In the course of the last two weeks, since the end of the so called “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, over 250,000 people living in East Aleppo have been subjected to an unprecedented barrage of bombing, targeting hospitals, schools, and even the underground shelters they have built to protect themselves from previous assaults.
These events have received widespread attention from the world’s media, which heretofore had been obsessed mostly with ISIS, and one factor contributing to that has been the attention attracted by the civil defence force that operates within opposition areas, known as the “White Helmets. These heroic individuals were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and were the subject of a powerful documentary broadcast to wide acclaim on Netflix.
This has generated fury in the pro-Assad camp because the focus on the White Helmets also means a focus on the desperate situation of the inhabitants of opposition communities in Syria and the criminal efforts of the regime and its allies to crush their spirit. For the past 18 months the pro-regime camp has sought to denigrate the White helmets and anyone who tries to promote public awareness of what is happening Syria.
Recently, they have been joined by someone called Max Blumenthal. I have never heard of Blumenthal but I understand that he is regarded as someone of significance in the US left, and since he has a lot to say about the movement that I am involved in, I feel the need to respond to what he has had to say.
The first thing to note about Blumenthal is his pervasive paternalism. His paternalism towards Syrians has been dealt with very effectively by Marcel Shehwaro of Kesh Malek, who is well placed to express the views of both the victims of the Syrian regime’s oppression and the popular, democratic resistance to it.
Blumenthal extends his paternalism to the international movement of solidarity with Assad’s victims – and that means he is treading on my toes, so I feel entitled to voice a protest which I believe would be shared by the many thousands who have taken to the streets around the world to support Aleppo and the other centres of resistance to Assad and his allies.
Blumenthal says the following about the demonstrations that took place in September-October of this year to protest against the onslaught on Aleppo.
On September 30, demonstrators gathered in city squares across the West for a “weekend of action” to “stop the bombs” raining down from Syrian government and Russian warplanes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Thousands joined the protest … Few participants likely knew that the actions were organized under the auspices of an opposition-funded public relations company called the Syria Campaign … The group is able to operate within the halls of power in Washington and has the power to mobilise thousands of demonstrators into the streets. (my emphasis)
This seems to imply that we were all naïve dupes being led by the nose by some “shadowy” force – I haven’t heard charges like that since the days of the anti-Vietnam war movement, when right wing commentators portrayed us as all as tools of a “shadowy” Communist Party. And they are as nonsensical now as they were then.
Blumenthal professes a fondness for facts, so let me provide a little factual history .The international Syria solidarity movement emerged initially in a series of spontaneous actions (mostly flash mobs) that took place across the world in town centres, high schools and universities in the course of 2011-12. You Tube has a good record of these (its counter says 100, 000 but the real number is probably fewer than that) Most- but not all – were organised by young members of the Syrian diaspora. I think the kudos for being the first organised solidarity group goes to the Toronto-based Like for Syria which was established in January 2011, and has done amazing awareness raising work in the streets of Toronto. This was followed closely by Leeds Friends of Syria, established in the UK later that year.
As the situation in Syria unfolded, it had an impact in the international left and solidarity mileux which began to differentiate between those for whom “anti-imperialism” was a mechanical mantra that would lead them to embrace brutal dictatorships on geopolitical grounds (much like western “realist” policy makers), and those whose anti-imperialism rested on a bedrock of internationalism and support for the oppressed and their struggles.
The anti-imperialism of internationalists (Argentina)
“We support those who are in struggle across the world”
The first round of global demonstrations for Syria took place in June 2011 and March 2012 (this seemed to worry the Syrian regime so much that they sponsored their own “Global March for Syria in 2012) and regular international solidarity events followed. The movement was greatly strengthened by the Declaration of Solidarity issued by the World Social Forum in 2013.That May groups like the Brazilian metalworkers union came on board, and by May 2014, solidarity demonstrations were taking place in 28 cities worldwide, including 3 in Palestine, several across Latin America, in Bucharest, and in Mauritius.
In my own home ground, Britain, members of the Syrian community took part in the first Global campaign in 2012. A broader coalescing of activists emerged in late 2013 in response to a decision by an alleged anti-war movement to host a notorious regime apologist. At the same time numerous individuals were using their moral compasses to chart clear positions of support for the Syrian struggle. Personal contacts developed into Facebook networking, which led to a conference in early 2014 (inspired by a similar conference in in the US) by which point we were ready to “send our love to Syria”.
As our movement consolidated itself we extended our contacts with groups and individuals in Europe and North America and encouraged the formation of similar networks. When the Syria Campaign emerged in the summer of 2014 we were very pleased to see them: they brought to the work on which we were already embarked additional resources and useful media skills (Although we had some significant achievements of our own in that respect). We have worked very positively with the Syria campaign for the past two years in our common cause of enhancing public awareness and promoting support for the besieged people of Syria. We value their contribution immensely – but the grass roots work of building an international network for Syrian solidarity is first and foremost our achievement- and Blumenthal’s attempt to take that away from us in order to construct his petty, distorted narrative is offensive.
The 2016 demonstrations that Blumenthal cites were the latest in this long series of solidarity initiatives. You can track their rich diversity in 41 cities across the world through this page Once more the work of the Syria Campaign, was helpful, but I doubt that their writ carried much weight in Reykjavik, or with Valencian anarchists.
Max Blumenthal’s problem is that he is stuck in the sand of the last century – in the 21st century social movements do not develop hierarchically under tree-like “auspices” (despite Blumenthal’s co-thinkers in pro regime circles, who regard George Soros as the Elder behind them all including Occupy Wall Street.). They flourish as largely flat networks – more expressively they are rhizomatic (this reference to the rhizome will be understood by social theorists and gardeners alike, but for those who are neither, a rhizome has been described as “a continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.” Yes – that’s just the right metaphor to capture our essential properties (indeed, the Jasmine flower – the symbol of Syria’s Dignity Revolution – is the outgrowth of a rhizome).
Let me offer just one small example of rhizomatic flourishing. Blumenthal, in his tirade against the Syria campaign, links to a Facebook page for a demonstration in Amsterdam, which is being called under the handle #AleppoHolocaust. The earliest manifestation of this handle and its associated logo seems to be a twitter campaign conducted on 30 September. The work of a “shadowy” Syria Campaign? Nope: just another rhizome bursting into the light – a group of Iranians – Iran Arab Spring – opposed to Iran’s intervention in Syria (They also carry posts in Catalan.)
Max Blumenthal presents himself as an intrepid investigative reporter bringing dark deeds to light. Yet he has totally missed the real lifeworld of global Syrian solidarity: just compare his arid, conspiratorial account of our movement with the vibrant reality I have portrayed above.
The reason is not hard to find - Blumenthal is hunting for us in trees, while we are busy cultivating rhizomes.