It’s worth noting that these talking points – support for Assad and the conspiracy theories which absolve him of blame for mass murder and ethnic cleansing, the Islamophobia which underpins these theories, the notion that ‘globalists’ staged the Arab Revolutions, and the idea that the Libyan revolution was entirely a foreign plot – are shared to some extent or other by most of what remains of the left.
In 2011 I expected that Syria’s predominantly working-class uprising against a sadistic regime that is both neo-liberal and fascist would receive the staunch support of leftists around the world. I was wrong. Britain’s Stop the War coalition marched furiously when it seemed America might bomb the regime’s military assets, but ignored America’s bombing of Jihadist groups and Syrian civilians, as well as Assad’s conventional and chemical attacks on defenceless people, and Russian and Iranian war crimes. Key figures in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party followed the StW line. Diane Abbott called the police when Syrians attempted to speak at a StW event. During the final assault on liberated Aleppo last winter, Emily Thornberry suggested to Channel 4 News that Assad protected Christians, that the problem would be solved if ‘jihadists’ left, and that the Assadist occupation of Homs was an example to be emulated – never mind that liberated Aleppo contained democratic councils, that its revolutionaries included people of all religions and sects, or that 80% of Assad’s troops in that battle were foreign Shia jihadists organised by Iran – nor that the vast majority of Homs’s people remain in refugee camps, too terrified to return. John McDonnell gave a speech in Trafalgar Square on May Day under a Stalinist flag and the Baathist flag – that’s the flag of a previous genocide and the flag of a genocide still continuing. It wasn’t him who put the flags up, but he didn’t ask for them to be taken down.
In 2011 I should have known better. Leftists had long made excuses for the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe and the genocidal occupation of Afghanistan. Noam Chomsky, to pick one, made excuses for Pol Pot and Milosevic (today, of course, he rehearses the conspiracy theories which claim Assad’s innocence of sarin gas attacks, and channels like Democracy Now repeatedly offer him and others a platform to do so).
Leftists repeat the war on terror tropes first developed by the right. So do Putin, and Assad, and Sisi. In his indispensable book The Impossible Revolution, Yassin al-Haj Saleh writes that ‘race’ is ultimately a matter of class. (This is questionable, to say the least, but here he’s using racial constructions as a metaphor, and I’ll go along with him for a while.) In this context, he distinguishes between ‘white’ and ‘black’ Syrians. ‘White’ Syrians promote a discourse of fascist modernity which casts ‘black’ Syrians as backward, primal and dangerous. The regime’s scud missiles and barrel bombs are necessary to protect ‘developed’ and ‘modern’ Syria from the blacks. Leftists around the world parrot this discourse.
Corbynites tell me I shouldn’t get hung up on foreign policy, as if Labour’s parochial nostalgia didn’t effect its support for a hard Brexit, and the enormous consequences of that for the domestic economy. As if Syria were irrelevant to issues like migration and terrorism, which dominate domestic debate.
Until about the 1920s leftists could perhaps have been forgiven for ignoring or deprioritising democratic struggles as ‘bourgeois’. After that point, when the terrible ramifications of crushing democracy became gruesomely apparent, there was no excuse for it. Here’s what Rosa Luxemburg said at the time: “Without general elections, without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, without the free battle of opinions, life in every public institution withers away, becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor.” When Western leftists, who live in democracies, scorn democratic revolutions, they are displaying nothing except their own privilege.
It isn’t surprising that the right sees every Syrian refugee as a potential terrorist when the left has spent years opining that the Syrian revolution is run by al-Qaida (or American imperialism, or Zionism). These beasts feed each other. The greatest threats today are rising authoritarianism, whether it calls itself leftist or rightist (or Islamist), and the preference for ideology over human reality, for simplistic conspiracism over complicated facts.
This is going to get a lot more messy. We need answers to the politics of austerity and the undoubted tensions of a globalised and increasingly technologised economy. Nostalgia for the social compositions of earlier decades, and the era when national borders were impermeable, is by no means an answer. Yassin argues that democracy “retreats everywhere as soon as it stops progressing anywhere”. He speaks of a progressively “Syrianized” world.
So today Western ‘realists’ think the regime which started the Syrian war should remain in power for the sake of stability; and a childish and bullying reality-TV star is president of the world’s most powerful state; and fascists are again gathering for torch-lit rallies. That’s what happens when you ignore human suffering in favour of stirring grand narratives.