Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The left should not be reluctant to condemn despots like Assad and Putin

There has been a worrying response to the latest chemical attack in Syria

Anti-fascism has a proud history on the left. Over the past century, British socialists have fought fascism across Europe – even repelling Oswald Mosley and his goose-steppers in London’s East End during the 1930s. These battles have been fought in the name of liberty, democracy, and peace. Fascist regimes across the continent, hell-bent on expanding their influence and persecuting minorities, were confronted by a movement committed to defending the victimised and ensuring peace.

Yet this anti-fascist zeal has, seemingly, been abandoned by many modern-day socialists. In recent days, reports have surfaced of a chemical attack on the Syrian city of Douma. The details of the attack have been reported by several medical, monitoring and activist groups, with 70 reported dead. The Union of Medical Relief Organizations, an America charity that works with Syrian hospitals, says people are being treated for convulsions and foaming of the mouth, consistent with nerve or mixed nerve and chlorine gas exposure.

All the signs indicate that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was behind the attack. The United Nations has explicitly blamed Assad for deploying chemical attacks in the past – attacks that killed hundreds of civilians in areas like Talmenes and Salmin.

Despite this, the response of many has been equivocal, bordering on conspiratorial. In a statement issued on Sunday evening, an anonymous Labour source reacted by saying: ‘it is vital and urgent that there is a full and independent investigation of this reported attack, and that anyone found responsible for using chemical weapons is brought to justice.’

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They went on: ‘The Syrian people have suffered too long from the atrocities and brutality of this war, whether committed by the Assad regime, by Jihadist militias, or by their respective international supporters.’

Of course, a degree of caution is warranted in the aftermath of a chemical attack. We need to use every possible resource to confirm responsibility for the attack, and an independent investigation is welcome. Yet Assad’s culpability is hard to refute. He is a murderous tyrant, willing to butcher his own citizens to maintain his grip on power. He has used chemical weapons before, and – if given the opportunity – he will again. Labour’s immediate response, which avoided pinning blame on Assad, was ill-judged at best; shameful at worse.

The Labour leadership, and its cheerleaders, have also refrained from condemning Vladimir Putin, who continues to prop up Assad’s regime. In fact, Labour’s statement made no reference to Putin or Russia whatsoever. The traditional left, which underlines its anti-war credentials at every opportunity, has failed to denounce a homicidal despot and his tyrannical best mate.

This is a sad state of affairs. Foreign intervention is currently unpopular in Britain and across the Western world. The Iraq war taught us many lessons, and they are widely recognised by the centre-left. However, we must be careful not to learn the wrong lesson: believing that the West is malevolent, and that despots should be tolerated.

You cannot claim to support peace while instinctively parroting the rhetoric of Putin and Assad. It is evident that they are the orchestrators of violence in the Middle East, and the response of all individuals on left should be unequivocal. Our anti-fascist credentials should not simply be empty slogans.


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