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Time to break the silence on Syria

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Some 160 people attended the ‘Syria in the context of the Arab Revolutions’ event on 15th February in London and set up a new solidarity campaign, writes Luke Cooper

The situation in Syria today has arisen from one basic fact. That rather than accept democratic change the Assad regime chose to wage a brutal war against its own people. This has brought terrible hardship and poverty for ordinary Syrians and led to a breakdown of governance. Foreign powers, notably Russia and Iran, have intervened to prop up the regime, and so too have Jihadist extremists – all of whom are enemies of the Syrian Revolution’s struggle for democratic and human rights.

Sadly, in the face of this undoubtedly difficult situation, too many on the left either fell silent, or took the shameful position of treating those fighting for democratic rights as proxies of imperialism, or simply slandered them all as Islamic extremists.

 

Those of us from the radical left who came together to organise the conference wanted to challenge these prevalent narratives and provide a voice for Syrians themselves to discuss the future of the country’s on-going democratic struggle. We believed that we had much to learn from their experience, courage, and ideas.

We assembled a series of panels with experts, Syrian revolutionaries, and solidarity activists, both from the diasporic community and the Middle East, to start the long process of re-educating the left. The feedback we have received from the conference is overwhelmingly positive. As one participant put it on Facebook, ‘All the speakers were either Syrian activists, from the region or had been there and really knew their stuff - a very high quality of speeches and it has shifted me from dour pessimism towards slightly less dour pessimism - a real achievement’. Indeed, this was no shrill rally that sought to deny the problems, but a serious assessment of the situation that was, more than anything else, rooted in a concern for solidarity and democracy.

Maryam Aouragh, a researcher and left activist, summed up this message and ethos when she said, ‘I understand the legacy of Iraq, really I do… but Syria is not Iraq – if we look at what Syrians are actually doing on the ground then we can see that there is an alternative that we can side with. We are not paralysed. We are not like we were during Iraq when we only had the option of saying we are against Western intervention – now we can say we are against intervention and for the Syrian Revolution’.

Many speakers echoed these points across the day. Gilbert Ashcar, author of The People Want; A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, discussed the geopolitics of the uprisings, criticising those who still held to ‘a Cold War view of the world, seeing American imperialism as the only imperialism and denying the new imperialism of Putin’s Russia that has backed the Abbas regime to the hilt’.

Thanks to the facilities provided by the Theatro Technis venue some speakers were able to teleconference into the room from overseas, and videos projected onto the big screen scenes of the work of the democratic, grassroots opposition on the ground.

The final session saw humanitarian aid workers discussing their experiences of the hardship felt by ordinary Syrians on the ground. Shahnawaz Khan, the brother of Abbas Kahn, a doctor murdered by the Syrian regime, spoke of his brother’s appalling death, and the terrible conditions he had been working to relieve before his capture.

John McDonnell MP, who admitted his regret at ‘not doing enough’ to ‘keep speaking up on Syria’, also spoke on the panel, describing the conference ‘as a really quite important event’ and pledging to raise the cause of Syria in the People’s Parliament – a series of radical events and discussions he has initiated in parliament this year. He said, ‘from today I will do all I can to ensure there is a wider debate, to recruit the labour and trade union to that wider debate, and most of all to organise actions’.

At the end of the day the proposal to set up a Syria Solidarity Movement was moved jointly by Mark Boothroyd, a socialist activist, and Abdulaziz Almashi, of the campaigning organisation, the Syrian Community in the UK. Finally, a video message of solidarity from conference attendees to the people of Syrian revolution was recorded in Arabic – with some help from our Syrian comrades! – and has since formed part of the international solidarity video, ‘Love from the world to free Syria’.

It was great to take part in a genuine international solidarity event – uniting socialist and progressive activists with the Syrian community – but this is just the beginning of a new phase of campaigning. Next up is the Third Anniversary Demonstration for the Syrian Revolution taking place on the 15th March in London. We hope you’ll join us.

You can see all the videos from the Syria conference on You Tube.