Syria and the left

Is every uprising against dictatorship a civil war? If that is the case then it is the case in Egypt, in Yemen, in Bahrain. Are we going to dismiss all these revolutions, because some of the people support the regimes? Or is it just Syria that is doomed?

There are different leftist approaches to the Syrian revolution. I want to highlight the difference between two approaches that oppose any military intervention in Syria. They differ profoundly on the description of what is going on in Syria, and on the role of the Islamists.

Noam Chomsky’s interview with Al-Jazeera on the Syrian revolution is a classic exposition of the first approach. Chomsky is very clear on his opposition to any military intervention, but in his case this does not involve him in justifying the regime, or in treating the principled motives behind the revolution as if they were suspect.

What is going in Syria? According to Chomsky, this is an uprising against poverty, dictatorship and oppression, very similar to the seismic movements that have happened in the other states of the Arab World: ‘It is very ugly; there is a massacre in Syria.’ Chomsky points out that external powers in the west and the Gulf States are trying to interfere in this. But first and foremost this is an internal uprising against dictatorship.

What according to Chomsky, would happen if an Islamic government ruled Syria? Chomsky replies that this is not the important question. The west always finds a way to handle the most incalcitrant radical Islamist movements. The real challenge for the west relates to democracy itself. If there were to be a true democracy in Syria, the west would find this much more difficult to handle. Whether it is Islamist or not, is not the real concern.

Rather than frighten people with ‘the evil Islamists’, Chomsky concentrates on the possibility of building democracy in Syria. A Syrian Islamist movement, like any other political movement, might in fact have connections with the west against the interests of its own people. But democracy is the real litmus test of whether any government in Syria, Islamist or not, is putting the interest of the Syrians first. The moral here is that there is no need to be afraid of ‘the Islamists’. In contrast to the phalanx of politicians who wring their hands over the prospect of Syria falling into their hands, Chomsky thinks that the choice between dictatorship and democracy is the strategic choice, and that there is no a priori guarantee that an Islamist movement is going to harm or benefit the people who vote for it. He is not afraid of the Islamists in themselves, in some essential way: nor of the Islamist element in all the uprisings. Consequently, nothing would induce Noam Chomsky to support Assad, just because there is a chance that the Islamists might come to rule Syria.

Compare this with the leftist position of George Galloway. It is difficult to understand what Galloway wants to say. He keeps changing his mind, and couches many of his responses in rather vague terms. In a recent interview, Galloway announced that we couldn’t call the events in Syria a revolution. He asked how many people it took rising up against the government to call it a revolution? Unfortunately and rather unhelpfully, he didn’t answer the question. He goes on to ask how many Syrians support the opposition, and how many support the regime? According to him, there are supporters on both sides: hence there is a civil war raging in Syria, not a revolution.

Let us give Galloway some credit. There are supporters of Assad. Are they sufficient to justify Galloway’s disregard for the revolution? Remember first that there were also supporters for Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler. In itself support does not make the regimes of these dictators legitimate. Galloway claims that there are demonstrations for and against the regime. But he doesn’t mention the fact that the police shoot at the demonstrations against the regime, while there is never any attack on the pro-regime demonstrations. He didn’t mention that most of the people in the pro-regime demonstrations are forced to turn out. Anyone who knows how demonstrations were organized in the USSR would know that, and might also know that the Syrian regime was modeled on that of the USSR, a fact that should be borne in mind by all who discuss the Syrian revolution. So, is every uprising against dictatorship a civil war? If that is the case then it is the case in Egypt, in Yemen, in Bahrain. Are we going to dismiss all these revolutions, because some of the people support the regimes? Or is it just Syria that is doomed in the eyes of George Galloway.

To call what is happening in Syria a civil war, is taking sides. It is the first step to justifying the dictator. There is a difference between an uprising against a dictator, and a civil war. In Syria, we have an uprising against a dictator, who has supporters. Chomsky states clearly that it is an uprising against dictatorships and oppression. Moreover, he states that it is part of the Arab Spring, alongside what has happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. Chomsky, showing his full sympathy with the people who are demanding their freedom, also warns them of the dangers of civil war. But what a difference in the two positions!

Secondly, Galloway draws our attention to the fact that people in the opposition are shouting ‘Allah Akbar!’. So we have to be careful. It is not clear if he is singling out the armed opposition who shout this for opprobrium, or if he condemns anyone who does. Probably the second, because he goes on to ask the poor woman who ventured to assert that there is a revolution under way in Syria: “Are you a salafist? Are you a big Islamist supporter?” Galloway has decided that the aim of the Syrian revolution is to turn Syria into an Islamist state, and that he prefers the dictator to this Islamist threat. But he needs to read the statements of the different groups of the Syrian opposition before he accuses them in this right-wing, anti-Islamic fashion. The Syrian opposition brings together democratic movements that have been suffering the brutality of the regime for more than thirty years. Since 18 March 2011, millions of Syrians have rushed onto the streets in order to end the dictatorship. There is of course an Islamic element to the Syrian revolution. But should that condemn the uprising, as it does in the eyes of George Galloway?

For Chomsky, Islamists are not essentially evil or good. We have to judge them according to their statements and actions. For Galloway, they simply are evil. Only an ignorant person who supports the Arab dictators, would adopt this view. This enemy image has been cultivated and exploited by every Arab dictator from Mubarak and Ben Ali, to Gaddafi and Saleh. This approach only leads to the justification of every dictator throughout the Middle East.

Why do some leftists adopt this absurd immoral position towards the Syrian revolution?

Some leftists treat the Middle East as Stalinists once treated Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Galloway is an example of those who want to avoid criticizing any dictator who is anti-American, even if millions of people are treated like slaves or worse in the process. The fact that some Syrians have been tortured doesn’t stop Galloway. In 2005, he described Assad as ‘the last Arab ruler’. In Syria, we were horrified by this statement. Not a word on the total lack of freedom. Galloway has refused to apologize. He has said, ‘I was wrong, up to a point’. What point? In his statement on the situation in Syria he even justifies himself:

“It was possible to judge Syria by the nature of its enemies - Israel, US, British and French imperialism, the Arab reactionaries, the Salafist sectarian fanatics - for as long as the Syrian people remained either supported or were largely quiescent behind the regime even if only for fear of something worse. And as long as the President, Bashar al -Assad, held out hope for real reform towards democracy, open government and an end to rampant corruption, much of it concentrated around his own family and close cronies. That hope now dangles by a thread.’

Few statements could be more insulting to a Syrian citizen than this one, made on August 15 2011, after the attacks on Hama, Dier-Alzour, Deraa and Latakia. It is not just a question of refusing to apologize for insulting the Syrians in 2005. Even if Syrians do keep quiet because they fear an even worse alternative to Assad… does this give Galloway the right to judge Syria solely according to its enemies? Leftists from the west it seems can visit their capital in order to pass on the message - this is fine, let us ignore it. Syrians are treated like slaves, but they must take it.

He ends his article with these words, ‘Unless the Syrian regime can conclude an urgent agreement to proceed to elections, a free media, legal political opposition and an end to what has now become a massacre, the state is going to be invaded or is going to collapse under the weight of the bloodshed.’ But there is not one word that the regime must be overthrown. The hope is that the regime is going to make reforms, in spite of the fact that it has ruthlessly ruled Syria for forty years, killing thousands of its people, and was killing more when Galloway was writing his statement. Either invasion or bloodshed, he says, are the sole alternatives. Compare this with Chomsky’s conviction that there is no place for Assad any more. He states clearly that the Assad family must leave.

Galloway should apologize, at least to those political prisoners who were tortured by the Syrian regime in 2005, when he announced his support for the regime. This is a fundamental moral issue. The Syrians are not just pawns in a big game between the Arab dictators and the West. They are human beings.

There is a great movement in the Arab world; it is a spring that could bring freedom. Don’t be against it. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the Cold War. The Arab Spring is an opportunity to induce western leftists to revise their moral and their political principles. I hope very much they will seize this opportunity. 

About the author

Odai Alzoubi, born in Damascus in 1981, has studied electrical engineering in Damascus University (1998-2004), philosophy in Lebanese University (2003-2007), and is currently completing a philosophy doctorate at the University of East Anglia.