What are the limits of principled opposition to intervention in Syria?

Anna Lekas Miller writes that the Left can’t afford to ignore the facts on the ground in Aleppo

Members of the civil defence team known as the White Helmets rescue children in Aleppo after what activists said was an air strike by the Assad regime. Some members of the Left has argued that the White Helmets are agents of western intervention. Sultan Kitaz / Reuters
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Over the past month, the battle for Aleppo has reached fever pitch. Major hospitals have been targeted and destroyed, forcing already injured patients to be treated in makeshift clinics.

Bunker-buster bombs – designed explosives to penetrate concrete and rock and destroy underground facilities, have killed dozens in the medical clinics and schools that were previously used as bomb shelters.

As civilians navigate daily life through changing warfare tactics, another battle intensifies – this time online.

The Syrian conflict has divided leftist writers and commentators in the United States and the United Kingdom to a remarkable degree.

The Left – at least in the US and UK – has always been defined by a set of principles that informs its politics. Marxist and anti-­colonialist by nature, these principles militate against western intervention – including everything from invasions such as the US occupation of Iraq to US-influenced regime change throughout Latin America.

However, Syria has left many perplexed. Do we learn from the mistakes in Iraq, and let Syrians fight for – and create – the country they want, as they see fit? What about all of this carnage? Is there something that we can do about it? What would intervention mean for people on the ground?

While one camp has asked these questions, the other camp has remained staunchly anti-intervention – often creating tension rather than dialogue.

This war of words took a dangerous turn this month when American journalist Max Blumenthal – a self-identified member of the US Left who frequently argues against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other worthy causes – published a two-part expose accusing a US public relations firm of manipulating the media to push an agenda of western intervention in Syria.

What makes Blumenthal’s expose particularly brutal is his unrelenting and ill-timed attack on the rescue workers pulling civilians out from the rubble in Aleppo.

Over the past five years, the Syrian Civil Defence – now known more commonly as the White Helmets – has been on the front lines of the conflict, dragging bodies out from underneath the rubble, administering first aid, and, in their best moments, saving lives.

Their tireless work has earned them hero status both inside and outside Syria, highlighted – among other places – in a recent Netflix documentary and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Although the White Helmets began as a motley crew of tailors, teachers and other civilians teaching one another first aid and rushing to crisis after crisis, it didn’t take long for The Syria Campaign – the “shadowy” public relations campaign that Blumenthal is investigating – to notice their work and offer to help.

The Syria Campaign spearheaded an international public awareness campaign and, most importantly, foreign donations. It is this money – not international notoriety – that upgrades dilapidated vans to reliable ambulances, funds training that equips ordinary citizens with search and rescue skills, and buys the bandages, splints and respirators that have saved more than 60,000 lives.

But for Blumenthal, this foreign influence is enough to discredit the extensive media coverage of the White Helmet’s work as “propaganda” for a western agenda of regime change.

He particularly targets the United States Agency for International Development’s financial backing of the White Helmets as proof. The US government agency has been accused of facilitating regime change in some Latin America countries and thus could be orchestrating the same in Syria.

It doesn’t matter that this regime change is the very thing that many Syrians have been fighting and dying for over the past six years. I know this, personally. As a writer, I found my voice in the publications of the US left and I have spent the past four years covering the Middle East from the ground – with a particular eye on Syria.

With each interview and personal conversation, I struggled to wrap my head around why my Syrian contacts and friends asked to have western bombs falling on their cities – the very bombs I used to protest against when they were falling on Iraq and Afghanistan. Though everyone had a slightly different perspective, most were not naive; they knew US bombs would bring civilian casualties, or even western agendas. In the end, the alternative of the continued violence of president Bashar Al Assad was far worse.

For journalists covering the Middle East from the West, it is easier to ignore these voices and stick to less complicated narratives.

Journalists active on social media are particularly adept at finding explosive stories that are motivated by a desire to drive traffic and discussion – and less concerned with elevating voices from abroad.

The White Helmets gave Blumenthal the perfect explosive concoction for his latest conspiracy: international heroes, with funding from the West – what are they really doing, and for whom are they actually working?

The investigation ignited a predictable firestorm, which quickly focused on personal attacks from both sides, rather than facts on the ground from Syria.

It isn’t the first time an established member of the US Left has demonised a hazily-defined “western intervention” in Syria, while ignoring the continuing assault of the Assad regime with Russian support. US Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein recently gave a speech on Russian state television that condemned the US air strikes on ISIL targets, while remaining silent on Russia’s exorbitant role in the conflict.

Journalists regularly write columns in left-wing publications that dismiss politicians arguing for intervention to stop the Assad regime’s crimes as “hawkish” and conflating the Syrian opposition with extremists while arguing against the no-fly zones that Syrians have requested for years.

As a result, all subsequent foreign interventions have been recorded in history as blatant mistakes. No matter how many Libyan rebels welcomed the US-led Nato intervention that ousted former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Libya was a “mistake” – and the jihadists who have now proliferated within the power vacuum would never have found their way to the country if it weren’t for “the West”.

No matter how many Syrians took to the streets following the revolutions that swept the Middle East in 2011, shouting that the people want an end to the regime, the Left continues to frown on advocacy organisations that push for that very regime change as agents of western imperialism.

Never mind the Syrian revolutionaries holding up carefully crafted English language protest signs amid the rubble, hoping some photographer places their image in the western media begging president Barack Obama not to look away.

Never mind the stories of Syrians patiently waiting in their basements for US air strikes, knowing that while civilian casualties are a possibility, it would take this level of military might to oust Mr Al Assad, paving the way for the Free Syria for which they are fighting – and dying.

Never mind the Syrians, who even six years into a war of unspeakable carnage, that has ripped apart the country, continue to demonstrate in the streets, bravely demanding an end to the regime. The facts on the ground are too complicated.

Anna Lekas Miller is a journalist in Istanbul who covers Syria, Turkey and other countries in the Middle East

On Twitter: @agoodcuppa