What's next for the left's troubled relationship with Syria?

What's next for the left's troubled relationship with Syria?
Comment: The western left's understanding of the Syria conflict has lacked context and nuance. Loubna Mrie asks: how, then, should the left show solidarity with Syrians who share their values?
7 min read
15 Nov, 2016
In 2015, the Stop The War Coalition campaigned to end airstrikes in Syria [Getty]

Why are many Syrians - especially those who have long promoted human rights and greater democratic freedoms and/or were active in the revolution - critical of some voices on the western left?

First, let's talk about one source of tension: the issue of regime change.

Syrians today are divided between pro-government and pro-revolution camps - but that does not mean we cannot make any claims about the popular demands of Syrians, especially in the initial stages of the revolution. And during much of 2011 and 2012, millions of Syrians called for regime change ("Al-Sha'ab yureed isqat al-Nizam") - as soon as the the government began shooting us as we peacefully protested.

I would know - I was one of those protesters.

And we didn't do it on the orders of America, or to support alleged interests of large oil conglomerates. We did it after decades of repression and humiliation at the hands of a brutal regime, and we did it in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and other parts of the Middle East.

When the revolution started, I was 19 years old, and many people, like me, had no previous interest in politics - but we decided to join the demonstrations. In their first weeks, these protests did not go as far as calling for regime change, but were in solidarity with the city of Daraa - the first to protest against the government.

Did I care if America supported the uprising? Of course not; no-one on the street cared what Washington thought. It was an organic revolution fuelled by anger. We hoped it would bring change to the country in which we had grown up believing that all walls had ears, and that criticism of the government - even within your own home - was not allowed.

Now in 2016, the conflict is much more complex, but many on the Western left refuse to acknowledge the reasons and context in which Syrians originally called for regime change. In addition, they refuse to accept that millions of Syrians will always consider a Syrian government dominated by the Assad family illegitimate, because of the brutal violence it has inflicted and continues to inflict on them.

When the revolution started, I was 19 years old, and many people, like me, had no previous interest in politics

Failing to recall this fact, or to always prioritise the US as the centre of analysism, denies Syrians our agency - especially because there is a very good argument that Washington may indeed have been a marginal actor in the conflict.

And at worst, it replicates some of the most patronising forms of Orientalism in which westerners tell Syrians which of their aspirations are legitimate.  

Of course, taking the most recent fragment of this conflict and drawing conclusions is a much easier task. Trying to understand the longer-term chain of events or its timeline, however, requires time and energy.

Furthermore, it appears that many care much more about a future, theoretical US-western-oriented policy change on Syria - such as some kind of "safe zone" - rather than about the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are being killed right now, the majority by the combined air forces of Damascus and Moscow.

I think this misplaced emphasis is probably the biggest frustration for many Syrian activists. It appears the western left cares more about holding civilian rescue groups accountable for allegedly insufficient transparency over sources of funding, than about the barrel bombs which necessitate the presence of the rescue workers in the first place.

I want to be crystal clear: Syrians will always care more about their children being murdered from the skies than whomever may have helped pay the salaries of Syrians who tried to rescue them from under a collapsed building. Full stop.

Today, for some reason, the focus is on the result more than the reasons. For example, in the now-famous photo of Omran, more questions seem to have been raised over who took the photo and who paid for the camera than have been asked over who bombed the child and his family's home.

As someone who has photographed front-lines for Reuters, I can tell you that the photos you see online and in print cannot convey even half of the horror of daily life in Syria. Many times I had to put my camera down and weep, and today I have to argue with "leftists" about these photos. These photographers deserve respect, not questions about their motives.

Taking the most recent fragment of this conflict and drawing conclusions is a much easier task

History will be written by those who were rescued by the White Helmets. I am sure they couldn't care less about who paid for the oxygen in the ambulances.

What do we want from you?

What are the ways the left can stand in solidarity with Syrians who share their values? And in what ways can Syrians benefit from the energy, skills and advocacy experience from those amid the international left?

First, the left needs to take seriously the concept of civilian protection for all sides - the government side and rebel-held areas - as a priority.

While the merits of no-fly zones, safe zones and humanitarian corridors are all worthy of debate, the left appears to have got this back to front. Their focus falls on the potential hypothetical destruction that may come with a theoretical policy change, but they invest no intellectual energy into actually coming up with a solution for what Syrians care about most: not being murdered in scores on a daily basis by Russian and Syrian aircraft.

So when the left criticises armed groups who shell civilian areas in western Aleppo, I agree with them completely. All civilians should be protected. But let's extend that care to all Syrians, not just the ones who are politically convenient.

And of course that goes for the Syrian opposition, and its backers, who have fundamentally failed in many areas - particularly to articulate that civilian protection is for everyone.

Let's extend that care to all Syrians, not just the ones who are politically convenient

Second, a common left-wing argument I hear goes along the lines of "Yes, I do care about Syrian lives, and I'm convinced that the only way forward is a political settlement that ends the violence".

But when you dig a little deeper, this political settlement in reality often translates into "armed opposition groups should be disarmed so the Syrian government can retake all Syrian territory" - or some version of the Assad regime retaking full control of the country.

And so, a second way in which the left can stand in solidarity with Syrians is to insist on accountability for war crimes committed by all sides. And, of course, this means emphasising accountability for the leading perpetrators of the violence, which is first and foremost the Syrian government.

No white-washing the brutality of the regime and its crimes against all communities in Syria, including Syrian-Palestinians, the Kurdish community or even its own Alawi social base.  

How could you stand in solidarity with the fighter who was slaughtered by Nour al-Din al-Zenki without mentioning the Houla Massacre, where more than 30 families were stabbed to death by Assad forces?

Atrocious photos were published the very next day of children with necks and pants wet with blood, and I still remember not being able to sleep for two days after seeing them.

However, I felt the same anger when I saw the execution of the child by Nour al-Din al-Zenki. Because this is not what the revolution stood for, nor what it continues to stand for.

And at the very least, this means being vigilant in debates, writing, and personal discussions - that this is the reality of the Syrian regime, and that the Assad family and its intelligence apparatus is irredeemable.

This has always been the reality in Syria - for those who read Arabic, this is even a central theme in Syrian literature, like Mustafa Khalifa's Al-Qawqa. And for those who comment on Syria without this being at the forefront of their minds, then I would argue they are putting their political orientation ahead of the reality and the aspirations of millions of Syrians.

Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist who participated in the initial stages of the revolution. She later became a photojournalist with Reuters where she covered the ongoing conflict. She is currently based in New York City where she is a researcher and commentator on Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs and is completing an MA at NYU. Her work has been published in major outlets including the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and New Republic.

Follow her on Twitter: @loubnamrie

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.