Corbyn’s Labour needs to get real on Syria

Can Paz dissects the Syrian conflict while making a robust call for Corbyn’s Labour to change a skewed view of the war

Following a successful year for the Assad regime which has seen it recapture a number of areas from a poorly equipped and increasingly demoralised armed opposition, Syrian rebels have been pushed back to the country’s north-western province of Idlib. The province is now home to some 1.5 million IDPs from across the country, doubling its pre-war population. Fears of a regime effort to recapture the governorate in September fortunately did not materialise, with predictions that a major offensive could generate the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, and the UN predicting an exodus of up to 800,000 people.

While a Turkey-Russia deal ostensibly prevented an offensive and established a demilitarised zone within the borders of the province, the conflict’s previous experiences with demilitarised zones suggest that this arrangement may well be a temporary one. Indeed, each of the other three de-escalation zones agreed on in Astana in 2017 have now been seized by the regime. In effect, the new de-escalation agreement in Idlib sits on top of the previous one the regime was recently preparing to violate. On Saturday the regime shelled areas within this newly agreed area.

Donor disengagement is an additional pressing issue. With the Turkey-Syria border having now been tightly barricaded with financial assistance from the EU, international donors previously incentivised to support stabilisation efforts in order to curb refugee flows are now pulling out. The subsequent drying up of funds has already led to the termination of large numbers of crucial development programmes.

Meanwhile, the international community is moving to re-accommodate the Assad regime. This is the same regime which responded to peaceful demonstrations in 2011 by sending the military to the streets to kill demonstrators, by ‘disappearing’ pro-democracy activists, and by torturing and mutilating the genitals of children. This is the same regime which, despite its history of supporting transnational terror organisations, attempted to present itself to the international community as a lesser evil in a two-way choice between itself and a jihadist nightmare – and then committed itself to seeing that choice materialised.

At the same time it was killing and locking up pro-democracy activists in the early months of the uprising, the regime released scores of Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters it had previously supported in the expectation that they would act in a way which would substantiate the pre-arranged narrative. This cynical public relations strategy informed its subsequent war effort also, with the regime and its backers first and foremost targeting moderate opposition groups more palatable to the international community, and showing a blind eye to jihadist organisations whose growth was seen to benefit the regime’s international image.

A cautious Obama administration had defined US strategy in Syria through a framing that only considered counterterrorism. Keen to avoid a collapse of Syrian state institutions which could generate a haven for transnational jihadism, Obama rejected the view of others in his administration that controlled support for armed opposition groups would generate incentives for the regime to make concessions and achieve a political settlement. Seeing any such support as too risky, the policy chosen was twofold: (1) to influence the pre-existing arms pipeline that had been established by regional states so as to steer supplies away from groups considered hardline by US planners, and also to limit the quantity and quality of arms provided to the ‘sanctioned’ opposition; and (2) to locate local forces which could be relied on to solely fight jihadist groups. Ironically, this policy contributed to the very dynamics it sought to avoid. This effective intervention by the US to limit the support provided to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) led directly to the relative growth of radical groups within the opposition whose sources of sponsorship could not be so easily controlled.

Unlike their views on domestic political issues which are typically formulated in an honest and lucid manner, and which represent a serious intellectual attempt at producing a nuanced analysis of a given situation, dominant leftist approaches toward world affairs rest on a lazy, fixed logic
In essence, the US policy was one which inadvertently supported the regime in Damascus by undermining the military capacity of the FSA. The resulting balance of power in the conflict led the regime and its backers to become increasingly intransigent in the various peace talks, and this is the context in which the failure of the peace process should be understood.

Yet this is not the image of the conflict one would take from the comments of leading figures within the UK Labour Party, nor within a wide portion of the political Left, both in the West and in the Middle East and elsewhere.

This connects to a wider problem many leftists nowadays tend to have with their understanding of global politics. Unlike their views on domestic political issues which are typically formulated in an honest and lucid manner, and which represent a serious intellectual attempt at producing a nuanced analysis of a given situation, dominant leftist approaches toward world affairs rest on a lazy, fixed logic. This logic is both disinterested in the specifics of the case being examined, and is disconnected from the Left’s traditional commitment to internationalism. In sum, it is one which is both analytically and morally bankrupt, and which does its tradition a deep disservice.

The structure of this logic rests on a number of interrelated assumptions: (1) that Western imperialism is the primary ‘problem’ in international relations; (2) that it has an insatiable appetite for regime change; (3) that non-Western agency is largely irrelevant; and (4) that only human rights abuses that can be linked to the West are worthy of criticism.  Indeed, criticism of other states, particularly those with shaky relations with the West, is dangerous as it risks reproducing an imperialist pro-regime change discourse.

It is because of these assumptions that so many prominent leftist voices associated with the advocacy of social justice and human rights have been able to reproduce the dishonest, dehumanising and counterrevolutionary narrative of the Assad regime. In this view, the West is committed to regime change in Syria, and its reckless sponsorship of armed opposition groups has led to the proliferation of jihadist groups and the rise of ISIS.

In this view, criticism of Russian war crimes in Syria by policymakers in the US and Europe constitutes the important act of aggression, a deplorable action which risks dangerous escalation. In this view, condemnation of actually-used chemical weapons against civilians is often likened to the claims of chemical weapons possession in Iraq prior to the 2003 intervention. The list goes on. This is the sick ideological quackery which explains how self-styled human rights advocates dismiss volunteers who risk their lives saving civilians from the rubble of air-strikes as a ‘propaganda construct’; suggest that Syrians gassed themselves as a pretext for American regime change; reproduce conspiracy theories that portray the Syrian conflict as an effort by the US to institute a gas pipeline; and write that the dictator who plunged his country into war is in fact a legitimate and democratically elected President.

While not reaching such depths, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party seems to exhibit a similar view of foreign affairs. While Corbyn was chairman of the Stop the War Coalition, the organisation invited Mother Agnes, a notorious regime apologist who claims that the uprising is a ‘conspiracy’ and videos of sarin gas victims are fabricated, to speak at its annual ‘peace conference’. As shadow leader earlier this year, Corbyn refused to condemn the regime for a large chlorine gas attack in the city of Douma that killed seventy people and injured over five hundred. His recommendation of exercising caution, and not assigning blame prior to a conclusive investigation may seem reasonable on the surface. It is not. Given that the regime has already been found responsible for numerous chemical weapons attacks against civilians, the source of attacks launched from the air into opposition-held areas is obvious. Suggestions to the contrary are an affront to the victims, and efforts at postponing criticism of the regime until well after it has benefited militarily from the attacks enables it to continue using chemical weapons with impunity.

In September, among fears of a major regime offensive in Idlib, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, was preparing this argument even before the next batch of chemical weapons were used. Addressing Parliament, and with no sense of irony, she emphasised the need to postpone criticism of the regime in the event of an additional chemical attack – to confirm its responsibility for actions which, by virtue of her very statement, she anticipated were likely to happen.

In the same speech she went on to dismiss open-source information – compiled by local journalists, human rights activists and humanitarian organisations, and which has been crucial to documenting war crimes by the regime – as unreliable, suggesting that it was typically produced by ‘terrorist groups’.

Prior to becoming Labour’s strategy and communications director, Seamus Milne wrote in 2013 that the regime may not be responsible for its most notorious chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta which killed over a thousand people. Amid suggestions that Assad had no ‘rational motivation’ for the attack and that rebels may have gassed themselves, Milne claimed that even if it turns out that regime forces are responsible”, outrage would amount to “moral grandstanding by governments that have dumped depleted uranium, white phosphorus and Agent Orange around the region and beyond“. Since becoming Corbyn’s communications chief, he has rallied against what he sees as the unfair ‘demonisation’ of Russia, and his deputy, Steve Howell, has repeated Assad’s line verbatim, stating that, for Britain and the US, “the choice in Syria is Jihadists or secular Assad supporters”. There are many more such examples.

The Labour Party must change its skewed understanding of foreign affairs. Rather than standing up for the marginalised and providing a voice to those in need, Corbyn’s Labour is obfuscating the responsibility of their killers. This self-styled anti-imperialist identity politics is anything but: it denies non-Western actors agency and sees sovereignty as belonging to states rather than peoples. Fundamentally, this thinking within the party leadership goes beyond an abandonment of the party’s legacy of internationalism – it is actively serving to defend the perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

Can Paz

Can Paz is a member of the Syria Solidarity Campaign. He is currently based in Gaziantep, Turkey, where he works for an organisation running development projects in northern Syria.