivering a speech during a meeting with heads and members of public organizations, vocational syndicates, and chambers of industry, trade, agriculture and tourism in Damascus. Sana Handout / EPA
Syrian president Bashar Assad delivering a speech during a meeting with heads and members of public organizations, vocational syndicates, and chambers of industry, trade, agriculture and tourism in Damascus. Sana Handout / EPA

There has been a lot of discussion in the past few years about “pseudo-liberalism” in the Arab world – self-proclaimed liberals who make regrettable apologies for autocratic regimes or oppression, when it takes place against their opponents. At the same time, there is a breakdown in the consistency, and thus principles, of a significant proportion of the traditional left in the Arab world and in the West. There is a name for that breakdown – it’s called “Syria”.

There was a time when Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was one of the most popular Arab politicians in the region. It wasn’t that long ago that this Shia militia leader was immensely popular among different types of Muslims and non-Muslim Arabs alike, as the leader of a Lebanese resistance group against Israel’s unjustified occupation of Lebanon’s south. The relationship between Mr Nasrallah and the Iranian regime, hardly a progressive force, received little attention against that backdrop. He was described as “anti-imperialist” even among western leftists. Arab leftists and western leftists agreed – Hizbollah was on the “right side”.

That changed a great deal in 2011 – but not for all. That year, the Syrian revolutionary uprising broke out. It was an organic movement, one rooted in respect for fundamental rights for all Syrians, as part of the wider Arab awakening in 2011.

But that wasn’t how a number of leftists saw it. There were conservative forces inside and outside the Arab world who decided to back autocracies and counter-revolutions against any movement for fundamental rights. But there were leftists who also backed a counter-revolution – when it came to Syria. For example, the editors of the hard left Beirut daily Al Akhbar and the former British MP George Galloway.

For them, the Syrian uprising was not, it seems, worthy of being supported – even though the Syrian revolutionaries in 2011 were struggling against an autocratic dictator who became ever more brutal as the conflict raged on. Rather, they threw their weight behind Bashar Al Assad – sometimes openly and blatantly, although at other times rather discreetly. In many cases, they were abject apologists for the brutality of Assad’s regime. Again, that was true among many Arab leftists, who saw in Damascus a bulwark against Israel, as well as many western leftists, who identified Mr Al Assad as a part of the broader “anti-imperialism” axis.

But while it is clear that Mr Al Assad is against one kind of imperialism – a western one – it’s not altogether clear that it is against all types of imperialism. What can Iran and Hizbollah’s role in Syria itself be described as, except for foreign intervention against an indigenous and organic movement for change? Has the role of Mr Al Assad been identified and scrutinised by this kind of “pseudo-left” in the West and the Arab world?

Where are the rallies by this portion of the left in the Arab world or the west about the destruction of Syria by Mr Al Assad’s forces? They could be, justifiably, mustered when the Israeli army rained fire on Gaza last summer, in which more than 1,400 innocent civilians were killed over seven weeks. Where is the outrage when Mr Al Assad’s barrel bombs kill hundreds of Syrians, and the total death toll has reached more than 200,000 in the midst of that conflict?

On the flip side of this discussion, one can find many on the left arguing that there are others who hold nefarious intentions, and that it is not the time for dividing those who are holding ranks against them. On the altar of that prize of the “unity of resistance”, a blind eye has been turned to the many Syrians and other Arabs who have been killed in Syria by the Assad regime – far more than any other government or authority inside or outside the region.

Above and beyond being unprincipled, it’s also rather lacking in strategic sense. Certainly, there are now many radical extremists fighting in Syria against Mr Al Assad – but if the death toll alone is examined, the Syrian regime is far more deadly to the people of Syria, and serves as fuel for the narrative that ISIL recruiters need. There are, of course, genuine concerns to be expressed about ISIL and other radical groupings, and it would be foolhardy to support the Syrian uprising without considering carefully the presence of a number of radical extremists within the forces opposing Mr Al Assad. But the presence of radical groups like Islamic Jihad or Al Qaeda, who opposed Israel, did not stop the left from supporting calls to end the Israeli occupation.

Supporters of Hizbollah have been arguing for the past four years that the road to Jerusalem and the liberation of Palestine goes through Damascus. In one sense, they are right – the ending of the occupation and the ensuring of the fundamental rights of all Palestinians means recognising their innate dignity as human beings.

The same dignity for Syrians against a brutal dictator is no less valid or crucial – indeed, if one is serious about dignity for the people of Palestine, the upholding of that value ought to be consistent. If it is traded in Syria for some mythical geostrategic end, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be elsewhere, time and again. It’s not a choice of different imperialisms – it’s a choice of consistency in principles.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow in international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

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