Izquierda Unida, Syria and the Death of European Internationalism

The following article originally appeared on Spain’s El Diario in Spanish and was written by Leila Nachawati and myself. The English version is slightly different than the Spanish one, but the general points remain the same. It is part of a series of critiques that myself and others have written on the topic of the Left’s multilayered failures on Syria.


On the 11th of July 2016, Syrians and their supporters in Spain woke up to the news that Javier Couso Permuy of Izquierda Unida (Left Unity), went to Damascus to meet with Bashar Al Assad. He was joined by Tatjana Ždanoka, a Latvian MEP of the European Greens–European Free Alliance group, and Yana Toom, an Estonian MEP of the Estonian Centre Party. The three of them proudly announced it on Twitter, repeating Assad’s ‘war on terror’ narrative. Shortly after, Assad’s war planes, supported by the Russian Air Force, bombed many areas of Aleppo leaving dozens of victims – many of whom were children – in a city that has been turned into a prison for those who have yet to flee it – up to 400,000 civilians. 

To some, this was an odd development as most European delegates who have met with Assad so far place themselves on the Right or Far Right, people like France’s ‘Les Republicains’ who went to see Assad (and take selfies) alongside the far-right ‘SOS Chrétiens d’Orient’ or the ex-leader of the Front National whose party openly supports the Assad regime.

The most recent UN estimates put the number of drowned black and brown men, women and children in the Meditteranean at over 2,500, fleeing a conflict so devastating that the UN itself stopped counting the dead in 2014Just as the EU, that champion of freedom of movement, was announcing that it will make use of NATO warships to prevent migrants from leaving Turkey and reaching Fortress Europe’s precious shores, European leftwing delegates were on their way to meet with the man responsible for why most refugees are fleeing in the first place.

But these developments do not surprise Syrian observers, or indeed any observer following the events in Syria with any sense of sobriety. They are the result of the collapse of the European Left and its internationalist pretenses in favor of the now-dominant xenophobic nativism spreading across the European continent, within both the Left and the Right. The rise of xenophobic nativism in Europe has already had its casualties and, as is usually the case, the casualties have been the most vulnerable: in this case migrants and refugees. In the words of Yassin Haj Saleh, “reactionarism is back, and progressing”.

Syria without Syrians

How is this explained? By the fact that Syrians have disappeared from Leftist discourse on Syria. Pick any article written by a so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ commentator on Syria, and try to find the number of Syrian activists and intellectuals quoted in the piece. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a couple, but what you’ll find most of the time are other Westerners being quoted. This refusal to speak to Syrians is why this ‘Campist Left‘ has been, to quote Palestinian academic Lama Abu Odeh (again), “digging deep inside familiar lines of thought, scrambling for things to say; rummaging inside old political bags, grappling for positions long held to hold again; milking political affiliations and precious theoretical hometowns for whatever they’re worth, but only to find us lacking in things to say; only to find us tongue-tied, stone-faced, and dumbstruck.” This Left’s failures are so grotesque that some have compared Aleppo to Guernica, with this Left cheering on the Luftwaffe.

Why then should it surprise us that Couso repeated the Assadist line of pseudo-concern about ‘terrorists’, a term the Damascus-based leader uses to describe anyone who opposes his tyranny? Why should it surprise us that Couso complained of Turkish, Qatari and Saudi interference but willingly omitted Russian and Iranian interference? Why should it surprise us that he spoke of Sunni sectarian militias but not of Shia sectarian militias from the vulnerable Afghan refugees sent by Iran to the Iraqis and the Lebanese? Why should it surprise us that Couso met with Syria’s ‘grand mufti’, that great defender of tolerance and secularism, who just a year ago called for the annihilation of all those who oppose the regime in Aleppo? The mufti, after all, goes to churches on Christmas in Syria. He is therefore pro-Christian, whatever that means, and the European Left’s concerns, just like those of the Right, are vindicated by this quasi-sophisticated PR maneuver.

Peace of the Graveyards 

Does it matter to this Left that anyone who opposes the regime is labeled an ‘Al Qaeda sympathizer’ including people of Arab Christian backgrounds (such as myself)? Does it matter to this Left that Syrian Christian revolutionaries like Marcell Shehwaro, a priest’s daughter, have had to face the wrath of both Islamist extremists and the Assad regime for the past 3 to 5 years? It was towards the liberated areas of Aleppo that Shehwaro and fellow activists went in 2012, those same areas that are now being surrounded by one of the most brutal military coalitions in modern history. Did this Left send their solidarity to Shehwaro when she decided to celebrate Christmas as an “act of resistance” despite being hunted by ISIS? No, this Left only remembers Arab Christians when it fits its narrative.

In this context of selective solidarity, we hear Couso speaking of ‘peace’ while he meets with the Syrian regime and ignores all other actors, including the Local Coordination Committees who work on the ground. What kind of peace ignores the plight of human rights defenders like Bassel Khartabil, the famous Palestinian-Syrian open source developer who has been in Assad’s jails since 2012? Khartabil, who ‘disappeared’ in October of 2015 and whose whereabouts, like with many Syrian activists, are unknown, is considered by many to be a key figure in Syria’s future – indeed, his 3D models could save Syria’s history from ISIS. And it is precisely this free-thinking and peaceful activism that both the Syrian regime and ISIS have made their primary enemy. What does this Left say to Bassel’s wife, Noura Ghazi, who sent him this message on Valentine’s Day 2015: “Bassel, I am very afraid, I am afraid about the country that is being slaughtered, divided, bleeding, being destroyed.. Ouch Bassel, I am very afraid that our dream is changing from seeing ourselves being the generation freeing their country to the one witnessing its destruction. Bassel, I am very afraid.” Can this Left look her in the eyes and tell her that it is upholding its internationalist legacy and fighting for all oppressed peoples wherever they may be? In other words, is it a leftwing position to argue for the peace of graveyards?

As one of Podemos’ leaders Santiago Alba Rico put it: “the real damage that [Couso and others] are doing is to the Left and to internationalism in general”. And one just needs to look at the reactions to Rico’s comments to see the convergence of this Left and of the European Far Right, this ‘red-brown alliance’, united by their Islamophobia and Xenophobic Nativism .

But perhaps the most deafening death sentence to this Left’s internationalism comes when well-known figures of Syria’s radical Left are sentenced, tortured and/or killed by the Assad regime. People like Yassin Haj-Saleh and Riad Al-Turk. Al-Turk spent 18 years in Assad’s prisons for belonging to the Communist party of opposition – not the Assad-approved one that Couso met in Lebanon – the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau), now called the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, which split from the Communist party for the latter’s support of Baathism. Haj-Saleh spent 16 years in prison for belonging to that same party. Both of them were tortured, both of them lost friends and loved ones, or are hoping for their return, and both of them are now in exile. How deafening the silence of this Left is indeed, “quiet as the tomb made of rubble that came from a building that fell from the weight of a barrel bomb that smashed the head of a Syrian man, too poor to make his escape when he should have, that came from the city of Homs!”.

As Alba Rico explained, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the Right which celebrated the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Left which celebrates each Russian or Iranian victory in Syria. With this binary worldview now dominating most narratives, one can only support the grassroots activists, who do engage with Syrians, and their principled stance in favor of every people’s self-determination against all forms of oppression, whether they come in the form of foreign invasions or domestic tyrannies.

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