Solidarity with Syria

Ewa Jasiewicz explains the urgent need for left-wing activists in the West to act in solidarity with Syrian liberation struggles
8 August 2013


Think of Syria and what images come to mind? Wrecked buildings, refugees, a stoical Bashar al Assad? Ask most activists in the UK what they think is going on in Syria and the majority response is ‘I don't know’ or ‘It’s been taken over by al-Qaeda now, Saudi Arabia and the USA‘ or ‘Assad is better than imperialism’. Two of the most popular are: ‘There's nothing we can do’ and ‘Revolution? What revolution?’

There is still an ongoing revolution and broadly speaking, the left/anti-war movement in the West is undermining those struggling to keep it alive by focusing on political posturing and lobbying rather than practical solidarity. An ongoing map of grassroots social resistance as compiled by Amnesty International shows the breadth and creativity of some of these movements mostly unheard of in the West. Together, it's worth noting that participation in these groups outnumbers those participating in armed resistance groups, which challenges the idea that all resistance to dictatorship and imperialism in Syria is militarised.

The popular narratives about Syria hand responsibility to ‘the big boys’ to sort out the 'mess' – the USA, UK, Saudi Arabia, the EU, Israel, Iran. These big powers control the message and representation of the Syrian struggle; they demonise, confuse, order and alienate any kind of solidarity with the Syrian people. When states tell those watching the conflict in Syria that ‘there's nothing you can do’ what this really means is ‘keep back, leave it to us’. ‘Everybody wants to eat from Syria’ is a common phrase inside Syria. But not enough people are feeding the grassroots struggles for self-determination.

If we on the UK left believe in people’s capacity to self-organise then we need to find examples of this capacity and support them. That's why I travelled to Syria in May with a German activist friend I’ve known for ten years as part of a nascent international solidarity initiative called 'Witness Syria'. So far, since January 2013, a Turkish comrade, two Danish activists and ourselves have been over to identify what is possible solidarity-wise. We are part of a wider group of around 20 activists from Poland, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, America and the UK who have experience of longterm solidarity activism in the Middle East over the past twenty years and want to support Syrian liberation struggles.

The living

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011, over 100,000 people have been killed. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, it breaks down as 37,000 civilians including 8000 women and children; 43,000 Assad regime military personnel including special forces;13,539 rebel fighters; and 2,015 defectors from government forces. The figures could be much higher given that combatant sides prefer to downplay losses.

The media obsession with ‘what bleeds leads’ doesn't really tell us what leads people to resist. Without context, texture or self-representation by Syrians, the uprising has been spun into a civil war, with barbarians in the lead, needing civilisation and discipline by an experienced West or a Strong Man dictator. Sectarianism is getting stronger, and factional and communal fighting is a reality but this is being encouraged and orchestrated by vested interests. There is a story behind the story, daily revolutions behind The Revolution which are being told by Syrians themselves, usefully and necessarily to one another around the country and in the diaspora. Facebook is the big info point internationally, and on the ground there’s a boom in underground newspapers and newsletters, explaining the latest protests not just against the regime but now against austere, authoritarian militias, Free Army corruption, local new government unaccountability, militarisation...

Much has been written about Syria, mostly in Arabic, by Syrians. Myself and Katrina* are sitting in a breezy flat in Reyhanli, Turkey, with some of our new friends there. They're six young men from all walks of life crammed together in a small flat, removed from their families and partners. They work 24/7 to support refugees and communities inside and on the borders of Syria. They seem to sleep at their computers. Take-away boxes pile up in the kitchen.

One is a film-maker, one is an NGO co-ordinator, one is a writer with thousands of Facebook followers, another was a labourer for years around central Europe, and one plays the Oud intently in the corner, I didn’t learn what he does. All are in contact with other Syrians working to sustain the revolution. They're weary of the postures and positions of much of the European Left. Debate and discussion between them is vivid, passionate and persistent. One tells us, ‘Last night we were actually on the verge of calling it a civil war’. Another explains: ‘My struggle is now evolving on two fronts, both against the regime and against the armed groups that are trying to control the society.’ They long gave up watching Al-Jazeera and mainstream media, and they long gave up on most of the anti-war European and US Left. Their allies are other Syrians and Arabic activists, in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf.

A German friend, who pioneered our visit to Ma'arrat al Numan, shakes her head as she re-tells the stories of speaking at Syria events back home. ‘I had people come up to me afterwards and shout in my face, that I am naïve, Assad is better, I am supporting imperialism’. A Syrian woman activist living in another Turkish town was assaulted at a lefty anti-war gig by a group of Turkish women because she was wearing a knitted Free Syria wristband. Our German friend continues. ‘I met this Swedish woman at one talk and she was like “What, you mean there are cool Syrians out there?'’’ Mohammed* is riled but calmly dismissive. ‘Why should I care if some activists in Europe think I am cool or not? All I care about is developing my society and rebuilding my country with justice’. Fickle grandstanding and misapprehensions as well as recent 'Peace delegations' are brushed away as ignorant and irrelevant. There is no justice, just us...

*Some names have been changed

This is the first part of a six day serialization of Ewa’s trip to Syria, It accompanies Jon Sack’s graphic reportage from the Syrian border: The Physio.

Ewa Jasiewicz is a journalist and campaigner. She is part of a small international solidarity initiative working to support grassroots groups in Syria. Please support these organisations:

Karama Bus children's relief project in Kafranbel

Juan Zero's Jasmine Baladi studio in Bab al Hawa Camp

Ewa JasiewiczEwa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.


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Will Podmore 8 August 2013, 14.49

So why does our reactionary government support and arm those fighting President Assad?
Why does that most reactionary of all governments, Saudi Arabia’s, support the ‘rebels’?
Why does the CIA arm them? Why is the SAS training them?

B Newman 8 August 2013, 17.35

I’ve been concerned with a lack of ‘solidarity’ from the left with ongoing and developing crisis in Syria for a long time. I have debated within left-wing groups, and I have written to the Newspaper, The Weekly Worker’, that is read by a large section of the British left about the humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately there is a lot of propaganda that suggests that the media is misreporting, because it is imperialist. There is no argument for ‘solidarity’ with violent groups in Syria, because these aren’t representing the traditional views of the worker, and class orientated organisations of the left. There is however an urgent need for solidarity with the civilians, and the non-violent movement in Syria opposing fascist extremist forces.

K Crosby 9 August 2013, 07.32

Come off it! The popular resistance was hi-jacked by Caesar Obama five minutes after it got started. The decent anti-Assad resistance should keep its head down and be ready to defend itself if the Obama stooges win, because they will be next.

Pham Binh 10 August 2013, 02.05

Great piece. 100% agreed on the left scabbing on the Syrian revolution in the name of “anti-imperialism.” The Syrian revolution forced me to change my mind on Libya and expand my understanding of what solidarity means (not isolationism but internationalism).

I’ve written quite a bit about this topic:

I’m proud to say that The North Star has stood out alone among left outlets as a platform for pro-revolution voices and first-hand reports: (this is a report written by the German solidarity activist Ewa mentions in her text)

[email address removed by web editor on request]

bevin 10 August 2013, 02.40

There is both a racist and an extremely nasty sectarian aspect to the “struggle” which Eva, and presumably Red Pepper, would have us support.

Whatever the line up of forces was two years ago the current situation is very clear: Bandar bin Sultan, the Gulf despots, Jordan, the United States, Israel and NATO are on one side, preaching hatred of the Shia, and practising barbaric terrorism against all who will not conform with wahhabi dictates, form the core of the anti-government forces.

What the “left” needs to learn is to leave other peoples alone: Syria does not need western assistance, its had it for the past century and it would be happy to be left alone. The “left” also needs to recognise that, as it doesn’t have the power to save the NHS or slow down the assault on living standards, in Europe, the only power it has in Syria or Libya is to cheer for the imperialist murder machine.
And that is what it seems to be doing: calling for more weapons, more trainers, more money (all diverted from the welfare state)to be handed over to Al Nusra, Assad’s jealous cousins, the mob blowing up crowds in Baghdad and Uncle Sam’s other assets.

Brian S. 21 August 2013, 16.25

Great work, Eva. Those of us who try to defend the cause of the Syrian revolution in left circles often feel rather lonely – so its great to have you with us. And with such an adventurous initiative!
There is a lot of misinformation and muddled reasoning on Syria circulating around the left, as the comments here demonstrate. The Syrian conflict is undeniably complex (what real-life historical process is not) but the basic elements are fairly clear: it began as a struggle for freedom and democracy against a brutally repressive dictatorship.And that core reality is very much alive today, whatever other external forces have subsequently inserted themselves into the conflict.
I look forward to Eva’s further articles. On her return perhaps we can discuss some sort of project to educate the British left on this crucial issue.

Troy 24 August 2013, 14.59

Well said K Crosby. Obama has called chemical weapons a red line. The danger is that interference by the west may well be a red line for China and Russia. We have never been so close to a clash of superpowers and the end of the planet. Anything which might bring the two sides together, leading to a ceasefire and negotiations – that’s the only humane solution to any conflict.

TJH 28 August 2013, 13.53

I’d like to know what the practical steps are that you allude to in the article that we can take in solidarity to support like minded activists in Syria.

Could you please give readers some examples.

Anonymous 29 August 2013, 19.26

Interesting article but what exactly are you proposing that we support?

The standard anti-imperialistic (Leninist)stance of the Left of old is simplistic in the extreme – hence the Left’s profound confusion around confronting fascistic Islamist groups in this country – who are you supporting and how?

Regarding the two strongest sides in this civil war, I do not see any progressive element at all, ditto Egypt too (where some have been calling for the MB to be supported!). What these cases illustrate is how dated and irrelevant a lot of standard Left thinking is and how it is ultimately reactive rather than proactively engaging and supporting trade union groups, women, gays, progressive groups etc.

I look forward to reading your next pieces and thank-you.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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