Nothing churns the stomach more than seeing Syria on the news. You wonder how bad it is this time, the casualties, the graphic, gory images. And then you wonder if there will be a reaction beyond the obligatory outpour of empathy and sadness. It’s unlikely.
At the time of writing this, Eastern Ghouta is under heavy siege, one of the last rebel instalments as Bashar Assad’s air force indiscriminately lays waste to beleaguered enclave east of the capital. Again the pictures of pale corpses of children have surfed the net. We turn away because that’s all we can do almost, and that’s all we have done with Syria.
We have lacked the political will where there should be action, of any kind. Where there should be condemnation. History will look back upon the 21st century genocide as one of shame for humanity. We cannot feign ignorance like our ancestors to the atrocity. The connectivity of modern technology binds us all in one interlinked sphere of constant awareness and information. Nothing passes unseen. We saw this. We did nothing.
It’s a stain of shame on the western left, for our repeated failings. We have betrayed our internationalism, in particular, the Labour Party. Which is why when you see the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry insisting that Labour has the right answers to global conflicts, you feel a sense of anger crashing through the despondency.
Thornberry recently penned an article in the Guardian that basically said Jeremy Corbyn was right on everything, pure as white light and infallible. Corbyn it appears, was right on Iraq, Libya, Iran and Syria.
It prompted scorn from the Syria Solidarity group, particularly as her criticisms of the events in Syria have rarely, if ever, included an analysis of Bashar Assad’s brutality. And that of course reflects the nature of the Corbyn leadership – utterly silent on the barbarism and heinous crimes of one of the most despicable regimes on earth.
But this shouldn’t be about Corbyn. The humanitarian crisis in Syria should hammer home that the left are not any more morally righteous than the right. Some of them have a binary, reactionary postcolonial “anti-imperialist” view of the world that has fixed positions of protagonist and antagonist for the world that can never change. And once we identify who the villains are, everyone else can be rationally explained in their actions as merely reactionary agents moving in their orbit. Therefore if the world lives in accordance to America, everything is done as a chain reaction against their aggressive capitalist interests.
Which is why the left has often struggled in framing analysis that’s coherent and rational on Syria. The aggressive imperialists here are Russia. America has largely been on the side of the rebels. But there has been little itch for regime change. Assad and Syria have been the main architects of the conflict raging like wildfire. Assad’s indiscriminate air strikes, usage of chemical weapons and mass-murdering forces have led to half a million civilians dying, supported strongly by Russia. Various human rights groups have attributed majority of the casualties as a consequence of Assad.
And yet, parts of the left continuously relapses into a terrible argument of intervention in 2013 possibly having terrible consequences. As if what is happening now isn’t terrible. As if this is somehow the better alternative. The other is that the rebels are as bad, that the White Helmets aren’t really emergency volunteers but terrorists in disguise, that the rebels are holding hospitals and schools hostages to draw strikes. These are the same arguments that Israel formerly used against Hamas and the left naturally exploded into rage then. But not here.
The other criticism is that Russia’s aggression has always been prompted by America. There is no equivalence between funding and arming rebels and bombing hospitals and schools. Saying “I condemn all violence on both sides” disingenuously creates a false equivalence, ignoring the power imbalances that separate a state force and people on the street. It’s in effect the “all lives matter” trope, solidarity shown with police states rather than the protesters.
This is what the modern internationalist western left has mutated into.
There is no peace solution in Syria while the butcher remains. Assad has rejected negotiations. He is interested only in the consolidation of his power through brute force. He has used ISIS and outside forces as conceptualised threats against Syria, to turn himself a rallying point but has spent the past seven years bludgeoning Syrian self-determination to death. And you cannot expect the Syrians to continue with that.
Deliberate inaction is a political decision in every sense as intervention. After Aleppo burned, now it’s Ghouta’s turn. Syria’s people who fought so hard for freedom are beyond on their knees. They have been battered onto the ground by the regime.
And we have stood by and watched. We shamed ourselves as a society, as progressives.
We should not be allowed to forget this. And history will not.