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Within the Arab Left, Contradictions Emerge Over Syria

The Arab Spring has been a cause for celebration for the Arab Left, but regional considerations have impacted its view of the unfolding struggle in Syria.

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Inter Press Services

Though the Arab Spring has heralded newfound hope and optimism across the Middle East, the mood has darkened considerably as entrenched governments have fought back viciously against democratic opposition.

The relatively quick collapse of the governments in Tunisia and Egypt has given way to protracted struggle – along with its many complications – in Syria, Bahrain and Libya. Nowhere has this been demonstrated more clearly than in Syria, where the demand for democratisation has become deeply tangled with geopolitical dynamics, overlapping alliances, and clashing political ideologies.

The situation in Syria has developed differently than the revolutions that swept its neighbours. As one of the members of the so-called Axis of Resistance, Syria has evaded the accusations of subservience to foreign powers that plagued the old guard of Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere.

More importantly, Syria sits between Lebanon and Iraq, states still struggling to overcome their recent spasms of sectarian violence and instability. Syrians have also watched warily as the revolutions in Libya and Bahrain have produced large-scale violence, continued instability, and foreign military interventions.

For these reasons, along with the Assad regime's brutal month-long crackdown, the vast majority of Syrians have stayed at home, many quietly seething at the government, but unwilling to publicly embrace the opposition.

Nowhere has this gap between disdain for the government and support for the opposition been more clear than in the circles of the Arab Left – near-unanimous in their animosity towards Bashar Al-Assad, but deeply conflicted about the nature, substance, and future of the burgeoning opposition movement.

As the opposition scrambles and regroups in the face of the Syrian government's recent offensive, various influential leftists have struggled to wed their support for popular uprising with their concerns of manipulation by Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States.

A small but vocal minority have categorically rejected the current opposition, claiming that disorder in Syria only serves to embolden right-wing Islamist movements that will consequently tilt the balance of power toward the camps of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States.

Some have complained that while the revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia heralded significant defeats for the traditional enemies of the Arab Left, the implications of a power vacuum in Syria are significantly more muddied, and may well further destabilise its already fragile neighbours.

Prominent Syrian dissident Michel Kilo, in a recent article in the leftist Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, warns that sectarian conflict will "move society backwards", undermining state, society, and national unity "for God knows how long". Kilo is joined by a few others who agree that the total collapse of the regime, at this particular juncture, may not be beneficial to the aims and goals of the left.

Generally speaking, these comments have invited a flurry of opposition. Rime Allaf, an associate at Chatham House, has pointed out that the "other regimes [are] seemingly throwing their weight behind the Syrian regime, fearful of the reach of this inconvenient Arab spring."

A number of commentators have likewise noted that those who worry that the demonstrations will empower their traditional enemies – Israel and Saudi Arabia – find themselves in the same camp as a number of Israeli and Saudi policymakers, who fear precisely the opposite. Though Israeli officials have largely remained silent on the issue of Syria, many suspect the Israeli government of supporting the Syrian regime, in word if not in deed.

"You want to work with the devil you know," Moshe Maoz, a former Israeli government advisor, said to the Los Angeles Times in March.

Others have been supportive of the opposition, but more cautious, including well-known analyst As'ad Abu-Khalil , the proprietor of the Angry Arab News Service blog. Abu-Khalil has argued on numerous occasions that the "Saudi" and "Western" tendencies of the opposition were counterproductive and dangerous, and must be considered separately from the "majority" of protesters who remain free of such influence.

Abu-Khalil has been particularly tough on expat Syrians, who some say have played a pivotal role in organising the protests and disseminating information. He points to examples such as Farid Ghadry, leader of the "Reform Party of Syria", who left Syria at the age of 10 and maintains that Israelis should be allowed to stay in the Golan Heights, a position that is highly unpopular with mainstream Syrians.

Bassad Haddad, a well-respected specialist on Syrian politics and co- founder of the website Jadaliyya, finds the entire debate frustrating.

"The whole conversation is not productive, because this is not a conversation of the Left, but a conversation between people who believe in conspiracy theories…and those who see [the situation in Syria] as it is," he said in a recent interview with IPS.

Though Haddad admits that "I have friends who don't like what I'm saying," he stands strongly behind the consideration that "there are probably infiltrators, but they're a minority. What's going on in Syria is not the result of infiltrators, but 14 years of people living under oppression…and in the end the Syrian regime is killing its own people. That's where the buck stops for any self-respecting leftist."

"We must be able to critique the regime … without making the critique amenable to be abused by the enemies of resistance anywhere," he said, noting that the balance between the two positions can be a difficult road to travel.

Haddad warns that for some, "the principle at heart here is being abandoned for politics," accusing opponents of the opposition of acting as "apologists for authoritarianism" simply because they share some of the same enemies of the Syrian regime.

As the debate rages, the government's crackdown has continued unabated, shielded by an increasingly effective media blackout, leaving all sides waiting anxiously to see if their worst fears will come true.

Samer Araabi writes for the Inter Press Service and is a contributor to Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).

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