We Like Our Syrians Dead: The British Left and David Cameron

This weekend anti war demonstrations have taken place all over Britain. Once again, Stop the War Coalition (StW), have chosen not to invite any Syrians to speak at their demonstrations, worried that this would “muddy the water” of their campaign. The self proclaimed leadership of the anti war movement have chosen to completely silence the actually existing Syrian revolutionaries, that are fighting a multi front war against regional powers, a fascist dictatorship and ISIS (Da’esh). Any Iranian who has criticisms of the Iranian regime would not be surprised by this; StW kept us off their platforms too. But this time there is a civil war going on, the present imperial order of the world is collapsing and the stakes are higher.

There are brown bodies and then there are brown bodies. There is the concept, the way it is played with in critical race theory and in radical politics to talk about how prisons, universities, NGOs and so on call into being a certain kind of racialized other. And then there are dead Syrian children, drowned on a Greek beech.

These two kinds of brown bodies came together when the recent Syrian refugee crisis broke. Rightly, a lot of people on the left, people who had been concerned about the treatment of refugees at the gates of Europe for some time, objected to the way the shocking images were used by people on the right. David Cameron for instance, managed to get away with using the images for arguing that less aid should be given to refugees on the boarder of Europe than his critics demanded. Because he was dealing with the dead, he could make his voice speak through them; he made his blue lipped puppets say that those further away, in refugee camps in the middle east, should take precedence over people who had the alleged privilege of drowning in the Mediterranean. A callous way of leaving thousands to freeze to death in Calais and the Macedonian border.

In the place of the dead, radicals, people who really wanted to engage with those migrants who trudged on across Europe and, assuming the full force of their right stripped status, walked through the fences that stood in their way to the bare minimum of political life. Anyone who watched the scenes of the police in Hungary attacking refugees must have seen that these were people upon whom Europe has declared every torture and attack to be halal. The left was right to condemn Cameron’s exploitative theatre of the dead and seek to reach a hand to those who lived, and fought.

We did right, basically. We didn’t fall for an intrinsically right wing trick; using corpses far away to silence the voices that are asking for our help closer to home. Unfortunately, the anti war movement in Britain has done the opposite this weekend.

The fact that no Syrians were invited to share platforms on these demonstrations was bad enough. This isn’t for the want of trying on their part. Famous Radio 4 presenter and moustache Tariq Ali, used his platform to basically support the Russian and Assad bombing of Syria, and say that if our government was serious, they would participate in these same strategies .The reality is that nearly 90% of all civilian deaths in the Syrian war, have been as a result of the Assad regime. And with the Russians joining, things have gotten even worse. Just this week, the Russians have bombed Aleppo repeatedly: Aleppo is a city with no ISIS presence that is supportive of the revolution for democracy against the Assad regime.

The nearly 180,000 civilian deaths that have been inflicted by the Assad regime and its regional and imperialist backers have been inflicted on a population that the leadership of StW has decided it can speak for. They are like the refugees in Europe, a people on whom every thing is halal. Whether it is a thirteen year old boy, tortured to death, before his penis is cut off and returned to his family , the singer of anti regime songs whose throat and tongue were cut out , or the Barrel bombs , containers of shrapnel, petrol, chemicals and burning oil dropped daily by the regime on liberated areas, nothing is off limits.

Stop the war coalition, and people still participating in it have questions to ask themselves: Why where their demonstrations so poorly attended this weekend; Where were the huge numbers of young muslim people who helped to build the huge demonstrations of 2003; Why were they able to only get 5,000 people to demonstrate in London? The Syrian community in London alone, numbers probably around 5,000 people. None of whom, save a few of the offspring of the neo liberal elite of the Assad regime have ever attended StW demonstrations. They could have doubled that demo on their own.

I am not an expert on Syria, but you don’t have to be to know why. Its because, unlike Cameron, its not just dead bodies StW are dealing with. Its because the living people of Syria are connected to a living civil society, and a living revolutionary movement. They are connected to experiments in local democracy and self management , to the White Helmets who volunteer to help the victims of the barrel bombs, to the British Syrian journalists who call on Stop the War and the British Left to take a principled position in support of the revolution.

To Kafranbel and Rojava.

die on your feet
All of these organisations have been clear. Against the slanders of those who support the StW leadership and Bashar al Assad, they have spoken against the bombing of ISIS targets, as we have too, albeit from the safety of this country.

But this is an obvious argument, for people on the Left especially. The so-called “Islamic State” is a symptom of the brutality, war and poverty wrought on the country by the Assad regime, as even a neo conservative like Hassan Hassan has pointed out . Not only does bombing the few remaining hospitals, chicken farms and public utilities in ISIS’s “capital” ar-Raqqa drive the local populace further into the arms of the only organisation that will care for them, it does nothing to repair an economic situation in which ISIS is one of the few employers who actually pay a wage you can support a family on. It makes it much much worse.

Of the few supposedly cogent arguments that groups like StW coalition have left, is the idea that Syria is just a mess. Full of warring sides each in hoc to some imperialist power or another. The fact that groups like the Free Syrian Army or the Local Coordination Committees have accepted some funds from an America or Qatar is supposed to mean that they are now the “proxies” of these countries; that they are brown bodies with no agency of their own.

But this is utter rubbish. It always has been. During the Iranian revolution no lesser thorn in America’s side than Ayatollah Khomeini was in constant contact with the American embassy through Prime Minister Bazargan. Indeed at one point in the Iran and Iraq war, a war that lined up Iran against, more or less, the rest of the world, the Iranian regime received a one off payment of aid from Israel, separate to the Iran-Contra affair. Now, no one would say that either of these make the Islamic Republic a “client” or a “proxy” of the West, would they?

Actually, I can think of two groups of people who would. In the first case, we have counter revolutionary critics of the Iranian revolution. The “teengz ver better under deh shah” Kensington and “Tehrangeles” brigrades. But for this group, there is a good reason why they believe that accepting some payment, or link to a western power removes the agency of brown people. The bankruptcy of the regime they supported and the hallucinations of support of the people below them, led them to ascribe to some all knowing “western conspiracy” their own inevitable downfall, a downfall that was none others fault their own. Ditto too, the nut job takfiris and ISIS types who would say the same about the Iranian revolution. In either case the agency of the peoples of the middle east is denied, because to grant it would crack their brittle and nonsensical view of the world.

It is a shame that StW has found itself in this same position, but it follows a specific logic. The fact that they insist on rehashing the defeated ideas and practices of the 2003 anti war movement leads inexorably to their current position: their inability to see the world as anything other than America against the west; their blindness to Russian Imperialism and the apocalyptic violence of allegedly anti imperialist states. The British left, like the left of a lot of the world, has manoeuvred itself into a position where the only relationship it takes to the Syrian revolution reflects its internal concerns; the way it wants to position itself apropos of its factional enemies. In this way it is aping the way the ruling class kick around the Syrian war, Cameron using the bombing of Syrians as a way to batter Corbyn. In imagined fidelity to some residual palimpsest of a demonstration in 2003 that didn’t actually stop a war, we have a left that, give or take a few admirable examples does not have anything to say about the Syrian revolution: We have a “movement” that sacrifices the first principles of revolutionary solidarity to a failed model of anti war campaigning.

We have a left that is politically and morally no better than the Cameron government and its instrumentalization of the brown bodies that washed up on the Adriatic and the Mediterranean.

Over the last few months I have been involved with UnKant, working on a book called Khiyana: The Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution.  The book presents writings from activists and revolutionaries involved with the revolution itself and practical solidarity with it, as well as presenting writing from some British activists and a few of us middle eastern people who, as they say, washed up on this rainy rock.

Through that process, I have met some people who have begun to try and put together groups of people who want to unite the British anti war movement with the movements for liberation in the countries that are involved with the crushing of the Syrian revolution. I know there are any number of people around the official anti war movement who would feel more naturally at home contributing to these conversations, than listening to the speeches heard at this weekend’s anti war rallies.

A beginning has been made on cohering a part of the left that recognises that none of this countries middle eastern communities, least of all Syrians are engaging with the StW movement anymore. For a Syrian people who have seen nearly five years of Russian armed Assad forces, Iranian backed sectarian militias, American limits on what weapons can be bought by its defenders, the slogan “No intervention in Syria” or “Hands off Syria” sounds, at best like a tasteless joke; at worst like the slogans of a pig headed racist who doesn’t care to listen.

And a time is coming when even the dead will not allow us to make them speak this rubbish.

For an anti war movement that campaigns against any Western bombing of the region  For an end to Russian Imperialism and the Assad Regime.

For the victory of the Syrian revolution.


Book cover

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5 thoughts on “We Like Our Syrians Dead: The British Left and David Cameron

  1. An interview I did earlier today on Syria. Sam Charles Hamad sharply criticizes Left icons like Tariq Ali, George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn and says some very surprising things about Saudi Arabia.

  2. While you have some valid criticisms of some on the left or at least some of the positions held by some of them, it is unfair, as others have done, to tarnish all with the same brush as opinions are complex and varied. The idea that many on the left are sympathetic to Assad is ludicrous. Equally ludicrous is the idea that there is any kind of obvious solution, every proposal is laden with serious risks of escalation and the various positions on all sides reflect this. With the current Russian involvement the ideas such as enforcing no bombing zones or major arming of rebel groups are at best problematic or even unworkable. The sooner that STW, the Syrian groups and others start working out proposals for the whole situation the better. The question is much bigger than just Assad or ISIS and everyone will have to compromise. Too many people on all sides are too wedded to particular ideologies to offer practical solutions.

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