On 3 October, a large group of activists, academics, Labour party and Momentum members signed an open letter to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn demanding he condemn the human rights violations committed by Syria’s current president, Bashar al-Assad, and the Russian government. The letter’s contents reveal the inadequacy of the left’s contribution to the international debate on Syria, and highlights the problems with what has been termed anti-western imperialism, a strand of Corbyn’s administration that has been accused of silencing the voices of Syrian activists. Indeed, Corbyn’s affiliation with the group known as the Stop the War coalition is proving deeply problematic for the left’s position on Syria.
The coalition, founded two weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks with the initial aim of opposing an American military response, has since helped to bring anti-war politics into the mainstream. However, when it comes to the current conflict in Syria, the group’s actions are troubling. Accusations that they do not provide a platform for left wing, democratic Syrian activists who staunchly oppose the Assad regime are not new. Yet the continuing silence from Corbyn continues to undermine and ignore the tireless work of many progressive Syrians. Joey Ayoub describes these actions, along with the coalition allowing pro-Assad apologists to speak instead, as exposing a “de facto tolerance and acceptance of Assad’s tyranny… and a hatred for subaltern voices.” Ayoub reminds us that the coalition – corroborated by the organisation itself – stands for a “rejection of intervention in the Middle East.” In an earlier article, he decries what he calls this “essential anti-imperialism”, one defined as opposition to the imperialism of one’s own government, but not any other: “In other words, it prioritises identity politics and can only survive in a grotesquely western-centric view of the world.”
Without involving Syrians in the conversation on the left’s understanding of the conflict, it continues to efface context, Syrian agency, and serves to maintain an imperialist agenda. As Abdu ElShayyal reminds us: “Syrians are not thinking about imperialism. They are running from bombs and hiding underground.”
It is almost incredible that, in spite of the devastation and atrocities wrought in the Syrian conflict, democracy and community has emerged. Whilst attention is now being paid to the democracy project – dubbed a ‘revolution‘ by some – in Rojava (the three Kurdish-majority cantons of northern Syria), the work of Syrian activists has been largely ignored. Indeed, the Rojava project has its own chequered history and diverse political allegiances, often overlooking the fact there is a revolution in Syria and the left don’t want to talk about it.
Robin Yassin-Kassib and Leila al-Shami, Syrian activists and writers, are giving a voice to these communities and offering an alternative narrative to the conflict that the international left, including Corbyn, should start listening to. Their work serves to remind the world that Syrians are politically engaged, and can offer the reality of the situation on-the-ground in Syria. These forgotten revolutionaries describe a Syrian populace discontent with the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad, and hopeful of his son Bashar’s promised “Damascus Spring”. Yassin-Kassib and al-Shami detail, in words that will resonate with many on the left, how these hopes were dashed with Bashar’s neoliberal austerity and corrupt privatisation. Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, was given control of 60% of the country’s economy, while Assad himself cut subsidies for food and fuel.
Yassin-Kassib and al-Shami’s recent book is dedicated to the work of Syrian lawyer and civil rights activist, Razan Zaitouneh. Since 2001, Zaitouneh has focused on defending prisoners whose rights were abused by the Assad regime. The authors credit her for bringing human rights into everyday conversation, offering Syrians a valuable non-violent language to be spoken in response to the regime’s violations. Amidst the growing dissatisfaction with Assad’s economic policies, corruption, and human rights abuses came the movements in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 that, through the use of social media, showed Syrians the potency of protest. Galvanised, many began by protesting against Assad’s failed policies, and Assad ordered his troops to repress the protests, leading to the deaths of hundreds. As violence escalated, Zaitouneh, along with other activists began two fundamental projects: the website Syrian Human Rights Link, and the grassroots communities known as Local Coordination Committees (LCCs). These intertwined projects saw the creation of an online archive of human rights violations that has since grown into a sprawling online record of analysed and verified images and videos taken by Syrians living the conflict. This archive is growing evidence of the violations committed by Assad and others since the start of the conflict.
Why is no one talking about this? These records come from Syrians who see the atrocities of the conflict on a daily basis, people who, like many in the UK, have used their smartphones and social media to record instances of abuse and injustice and hold their government and others to account. Alongside this are the LCCs, grassroots non-violent communities ruled by neither Assad or ISIS. These provincial councils now number between 400 and 700, and use a regular system of active democracy to designate tasks, provide healthcare and food distribution, offering interlinked democratic communities outside of the regime’s control. As Yassin-Kassib states: “It is these councils that have kept life going. Without them, there would be no education for kids, no health care, no food distribution, no bakeries working, and no garbage collection. This is a stunning development of local democracy that should, alongside similar experiments in Kurdish Rojava, be celebrated by the left.”
Indeed, it continues to prove alarming that progressives are not focusing on this people-led movement with non-violence and respect for human rights at its core. Whilst the conflict remains complex, it seems all the more puzzling that these communities and their hard work are not being given a platform to talk about the future of their country, or what can be done to help them.
Last month, Corbyn was heckled for not listening to these Syrian voices. His social movement seems to exclude Syrians who have tried to create their own in spite of escalating violence and terror. His approach to Syria – whether ideological or otherwise – allows for de facto support for Assad and his human rights violations, seriously undermining the credibility of progressive foreign policy in the UK, and erasing the voices of Syrian activists who live the consequences of this silence.