Syria and the moral decline of the American Left

Unlike Mubarak, who was tied to Washington, Assad’s regime has been at political loggerheads with the US over the years.

Bashar al-Assad during an interview with a Turkish newspaper
The left has gone off the rails when it comes to "Assad's savage crackdown on the Syrian people" [Reuters]

In an ideal world, the international left would stand up for universal human rights and deplore all brutal repression, no matter what the political stripes of the particular regime engaged in authoritarian behaviour. Unfortunately, however, the left has gone off the rails when it comes to Bashar al-Assad’s savage crackdown on the Syrian people. Far from decrying the government in Damascus, the left has either remained silent or alternatively chosen to dodge, evade and obfuscate what is really happening in Syria.  

That is a pity, given the enormity of human suffering in this unfolding crisis. In his repression of the opposition, Assad has deliberately targeted civilians. A recent article in Slate lays out the situation in the starkest of terms. “One has to go back to the Battle of Britain or the firebombing of Dresden to find another war in which one side purposefully set out to kill enemy non-combatants – women, children and the elderly – from the air,” remarks Slate. “But even those comparisons aren’t really analogous,” the article adds. “Unlike the air forces operating during World War II, Bashar al-Assad isn’t trying to kill enemy non-combatants. He’s trying to kill his own people.” According to the Syrian opposition, at least 30,000 people have been killed since the conflict began.  

The left, meanwhile, seems impervious to Assad’s ongoing atrocities. In shirking its intellectual responsibilities, leading commentators have revealed themselves as crass, partisan and bereft of a moral centre. On a certain level, however, the Left’s knee-jerk response to events in Syria is hardly surprising. Indeed, just like the Right, the Left has its own playbook and convenient ideological lens through which it views the world.  

The Left’s misplaced world view 

A year and a half ago, when Egyptians moved to topple their government, there was little danger that the Arab Spring would disrupt the left’s traditional perspective since Hosni Mubarak was a US-supported dictator. As soon as the revolution spread to Syria, however, the Left started to run into difficulties. Unlike Mubarak, who was tied to Washington, the Assad regime has been at political loggerheads with the US over the years. Indeed, Damascus is a sworn enemy of Washington ally Israel and has forged diplomatic ties with Iran and Hezbollah. 

One Left columnist, the late Alexander Cockburn of The Nation magazine, went off the rails in assessing the unfolding crisis in Syria. Unable to summon much sympathy for the Syrian opposition or civilians who had been shelled by Assad, Cockburn typically minimised the vicious brutality perpetrated by the regime. Though the columnist conceded that the Assad regime was brutal and corrupt, he argued that the Syrian opposition was tied to al-Qaeda and was intent on slaughtering the ruling Alawite minority. 

Cockburn’s strategy of minimising government atrocities while seeking to shift attention elsewhere is a preferred Leftist tactic. In a recent column for website Global Mail, Middle East correspondent Jess Hill succinctly cuts through the ideologues’ perspective. In her piece, fittingly titled “Assad’s Useful Idiots”, Hill says the partisans “believe there is no greater enemy than American imperialism. That means the Syrian uprising poses a grave threat to the ‘Axis of Resistance’ – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – which, according to them, is the only force blocking America’s imperialist ambitions in the Middle East. If Assad falls, they believe it is America, Israel and Saudi Arabia that have the most to gain”.           

From Tariq Ali to ‘Nation’ magazine 

To be sure, the Left is rightly suspicious of the US and Israeli agenda in Syria and the wider region. Some commentators, however, go so far into overdrive that they wind up subtly providing intellectual cover for the Assad regime. Take, for example, British Pakistani political writer Tariq Ali, a figure who I have written about previously. Though Ali has argued that Assad should step down, he also stated on TV show Russia Today that Syrians had been left with limited choices, “either a Western imposed regime, composed of sundry Syrians who work for the western intelligence agencies, or the Assad regime”. Commenting on the interview, columnist Hill remarked that “nobody with Ali’s knowledge of military history would present the potential outcomes of Syria’s chaotic civil conflict so simplistically – unless they had an ideological barrow to push”. 

Aisling Byrne, a columnist for Asia Times, is even more egregious when it comes to obfuscating the situation in Syria. In a startling admission, Byrne writes that Assad is repressive and there is a “genuine popular demand for change in Syria”. In typical fashion, however, she then puts on her ideological blinders, remarking that human rights abuses “are inevitable in low-intensity conflict”. What upsets Byrne most is the “deliberate construction” of a “false narrative” which “pits unarmed democracy demonstrators being killed in their hundreds and thousands as they protest peacefully against an oppressive, violent regime, a ‘killing machine’  led by the ‘monster’ Assad”. In an effort to discredit the opposition, Byrne adds that “compliant” anti-Assad forces lack “internal credibility and legitimacy”, and are “being groomed” by the US. 

On its’ own, the Byrne piece would be of little account, but the article has been widely circulated on the left circuit (for example, the piece was reposted on Counterpunch, website of the late Alexander Cockburn, which has recently taken to excusing genocide in Cambodia, amongst other sectarian nonsense). One columnist who is particularly fond of citing Byrne is Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation magazine. Though he lacks Cockburn’s predilection for the icy and sarcastic put down, Dreyfuss is just as ideological as his predecessor. In his pieces, the Nation columnist seeks to navigate the fraught political situation in Syria by again shifting the readers’ focus away from Bashar al-Assad.  

Charitably, he remarks that it is impossible “to deny that the government of Syria is conducting a brutal, no-holds-barred attack against a nationwide rebellion”. Then, however, he goes on to tar the opposition by declaring that the rebellion is being “led by armed paramilitary forces and, well, terrorists”. In another recent column, Dreyfuss makes the surprising observation that “Assad is hardly an anti-imperialist hero”, before lambasting the Syrian opposition for its reported ties to radical Islamists.  

Bogged down by double standards 

The problem with the Left today is that it is confounded by ideological double standards. Imagine, for a moment, that US ally Israel had killed tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. It surely would not take long for the Left to decry Washington for its egregious and immoral foreign policy commitments in the Middle East. That’s quite right, but it does not follow that Palestinian lives are more important than Syrian ones. Moreover, just because Israel and the US have repressed the Arab people for decades and made a mess of the entire region does not imply that a benevolent Iran-Syria-Hezbollah triumvirate would be much better. For years, the Left has been papering over abuses committed by Iran, more often than not giving Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a pass merely because he casts himself as some kind of anti-imperialist. 

Similarly, the Left has never really come to terms with the thorny issue of anti-Semitism, and refuses to call out either Ahmadinejad or Hezbollah’s Hasan Nasrallah (who once charmingly remarked that “Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust”) for their awful record on this score. Assad himself shares something in common with both Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad in this regard: even before the bloodshed started in Syria, the dictator of Damascus remarked that he didn’t have “any clue how [Jews] were killed or how many were killed” in the Holocaust. 

There is still time for the Left to redeem itself over Syria, though the Assad imbroglio has displayed the sectarian and authoritarian crowd at its absolute worst. One can only hope that more level headed intellectuals will prevail and call out ideological nonsense whenever warranted. The Syrian people, who suffer daily under the onslaught of the Assad regime, will surely be thankful.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet.

Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff