Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Syria: the ‘extremist dilemma’

As we hurtle towards the third year anniversary of the conflict in Syria it is time to address how extremists are increasingly centre-stage.

Let us consider two moments in the conflict in Syria. Last September, when it looked to the entire world that the United States was about to strike the country, Senator Ted Cruz criticised President Barack Obama’s efforts saying the U3S military shouldn’t be ‘al-Qaida’s air force.’ Last week Syrian rebels issued a plea to the West to supply them with arms and supplies. However what made this plea different from the numerous previous ones was that the weapons were requested to fight al-Qaida linked groups.

The presence of ‘extremists’ within the rebel opposition has been a critical factor in the arguments of the regime, its allies and those in the west who warn that the conflict has no good guys and is best avoided. The price of inaction is well known, over 120,000 dead, over half a million wounded and almost half the country displaced from their homes. Today there are almost more Syrians living outside of Syria than in the country. It’s time to acknowledge that the narrative born largely of the ‘War on Terror’ continues to dominate the British public’s view of the Syrian Opposition and therefore options around our greater involvement in the conflict.

Those who claim ownership of and expertise on our wars have helped to create a clear divide between ‘good’ violence – as far as that’s possible in a state’s use of force – against ‘bad’ violence from non-state actors. Subsequently following a legacy of the Israel-Palestine conflict, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq public opinion is more fearful of non-state groups than brutal rogue states. Non-state groups are regularly labelled ‘terrorists’ – perhaps one of the most contentious words of our generation. Academic Alex Schmid has identified 109 different definitions of the word terrorism. American Journalist Terry Anderson, who was held hostage for six years during the Lebanon civil war, raged against the use of the word – claiming that it was a pejorative expression that should either be applied to all sides in the conflict or not at all. The late Professor Fred Halliday, a master of 10 languages, described terrorism as ‘above all in the Middle East, a subject of such distortion and myth that it is impossible to establish a balanced discussion of it’. Veteran Independent correspondent Robert Fisk wrote in Pity the Nation that ‘terrorism no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. “Terrorists” are those who use violence against the side that is using the word’.

There is some irony that the word ‘terrorism’ dates from the French Revolution, where it was originally used to refer to the use of terror by governments against their own population. Today the roles are very much reversed and the Syrian regime frequently uses the word, asserting that the upcoming Geneva 2 peace conference should be about ‘combating terrorism’. Assad has been clever. By articulating his repression of what were originally peaceful protests as a battle of a government against ‘terrorists’ he has spoken in the same terms as those who have launched and sustained the western global fight against ‘terrorists’.

What is more, with the media finding it almost impossible to report properly on the conflict due to safety concerns, it is extremely difficult to know who rebel groups really are. Osama Bin Laden’s greatest legacy is perhaps in creating a franchise that can seemingly be owned or applied to anyone. The phrase ‘groups linked to al-Qaida’ paints a broad brush over the plethora of different organisations that are fighting in Syria. If you have a beard, chant religious language and are wielding an AK-47 you fit into what looks and sounds like the accepted profile of an al-Qaida terrorist. We seem to have given up wanting to understanding beyond that.

And herein lies the dilemma. Syrian extremists dominate coverage just as much as a Ukip councillor saying something stupid about sexuality will garner far more headlines than the moderate Labour councillors getting on with their jobs all across the country. The Syrian moderate voice, in a country of poets, doctors, businessmen and beyond, has been almost completely absent from the story of the conflict. The predictable disorganisation of a Syrian opposition emerging from decades of oppressive Ba’athist rule should not mean that it should be simply hijacked by extremists and left to suffer the barrel bombs and nerve gas attacks unaided.

2014 is a crucial year for Syria. The Geneva 2 conference this month and its aftermath is the moment to challenge the current story of the conflict. Those in the foreign policy community must take the difficult step of refusing to allow Assad’s binary of ‘with us or with the terrorists’ to continue unchallenged. The conflict is rapidly becoming the defining one for a generation and we must transition from being horrified onlookers to active players in bringing it to a close.


James Denselow is a Labour councillor, foreign policy expert, and co-author with Sam Hardy of the pamphlet published by Progress The Future of Labour’s Foreign Policy


Photo: Freedom House

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James Denselow

is a councillor in the London borough of Brent


  • Good article & let us say 2013 was not a good year for those of us who do not want to see the Labour Party retreat from humanitarianism and internationalism. Our record on Syria has been pitiful, apologetic and weak. Retreating last year because of other past events and other wars or hiding behind the semi-dictator Putin and the Russians was simply retreatism. Socialists, democrats, social democrats, whatever.. in the 21st century do not look the other way or sit on their hands when Syrian children, their mothers, their menfolk , their relatives are bombed, shot, mutilated, gassed, tortured, killed when fighting an abhorrent dictator who has broken so many humanitarian laws…the continuing horrors unfolding can be placed in some ways at the feet of the appeasers, the isolationists, the non-interventionists here in the west who had their hollow victory.

  • “…almost more Syrians *living outside of Syria than in the country” [above article] and UNs Ban ki-Moon said today that half the Syrian population [9.3m] needed aid urgently. About 3 months ago [we] in UK were about to assist USA, boots and all, to Police-up Syria.(Q): Where are the other circa *10m Syrians residing as expats? In UK/USA?Europe?(Q): Why aren’t they back ‘home’ in Damascus helping their brothers and sisters? (A):Because of the threat of WAR.[You can almost see why some voters in UK may agree with neanderthal-politicians at UKIP and BNP when they see UK as the Salvation-Army-Hostel for Political Refugees from all over the world. United Kingdom’s infrastructure is creaking at the seams with unchecked border controls allowing 000’s in from anywhere -this Govt’s cutbacks on Customs staff = fewer border checks at air and sea ports- ONS/DWP stat’s on foreign immigrants’ numbers currently residing in UK can be doubled, maybe even trebled, who knows, quadrupled?].. And Syria is one of many, many MANY! War-torn states who have whole swathes of their populations gone AWOL in especially United Kingdom.You can bet your bottom $ that the USA & Eu nations are not as lax as us Brits are on borders’ control. If G2 ‘talks’ achieves anything right this time round, it will be to make [eg] Syria [and other war-torn States] Terrorist free – first defining who the Terrorists are might be a good START! [God help us] a safer place to live for home-coming expats. The advocates of sending in more troops to Syria and blitzing 5 buckets of crap out of the innocent civilian population [collateral damage is always expected and seemingly acceptable]. It will be very disappointing if the only ‘result’ that is shown from upcoming Geneva2 [sounds like a snazzy Boutique] is to send in troops making Syria un-liveable thereby forcing more Syrian poets, doctors and lawyers to flee the country for the UK The majority of Syrians don’t have the cash for a bus ticket or loaf of bread let alone $2500 for an airplane ride out. Read up on Damascean history down the ages – not always been a hotbed of violence. They can get it right left to their own devices. War accomplishes bugger all.
    The Secretary General at United Nations, Mr ban ki-Moon, should consider moving his HQ to Europe[?] Geneva may be would be a good site. I don’t see many bi-lateral talks taking place in NYC as only half the debate is ever heard.

  • How does Denselow assess the cost of ‘action’? Like the other moralistic warmongers, he assumes that the UK has some right to govern the entire world. He expects to find ‘good guys’ to support! The Sierra Leone intervention (Blair: the rules don’t matter because the good guys won’) was fought under the influence, if not the aegis, of the diamond monopolists, and this ‘victory’ supercharged the weasel phrase of the ‘ethical dimension’ for the itch so many ‘humanitarians’ and ‘internationalists’ have to recreate the British Empire whether through the UN – in effect a tool of US imperialism – or through fawning on George Bush, and destroying any state the Iraqi people managed to create. Rashid Ali’s uprising against the British Empire was of course dismissed as pro-Nazi and the ceaseless British puppet-mastery in Iraqi politics gave patriots little option but to support the Ba’ath from whatever distance could be achieved. Saddam Hussein, like Gaddafi, may be pardoned for appeasing the Anglo-American warmongers, even for reneging on secular nationalism and resorting to Muslim piety in politics – but to no avail. Over two years ago Assad attempted to dissolve the Ba’ath political monopoly in reality; he did so on paper but Denselow’s good guys refused this offer long before Islamists assumed a major role in the eventual insurrection. Denselow and Little share Blair’s fatuous notion that for major imperial powers to overhrow any petty dictator who happens to become a convenient target is ‘a left wing thing to do. Stealing the clothes of the International Brigade is a peculiarly distasteful manoeuvre on the part of the Robin Cook/Tony Blair world-rulers. The International Brigaders put their own lives and indeed money on the line in support of an elected government; the cruise missile ‘humanitarians’ swindle British squaddies into killing and dying to instal some puppet a la Jan Smuts, Faisal,, Nuri-es-Said, Reza Pahlavi Shahs. Kuwaiti oil-grabbers, Benghazi murderous rapist et hoc genus omne عيد ميلاد مجيد (Arabic for Happy Christmas)

  • I reject everything you say – nor are we talking about UK only as you know France, Denmark and USA were eager to challenge Russia’s opposition to intervention following the Syrian state gassing of 1000’s of Syrian citizens last year. Moral yes of course like our intervention against Nazi’s or the horrors which took place in Serbis-Bosnia. This Syrian civil war becomes more serious as it goes on given its placement next to Israel and Iran etc., but most of all the suffering of its families. You look away others cannot. Moral yes like saving Holocaust victims was moral or the Vietnamese saving Cambodia from Pol Pot. Humanity does intervene to save Humanity. Soldiers pulled out the starving semi-dead from Auschwitz not armchair moaning isolationists.

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