I’ve had a couple of exchanges of late with a supporter of what the mainstream calls the far left – the vanguard or Leninist model.1 Having read pieces from Socialist Workers Party (US), cited to straighten out my wayward thinking, I broadly agree with their analysis of imperialism2 but am troubled by the way SWP recycles accusations of Damascene and Muscovite criminality, blithely unaware of the flakiness of their sources.
For my pains I was just this week dubbed a parliamentary cretin. Stung but standing, I thought to check out what my old comrades from Workers Power – always more sophisticated in their analyses than SWP – have to say on Syria. Most alumni of my eighties cohort have gone: some to pipe and slipperhood, some to Labour Party work, Paul Mason to pen for the Graun on how ‘we’ need to stand up to Putin, and to tweet on the ‘forensic’ brilliance of what lesser mortals saw as a fact-lite hatchet job on White Helmet sceptics. But there’s a rump, and it’s hooked up with other Trotskyite splinterettes in Europe to offer an online voice it calls the League for the Fifth International.
What I found on its site did nothing to improve my mood. First was a posting less than a month ago, February 26. It begins:
The slaughter of civilians continued as the United Nations Security Council finally passed the resolution proposed by Kuwait and Sweden, calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta. Few believe that it will be either comprehensive or total since the Syrian envoy shrugged off the resolution, asserting his government had a right to defend its territory and would continue to “fight terrorism, wherever it is.” The last few days in New York witnessed the disgusting spectacle of the UN ambassadors of the United States and Russia trying to blame one another for delaying a ceasefire in the Damascus suburb, which has been under siege by government forces since 2013 and is home to some 400,000 people.
On February 23, the UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 417 citizens, including 96 children and 61 women, were killed in a five-day period alone. These were the result of 564 airstrikes by warplanes, while the regime’s helicopters dropped more than 219 barrel bombs. This massive escalation indicates that the Assad regime sees itself in a similar endgame where it can enforce an evacuation of fighters from Ghouta as it did in East Aleppo at the end of 2016.
Russia threatened to cast its veto …
This differs from a typical Guardian offering in that Russia is matched in disgustingness by the USA. That’s important, and puts Workers Power and League Fifth in a different solar system to the one corporate media orbit but there are similarities too, and significant ones. Since I intend to move shortly to a second of their postings, I’ll focus here on just two.
First, note that dismissive picture of an ambassador ‘shrugging off’ a resolution crafted to leave defenceless (echoes of the No Fly Zones preceding Libya’s descent to hell) a Syria besieged by Western armed jihadis. What could possibly justify his rejection of UN peacemaking? Nothing more substantial, it seems, than that after seven years of ‘civil war’ his government has “a right to defend its territory”. What a crap excuse! Any reasonable government of a secularist state would surely accept the will of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jabhat al-Nusra; would surely do all in its power to assist their continuing occupation of territory not ten miles from its capital …
Paragraph two opens with the uncritical citing of a claim by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. I’ll be returning to those guys – or to be precise, this guy – in a moment. For now I just want to say that its willingness to give time of day to such a source speaks volumes on Workers Power’s deplorable ignorance of the propaganda war on Syria.
Here’s how the second post opens:
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes, artillery and barrel bombing helicopters have launched a major assault on the last extensive rebel-held region of Idlib, aided by their Russian allies. It is likely that the offensive aims to concentrate the population into a narrow pocket, subject them to final liquidation or to force them out of the region.
For Christ’s sake, Workers Power – do your bloody homework! SOHR is the one man band of Rami Abdul Rahman, a disgruntled Syrian who lives in Coventry and hasn’t set foot in Syria since 2003. His methods are opaque to say the least but seem to rely on what I’ll call ‘cascade inquiry’, whereby he phones a handful of pals inside Syria. They in turn phone their pals, who phone theirs. But who are these pals? Rumours abound that Rahman is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, rivals to more recent Saudi backed Wahabbi groups led by Al Qaeda and ISIS, but nevertheless willing to work with Daesh to end Syria’s secularism and impose theocratic Sunni rule on Shia, Christian, Druze and Alawi alike. (Nor is there any evidence of widespread Muslim Brotherhood support from Syrian Sunnis, most of whom see Islam and Islamism as poles apart and value their secularist, authoritarian3 but religiously tolerant state.)
(As for the barrel bombs, do read former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, on how we’ve been red herringed on that subject.)
There’s ample evidence for all my claims, meticulously collated in Tim Anderson’s Dirty War on Syria. No ‘far left’ group should need reminding that the West has a record, going back to WW1 and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, of using Wahabbism and the Brotherhood to destabilise states which stand in the way of its control of the region. (I’ve written elsewhere on the need for nuance in the conclusions internationalists draw from the fact of Hafez al-Assad’s record of cooperation with imperialism.) In this context, citing Rahman’s grandiosely titled outfit, and not just the once, betrays an ignorance profound, and profoundly unforgivable.
The final sentence of that opening paragraph levels the gravest of charges. Or rather – given its weasel “it is likely” qualifier – of smears. If Workers Power believes Damascus wishes to subject Idlib’s population to “final liquidation”, dare we ask for evidence – or even a motive?
This despite the fact that the region was supposed to be a “de-escalation” zone under the terms of an agreement brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran last year. Also despite the savage irony that a Russian and Turkish sponsored “Syrian national dialogue conference” opened in Sochi the day before the latest air attacks on Idlib; though all serious opposition forces, Syrian and Kurdish, have boycotted it.
I don’t share Workers Power’s (and Guardian’s) trust in the good intent of Kurdish forces but that’s too big a subject for now. My main point here is that ‘de-escalation’ zones, like their ‘no fly’ equivalents, are not only prone to breaking down amid a mire of accusation and counter accusation. More important is their habit of serving as trojan horses, innocent sounding covers for further aggression. That organisations like Amnesty International frequently fail to grasp this truth is one thing. When marxist groupings do the same it’s quite another, especially when they leave their readers in the dark as to what they mean by a “serious opposition” too close, for suspicious souls like me, to those elusive moderate Islamists.
Next, in a way reminiscent of BBC reports that skilfully weave undeniable truths on a people’s appalling ordeal into a broader narrative of demonisation, Workers Power say this:
There are already an estimated 1.1 million refugees from other parts of Syria in Idlib and the UN reports that the offensive, which started in January, has now resulted in 212,000 people fleeing the fighting. Conditions for them are unspeakably bad and UN officials have pleaded for a ceasefire and for aid to be sent to ease the suffering of people who are without tents, food or medical supplies.
Yes, Idlib is a living hell. On that we can all agree. Ceasefires, alas, too often serve the same end as ‘no fly zones’, ‘de-escalation zones’ and ‘safe corridors’. The Workers Power I knew, for all my later disillusionment with its vanguard model, never lost sight of such basic truths.
Wait though. We’re not quite done with the neutral observers crowded into that Coventry semi.
The UK-based Observatory also reported another likely sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun where, it said, 20 children and 17 women were among the dead civilians. Film footage shows convulsing and choking victims being doused with water and loaded into ambulances, with the bodies of around a dozen young children seen being laid out on blankets in a flatbed truck. The hospital at which victims were subsequently being treated was also bombed.
Khan Sheikhoun? WTF!?! Workers Power, do you want a word you say on Syria taken seriously? Then kindly address huge evidential issues re the events of April 4, 2017. You can do the heavy lifting. Me, I’ll content myself with a UN declaring the crime scene too dangerous to send in its OPCW team but, hey, that’s no problem since the ‘rebels’ helpfully bagged up the ‘evidence’ and shipped it via Syria’s good friend and neighbour, Turkey.
So that’s alright then.
Of course, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump immediately condemned this atrocity.
Same old same old. In sixteen words Workers Power mixes, as does SWP (US), the obligatory lead in to unimpeachable denunciation of the hypocrisy and chilling venality of the West, with uncritical acceptance of the allegations that give it cover. But let me jump to one last excerpt from this Positively Fifth League piece.
We call for the withdrawal of all the imperialist powers from Syria and the entire region – Russia, the USA and also the European powers. We demand the end of all arms supplies to the reactionary regimes of Assad or Erdogan, the withdrawal of all Turkish troops and support for Kurdish defence against the invasion.
Great! Meanwhile, here on planet earth …
- I reject the vanguard model as every bit as misconceived as the parliamentary model, and offering zero chance of success against a ruling class armed to the teeth. Granted, that leaves me with nothing to offer but unpalatable truths, but I never did see the sense in insisting that without a solution we’ve no business articulating the problem.
- My caveat is the depiction of Russia (GDP less than California’s) as an imperialism as bad as the USA. I call that specious. I don’t say Russia is not an imperialist power: only that (a) the case has not been made, and I need more than lazy references to Russia’s responses to NATO provocation in Georgia and Ukraine, (b) any danger posed by a Russian imperialism is in any case miniscule against that posed by Western powers, and (c) since that ‘far left’ offers no credible third way for Syria, I welcome Russia’s disruption of the West’s cruel neoliberal agenda for the middle east.
- One irony here is that on several fronts Bashar has shown he wants to liberalise his country after the iron rule of his father: a man with many faults but one who oversaw, with the Brotherhood fighting him all the way, undeniable rises in Syria’s prosperity. Many who joined the Daraa protests in early 2011 distinguished between a state they saw as oppressive, and a president they supported. Many more disengaged from the protests – and this too is a reality Workers Power shows no awareness of – when they saw them hijacked by Islamists armed by the West through Riyadh, Doha and Ankara.