On the Oscar-nominated White Helmets Documentary

Reprinted from The Syria Campaign

Khaled Khatib is a White Helmet volunteer who worked on Netflix’s ‘White Helmet’ movie. It’s been nominated for an Oscar, results are announced on Sunday 26th. This is his story.

Dear Fightback,

I was 16 when the revolution started. In the first few years of the uprising I saw a lot of foreign photojournalists and TV crews come to document what was happening in my city of Aleppo. I watched them dreaming that I could do that: tell the story of my city and my people. When I saw the work of the White Helmets, I knew that was the story of Syria I wanted to tell to tell the world.

The White Helmets have a motto taken from the Quran: “to save a life is to save all humanity”. I started to document their work as a volunteer to show the world that everyday Syrians were pulling humanity from the rubble of bombs.

When the bombs fall I follow the teams to the scene. I watch as they use diggers, cranes, the drills, their hands — anything that can help rescue those trapped. It is my job to remain calm, to capture the reactions from people recovering from the shock of seeing their homes, families, lives buried under rubble. I try to focus on capturing their stories.

The media is so important for the White Helmets and other humanitarian groups working in Syria. We want people to see and understand what is happening: who is doing the killing and who is working for peace. I do this work because I believe if the world understands the suffering of my people they will be moved to stop it; to stand with us on the side of life.

In November 2015, the director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara contacted us about making a documentary. They had seen the rescue missions we shot and wanted to tell our story to the world. We watched their other films and understood they are people who know how to tell the stories of heroes. I hoped that we could work together to create a film that would tell the true story of the White Helmets to people around the world.

I worked with the team in Adana while they were shooting at the White Helmets training ground. I learnt a lot from the cinematographer Frank Dow about how to shoot, to edit, to tell the story. By the end my notebook was full.

Khaled At Work

It is so important that people see the film. It is important that people understand that Syria has people who want the same things they want: peace, jobs, family, and to live without the fear of bombs. This is what I hope the film does.

I plan to travel to LA next week for the Oscars where the film is nominated for an award. If we win this award, it will show people across Syria that people around the world support them. It will give courage to every volunteer who wakes up every morning to run towards bombs.

If I cannot enter the US, I will not give up: we know that we have many friends in US, that there are people that share our humanitarian values. I look forward to meeting them all one day.

When this war is over I dream of going back to study film — we Syrians have many, many more stories to tell.

In peace,

Khaled

PS. If you want to send a message of support to Khaled please hit reply to this email and we will pass them all on.

PPS. Not watched the Netflix film? Click here.

Trump, Brexit, Syria… and conservative leftism

By DAPHNE LAWLESS

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Penny Bright, perennial Auckland mayoral candidate and conservative leftist, proudly promotes the Assad regime and Russian-backed conspiracy theories on the streets of Auckland. Photograph by Daphne Lawless.

In the 10 months since I introduced the concept of “Conservative Leftism” to the NZ Left, only one argument has been raised against it that seemed to take the idea seriously and be worthy of taking seriously in return. This argument – which has been raised by more than one sincere socialist, at greatest length by Ben Peterson at leftwin.org – is that Conservative Leftism is an “amalgam” which doesn’t really exist, that there is no necessary connection between the conservative strands of thought I identified in the contemporary activist movement.

Ben argued:

While “Conservative leftism” is a thought provoking concept, it doesn’t measure up in reality as a coherent ideological perspective.

“Against Conservative Leftism” lists a range of examples of political positions that derive from its ideological perspective. These including but are not limited to opposition to local council amalgamations, opposition to intensive housing developments, legal crank such as ‘freemen’ theories, backing the Assad dictatorship, anti-Semitism, homeownership and opposition to the NZ flag referendum.

This just doesn’t fit together. It doesn’t make sense to suggest that a person who opposes intensive housing developments is more likely to be an anti-Semite or conspiracy theorist. It doesn’t make sense to put leftist homeowners, and the not very often homeowning ‘freemen’ into the same ideological tendency just doesn’t make sense.

One way of responding to Ben’s argument using Marxist jargon would be to say: “there is a contradiction, but the contradiction is in reality.” I strongly believe that the evidence has in fact become clearer over the course of 2016, that the strands of reactionary opinion among self-identified “Leftists” that I have identified do, in actual reality, go together as a set of propositions which support each other, if not necessarily logically “coherent”.

For the record, I identified three conservative reactions on the self-identified “Left” to neoliberal globalisation:

  • opposition to globalisation in and of itself (nationalism, xenophobia, obsession with “sovereignty”, one-sided opposition to Western imperialism in particular aka campism);
  • opposition to the social changes which have happened in the neoliberal/globalised era (opposition to cosmopolitan urbanisation, anti-immigration, idealisation of “traditional” rural/small-town/working class life, scepticism of newer identities around gender/race which are smeared as “identity politics”);
  • one-sidedly deep scepticism of neoliberal media/academic narratives, reflected in an embrace of conspiracy theory, traditional “common sense” and health quackery.

We might use the following shorthands:

  1. CONSERVATIVE ANTI-IMPERIALISM;
  2. CONSERVATIVE POPULISM;
  3. ANTI-RATIONALISM (or perhaps “intellectual populism”).

The original article – and Ben’s response – was written before what a radical internationalist Left viewpoint would see as the massive catastrophes for people and planet of 2016: the Trump victory; the victory of British exit from the European Union (Brexit) which has led to an explosion of racist violence; the growing strides of neo-fascist movements across the world, from the French Front National to the online lynch-mobs known as the “alt-right”; and the ongoing genocidal destruction of Syria by its own government backed up by Russian imperialism.

It is my contention that this series of disasters has vindicated the Conservative Left idea, in that New Zealand leftists who were expressing Conservative Left ideas at the beginning of the year have either welcomed these developments, or at least seen them as potentially positive developments. To give a few examples from the New Zealand Left in particular:

  • Mike Lee, the Auckland Council member on whom I focussed in my article on the Auckland local body elections as the chief local promoter of conservative-left ideas, issued a Facebook message after the election which expressed thankfulness for the Trump victory, seemingly based on the idea (assiduously promoted by both Trumpist and Russian sources) that Hillary Clinton would start World War 3.
  • Prominent veteran NZ leftist writer Chris Trotter – who was, indeed, one of our major models when we elaborated the idea – announced that “I proudly count myself” as a conservative leftist. Most of this post either ignored the substance of my article, or was an apologia for the Russian-backed Syrian regime destruction of Aleppo, which can be quickly debunked by a quick flick through the resources on any Syrian Solidarity website or Facebook page.
  • Daily Blog proprietor “Bomber” Bradbury, who previously promoted Mike Lee’s anti-intensification and anti-youth politics, has now come out with an explicit anti-immigration screed. He even characterizes pro-immigration policy as an “elite cosmopolitan” viewpoint – a snarl-phrase which could be taken directly from a Stalinist or fascist rant.
  • Bradbury’s co-thinker on Auckland local body politics, perennial mayoral candidate Penny Bright, has been counter-protesting Syrian solidarity demonstrations supporting the Assad regime’s “sovereignty” (see image), and is reported to be sharing links on social media from David Icke, doyen of “Lizard People” conspiracy theory.

From where I sit, this is convincing data. In general, the sections of the New Zealand left whom I had in mind as either “conservative leftist” or heavily influenced by that ideology have been unanimous in – even if not outright supporting Assad/Putin, Trump and Brexit – arguing that these phenomena are not in fact that bad, that they can be seen as expressions of resistance to imperialism and neo-liberalism. This insight has been reproduced by British radical academic Priyamvada Gopal, who said recently on Facebook:

This cleavage in left circles that has arisen over the last six months is a pretty neat and sharp one, with only a few zigzags and crossovers and that generally only around Brexit. How do we read it? On one side:

  • Anti-Assad/Anti Putin/Anti-Massacres
  • Anti-Trump
  • Anti-Brexit

On the other side:

  • Assad Apologetics/Anti-Western Imperialism Only
  • Trump is No Worse than Hillary
  • Lexit

Priyamada’s schema snugly fits two out of the three points of my schema. The Assadist “Left” are clearly conservative anti-imperialists, taking the “campist” position that the main leaders of opposition to neoliberal globalisation are the leaderships of various states, who range from authoritarian to totalitarian in their internal regimes – thus excluding any role for mass action in changing the world, and indeed smearing the Arab Spring uprisings as CIA-sponsored attempted coups. Meanwhile, conservative-left reactions to the Trump debacle have ranged from welcoming it as a blow to neoliberal globalisation (ludicrous, given the identity of the various plutocrats whom Trump is naming to his cabinet), to the less wild-eyed interpretation that a “revolt of the white working class” defeated Hillary Clinton. This latter interpretation conveniently lends itself to calls for a more “traditional” left politics targeting “ordinary” (read: white, male) workers, and throwing not only the feminist movement but oppressed queer, ethnic and religious minority workers under the bus.

Meanwhile, the “Left Brexit” (Lexit) phenomenon showed a combination of both these tendencies. On one hand, it “whitewashed” (we can use the term in full irony) the Brexit movement led by reactionary tabloids and the Trump-like UKIP, seeing it as a working-class revolt rather than a reactionary populist uprising. On the other, it one-sidedly attacked the EU’s neoliberal institutions, trying to put a “left” face on British nationalist isolationism, and ignoring the fact that freedom of movement for workers between EU countries is a vital progressive gain for migrant workers. The consequences of this position were that Lexiters had to argue away the rise in racist abuse and violence after the referendum, either as “exaggerated”, something that was happening anyway, or even outright fabricated by the mainstream media[1]. This rhetorical move was a precursor to the breath-taking denials of reality we have become used to from supporters of the Putin/Assad axis in Syria.

The Morning Star, the daily newspaper traditionally associated with the Communist Party of Britain, has shamefully led the conservative-leftist charge on both these issues, both cheerleading the ongoing massacre in Aleppo as “liberation” and opposing freedom of movement for workers. Some have taken this to mean that conservative leftism is really a reappearance of Stalinism – and certainly there are similarities to the old Western Communist backing of Russian tanks and Eastern Bloc nationalism. However, it is also vital to note that the leadership of the British Stop the War Coalition – who have shamefully refused to promote the cause of Free Syria – are dominated by people who came from the anti-Stalinist revolutionary tradition, mainly former leaders of the British Socialist Workers Party. If the problem was originally a Stalinist one, then the rot has spread.

Where then is the “third leg” of the tripod, anti-rationalism/intellectual populism? Whether someone on the conservative left believes in traditional conspiracy theories, health quackery or other kinds of crank thought or not, the common move in both conservative anti-imperialism and conservative populism is to reflexively reject “mainstream”, “elite” or “establishment” viewpoints, and yet be willing to believe any alternative promoted as “alternative”. This might – for example – lead from an accurate perception that capitalist banking helps increase the gap between rich and poor and makes capitalist crisis more intense, to an advocacy of a fantasy alternative based on a misunderstanding of the real problem such as Social Credit or Positive Money.

In particular, the use of the terms “elite” and “establishment” is a sign of intellectual surrender to Right-wing populism (see Bradbury, above). These are totally empty signifiers which the listener can apply to whichever bogey-group they think are really running things. While a sincere leftist might envision the capitalist oligarchy as “the elites”, a Right-populist will think of liberal academics or gay/female/ethnic minority professionals whom they blame for “keeping them down”; others will think of the “cultural Marxists”, the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, or hostile UFOs.

Recent analyses have suggested that the intelligence services of the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin are engaged in actively promoting this kind of “radical scepticism”. They argue that Russian propaganda does not aim to promote its own narrative, but simply to undermine the consensus narratives of Western-aligned media and academia. By a staggering coincidence, this is also how conspiracy theories such as “9/11 Truth” also work – not by attempting to prove their own point of view, but by picking at threads in the “establishment” narrative, so as to imply that their own is equally valid. This strategy has also been used in the attempt by Christian fundamentalists to get anti-evolution pseudo-science taught in public schools.

Being prepared to dismiss out of hand any report appearing on the BBC website, yet unquestioningly forwarding videos from the RT website, is essentially little different from the health crank’s high-powered scepticism of “Big Pharma”, combined with a willingness to believe anything presented by alternative-medicine profiteers (what rationalists sometimes call “Big Placebo”). The argument here is not a conspiracy theory that conservative leftism is some kind of Russian plot. The argument is merely that Russian intelligence has deftly exploited the growth of populist anti-elitism in Western countries to promote themselves as the good guys -in the same way that traditional Nazis have exploited the meme culture of 4chan and similar online forums to produce the “alt-right”.

It seems clearer as time goes on that these three strands of conservative anti-imperialism, conservative populism and anti-rationalism/intellectual populism go together, that holding one of these viewpoints is a very good predictor of holding the others. There is thus a clear cleavage between the Conservative Left which rejects globalisation per se and refuses to engage with the new social forces thrown up by it; and the radical international Left which wants ANOTHER kind of globalisation, a workers’ and oppressed people’s globalisation. The latter sees the new proletarian forces and oppressed communities thrown up by existing globalisation as the vanguard agents of change, just as Karl Marx saw the industrial workers as the gravediggers of capitalism, rather than wanting to send them back to the farms. I only wish I had a better word for this necessary alternative tendency than “radical internationalist Left”. Suggestions are welcomed.

[1] Personal experience from Facebook discussions.

5 Myths about the Syrian revolution

regime-death-toll

“The start of solidarity is correcting the narrative.”

-Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and Civil War.

Since the Syrian revolution began in 2011, a mixture of propaganda and conspiracy theories has obscured the nature of the conflict. As the Syrian conflict is the biggest refugee crisis in a generation, we cannot stand by and let these myths go unchallenged.

  1. It’s just a sectarian conflict

As with many conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, Syria’s conflict is often depicted as a solely ethnic/sectarian conflict. The spectre of Arabs, and particularly Sunni Muslims, with guns is stereotyped as only religiously motivated.

However, the beginning of the revolution in 2011 was profoundly democratic and secular. All ethnicities and religious denominations took to the streets, as part of the broader regional upsurge dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’.

In the squares, Syrians chanted ‘One, One, One, the Syrian people are One’ and ‘Sunnis and Alawis are one’, referring to the oppressed Sunni majority and the dominant Alawi minority (of whom President Bashar-Al Assad is a member).

In seeking to crush the democratic movement, Assad deliberately provoked sectarian conflict. Regime death squads primarily targeted Sunnis, and the regime released salafists (militant Sunnis) from jail to add fuel to the fire. While sectarianism has grown since then, the responsibility lies with the regime, which deliberately sought to undermine the secular nature of the revolution.

The democratic current that emerged in 2011 still exists, albeit besieged from all sides.

  1. The Syrian rebels are a US proxy

Conspiracy theorists argue that the revolution was simply a CIA-funded proxy from the start. A more nuanced take holds that the US has since hijacked the revolution. Indeed, the US has in the past funded coups, dictatorships, and Islamist movements in the region.

However, there is a fundamental difference between a US-backed coup, and a popular democracy movement calling for international support.

Assad shot first. When the revolutionaries were forced to arm in self-defence, they had woefully inadequate weaponry. Their call for international support must be understood in this context.

Obama stated that chemical weapons attacks were a ‘red line’ that he would not allow Assad to cross. When Assad carried out a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in 2013, Obama’s regime failed to act. This led to a sense of betrayal among Syrian revolutionaries.

Assad and his Russian backers continue to rain fire on the Syrian people. In Aleppo, Syrian children burn tires so that the fumes will create a makeshift No-Fly Zone. The US refuses to impose a No-Fly Zone on Assad, or grant anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian rebels (perhaps fearing that the revolution would turn against the USA and Israel). The revolutionaries remain woefully outgunned by Assad.

If we cannot offer any alternative to the Syrian rebels, we have no right to preach to them about their decision to call for any support they can get.

  1. ISIS is the only alternative to Assad

Many commentators say that Assad is the lesser evil, as ISIS is the only alternative.

However, there are alternatives to both Assad and ISIS within Syrian society. In fact, ISIS did not originate among the Syrian people. Rather, the group formed in Iraqi jails, before recruiting disenfranchised Muslims from around the world. In Syria, ISIS are essentially a foreign occupying force.

By contrast, the Free Syrian Army and its allies have fought both Assad’s and ISIS’ forces. In liberated areas of Syria, democratic Local Coordination Committees remain as an alternative to both Assadist and Islamist dictatorship.

A Free Syria would be governed by the people, not by dictators.

  1. US and Russian intervention are equally to blame

It is no secret that US intervention has torn apart much of the Middle East and North Africa. From backing Israeli colonisation, to funding the Afghan mujahideen which would later morph into the Taliban, and more recently occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has pursued an imperialist policy that continues to destroy lives.

However, Syria is not Iraq. We cannot show meaningful solidarity with the Syrian people if we fail to explain the political conditions they face.

Assad’s regime has killed overwhelmingly more Syrians than any other force involved. Putin’s Russia, in militarily intervening to support the criminal Assad, simply wants a proxy in the region. Any attempt to depict this as ‘anti-imperialism’ makes a mockery of the term.

The United States is not the only evil on the world stage. Rising Russian imperialism poses a similar threat, backing genocide in Syria, just as the United States backs genocide in Palestine.

5. The only people worth supporting in Syria are the Kurds.

Many Western leftists, confused by the supposed “sectarian” nature of the Syrian conflict, have latched onto the Kurdish forces as the only “good guys” in the struggle. The Kurdish enclave of Rojava, ruled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), is touted as some kind of “anarcho-feminist” safe haven of rights and democracy. This romanticisation of Kurdish culture as somehow superior to other Syrian nationalities is quite silly and somewhat racist, and leads to willful blindness to the negative side of what Kurdish forces are actually doing.

While Rojava’s leaders talk of “democratic confederalism”, PYD forces have ethnically cleansed Arab villages and shut down other Kurdish political parties. The PYD’s fight against ISIS has been supported by both United States AND Russian firepower – a real problem for those who otherwise talk about “foreign intervention” as the real problem in Syria.

Most disturbingly, the PYD have not been above actually working with the Assad dictatorship. The regime actually handed over large parts of Rojava to the PYD without a fight, and continues to pay the wages of the civil servants there. The PYD also holds parts of the northern suburbs of Aleppo, where it has helped the regime forces in the Western suburbs against rebel-held Eastern suburbs.

The Kurdish people in the north of Syria – as well as those in Turkey, Iraq and Iran – have been fighting for their right to self-determination for nearly 100 years, and of course they should be supported in this struggle. But the PYD are no more spotless angels than anyone on the Free Syrian side. Any democratic solution will have to include Syrian Arabs, Kurds and all other ethnicities joining to put an end to the Assad regime.

“When people ask ‘Who should we support in Syria?’ I should say: in Syria no political party, militia or army is worthy of our wholehearted or uncritical support. No ideology either. What we should support are the community-grown democratic and quasi-democratic institutions and the civilian communities they represent. These people deserve support which is both critical and absolute. Critical because nothing should be uncritical. Absolute because these survivors inside are under continuous and full-scale military assault, beleaguered and at risk of extinction.”

-Robin Yassin-Kassab

What can we do?

As Aotearoa/New Zealand has diplomatic ties with Russia, our responsibility is to challenge the Russian role in the conflict.

We can also donate to humanitarian groups like the White Helmets in Syria, and call on our own government to accept refugees.

For more information please:

  • Like ‘Syrian Solidarity New Zealand’ on Facebook.

  • Read the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and Civil War, by Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab. This book is based on extensive interviews with Syrians on the ground.

Syria Solidarity: National day of action 29th October

day-of-rage-for-aleppo

Civilians in Aleppo and across Syria are being intensively bombed by Russia with bunker bombs, phosphorous bombs, napalm, thermobaric and cluster bombs; and by the Syrian regime with chlorine containing barrel bombs; targetting homes, schools, hospitals, rescue teams, and underground shelters .

Like many Syrian cities, Aleppo has been under a starvation siege. The regime and Russian have even bombed the city’s water supply.
Despite these atrocious crimes against humanity, Aleppo’s people show tremendous solidarity and caring for each other, as they work to find the wounded under the rubble, and rush them to undergound clinics for treatment. Hundreds of democratically run community councils have been formed across Syria in the liberated areas. They have produced a tremendous amount of art, literature, music, and electronic media documenting the revolution and counter revolution in Syria.

The “peace” talks have broken down. It is clear that Russia and the Assad regime are looking for a military solution to enable the genocidal Assad regime to continue in power.

Most of the fighters killing Syrian civilians are not Syrians. They include soliders from Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, many of them conscripted or desperately poor with no other options for a living.
The Assad regime and Russia have killed half a million Syrian people. The genocide has to stop! The regime regularly uses rape and torture as weapons.

The war started because people across Syria went onto the streets to demand democracy, and instead were shot, rounded up, tortured, raped and killed. So the people took up arms to defend themselves. The Assad regime has vowed to continue to obliterate the population until it accepts his rule.

Both the United States and Russia have re-defined the people’s struggle for democracy as a “war on terror” and are both responsible for killing civilians.

Isis grew in Syria with the encouragement of the Assad regime. Assad deliberately released extremists from his jails, who went on to join Isis in Syria. The regime leaves Isis alone, and Isis is continually attacking the democratic opposition groups. The democratic opposition has been forced to fight on two fronts, against the attacks from the regime and from Isis. Despite the evils perpetrated by Isis, it has killed a fraction of the number of people, that the Assad regime has. The Assad regime with its Russian and Iranian allies are the greater evil.

Stop the bombing! Troops out!
No more genocide! Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution!
Victory for Syrian people now!

Wellington action:
2-3pm 29th October, Russian Embassy, 57 Messines Road, Karori
[Facebook event]

Auckland action:
2-3pm 29th October, Aotea Square
[Facebook event]

Conflict in Syria

As the brutal regime of President Bashar Assad desperately tries to cling to power, a massive humanitarian crisis is engulfing the Syrian people. An estimated 23,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, with the state being responsible for most of the deaths.

Over a quarter of a million people have fled the country, mainly to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. A further 1.2 million are internally displaced. The UN states that 2.5 million are in need of food and other aid.

The various rebel groups organised behind the front of the Free Syrian Army have been gaining ground in the north west of the country. Assad’s forces have been unable to disloge rebel fighters from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. [Read more…]