According to Russian president Vladimir Putin, Russia is in Syria to destroy ISIS. It’s doing that by supporting the supposedly secular, anti-ISIS Assad regime.
If you’re confused, that’s the regime that rests on narrow sectarian divisions and spent the last few years bombing everybody but ISIS in an attempt to destroy a popular revolution.
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin of the Russian Orthodox Church called Russia’s actions a “holy war” against ISIS. Nothing screams that you’re defending secularism like “holy war”.
The response to all of this by some on the Western left has been dreadful. For some bizarre reason, while the cynical and imperialist manoeuvres of the Western powers are, rightly, denounced, Putin gets a get-out-of-jail-free card.
This takes several forms. For starters, there is the straightforward pro-Putin propaganda. Socialist Unity in Britain blares, in a triumphant Islamophobic stupor, “The barbarians are at the gates and Russia alone is heeding the call to intervene in order to save not just the Syrian government or Syria, but civilisation itself”.
The nominally left wing US website Counterpunch has an article by Mike Whitney, which proclaims: “That’s how you fight terrorism if you’re serious about it. Bravo, Putin”.
Neglected is the fact that most of the people brutally murdered by Russian bombs so far have been conspicuously not-ISIS. Indeed, they have been people fighting against ISIS. But then, I guess Russia has to warm up first before it can hit its targets. Or perhaps destroying all opposition to ISIS is all part of a master plan. ISIS will be overconfident, and that’s when Putin will ride in naked on a bear and save the day.
Another set of arguments is tied to the notion that, even if Putin is in it for his own cynical gain, somehow Russia being involved will just magically make the situation better. Because if there’s anything that makes people’s lives better, it’s more bombs and missiles.
Patrick Cockburn, whose writings on the Middle East have been widely circulated on the left, argued: “The US-Soviet Cold War, and the global competition that went with it, had benefits for much of the world. Both superpowers sought to support their own allies and prevent political vacuums from developing which its opposite number might exploit”. I suspect this statement might raise a few eyebrows in Vietnam, among many other places.
Political cartoonist Carlos Latuff, well known for his pro-Palestinian cartoons, defended Russia by saying that at least it doesn’t want regime change in Syria. Well, no, it doesn’t. It wants to kill many people to allow a murderous tyrant to remain in power so Russia can continue exercising influence in the region. That’s not a positive thing. You’d think this didn’t need to be spelled out.
Finally, there’s the variety of responses which only want to focus on Western intervention. They may be shocked to find that one can indeed walk and chew gum at the same time.
Green Left Weekly takes this to its logical conclusion by not mentioning Russia’s involvement in Syria at all. Those wanting to understand the events in Syria will likely leave the website scratching their heads.
Some left commentators have argued that socialists have to focus only on their own ruling classes. For leftists in the West to focus on Putin is to “dance to the tune of Washington”.
The fundamental root of the problem in Syria – the cause of the millions of refugees, the growth of ISIS, the hundreds of thousands dead – is Assad. Not US bombs, not Western intervention: Assad. Russia is supporting him.
Anything that is not an unequivocal denunciation of both Assad and imperialist intervention of East and West is an affront to the heroic struggle of the Syrian uprising, and a sure way to discredit the left.