Earlier this month in the Afghan city of Kunduz, the U.S. committed an apparent war crime. At some point in the early hours of Oct. 3, a U.S. gunship fired on a hospital run by Medicins Sans Frontieres, destroying the facility, killing 22 people and injuring over 30. There is no doubt of the criminality of this act—even if, as the U.S. and Afghani governments have suggested, the attack occurred due to Taliban militants having some presence within the hospital compound (a claim vigorously denied by eyewitnesses and victims), it was still a crime.
In the hours following the attack, many people of all political persuasions from around the world rightfully condemned it, but perhaps most vocal were those on the political left. Public outrage over war crimes is of course not just to be welcomed passively, but it can be actively useful in terms of demanding accountability from those who committed the crimes, while giving a voice to its victims. All too often, when it comes to activity against these acts of criminality, it is organizations, political parties, and individuals who identify with the left that lead the charge on these matters—the consequences of this can be impressive.
And the left are no longer marginal. The so-called “alternative media” is catching up with the mainstream media in terms of its reach, while political forces that identify as left-wing are now once again in the mainstream of politics, whether it’s forces like SYRIZA in Greece or Jeremy Corbyn’s new role as the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition in the U.K. What these people do and say now matters on a global scale. Millions of politically-aware people from around the world hang on every word that prominent leftists write and say, whether it’s a figure such as Glenn Greenwald, whose news site The Intercept has become the go-to place for so-called “anti-imperialists,” or a leading politician such as Corbyn.
For a self-identified leftist like me, you might think I’d be over the moon at the way things were steadily—or exponentially, if you consider the rise of the left in this era relative to its fate in the past two decades—developing for the global left, but you’d be wrong. For there’s a bitter catch to all this.
While today’s left is more than willing to speak about perceived Western crimes, it is all too often caught up in a type of politics that not only makes a virtue out of not condemning crimes committed by powerful non-Western actors, namely Russia, China, and Iran, but that often explicitly or implicitly supports such crimes.
There is a gruesomely perfect example of this hypocrisy that has been visible this month relating to the U.S. war crime in Kunduz. Since Russia decided to directly intervene on behalf of the Assad regime primarily against not ISIS, as it had stated, but rather the moderate rebel forces that fight both the Assad regime and ISIS, it has carried out no less than four confirmed attacks on medical facilities, while it has also deliberately targeted ambulances. The reaction of the left to Kunduz was one of near apoplectic outrage, but among none of the major organizations or individuals of the left will you find even a quotidian acknowledgement of the continued attacks by Russia on medical facilities in Syria.
As I write this, the news came through of yet another bombing attack by Russia on a medical facility in Syria. This time it was a field hospital run by the Syrian-American Medical Society in rebel-held Sarmin in northern Syria, a place that has already endured an ungodly barrage of barrel bombs and chemical weapons from the Assad regime. At least 12 people were killed in the attack and, as with many of these attacks on hospitals, it appears to have been a so-called “double tap,” wherein the first responders to the initial bombing are then targeted by a second bombing.
Among the left, you won’t hear a word about this, just like you won’t find a word of condemnation regarding the over 300 medical facilities targeted by the regime since the beginning of the revolution. Or if you do, it’s more likely to be a repetition or some variant of the surreal, sneering denial issued by Russian irector of the information and press Maria Zakharova, who likened those who bravely report these atrocities to hapless waiters “in a pizzeria.” This almost sums up how the left and alternative media have reacted not just to the hospital bombings, but the entire Syrian revolution and subsequent civil war. Not with solidarity or any sense of meaningful internationalism towards those facing the combined forces of the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia, but with a deep conservative suspicion, willful ignorance, sudden attacks of apolitical irreverence or, once again, that deafening silence.
Take, for example, Glenn Greenwald. After Kunduz, Greenwald wrote at least two articles on the subject and tweeted extensively about it—attempting to cover every detail and hold the perpetrators responsible. This is what progressives do best, isn’t it? Try to give a voice to victims caught up in imperialist war? Well, it turns out that it’s only some imperialist wars.
In his first article, Greenwald could barely contain the excitement of having caught the U.S. out—here the Obama administration had condemned Russia for civilian casualties resulting from its airstrikes against the Syrian rebels on Oct. 2, but then carried out this war crime in Kunduz on Oct. 3. Greenwald was right. There is genuine hypocrisy there, but the difference is that nowhere in any of Greenwald’s output will you find actual recognition of the victims of the Russian strikes and the circumstances that led to their deaths. The mention of Syrian casualties of Russian strikes by Greenwald features only as a means to point out U.S. hypocrisy.
And this gets to the heart of the matter—Syrians facing brutality from the Assad regime and Russia can’t feature among the left because they are deemed to be unworthy of support due to their real or imagined proximity to the West. By some delusional twist, Syrians fighting for liberation are deemed to be the aggressors representing imperialism, while the Assad regime and Russia are seen as being the resistance to such imperialism. Amidst all the destruction wrought by the Syrian war, one perhaps small though significant casualty is the idea that the left could overcome the contradictions of its own history to reaffirm its founding principles.
It claims to oppose Islamophobia, yet you can read a wide range of leftist writers invoking visceral appeals to Islamophobia and orientalism by essentializing the Syrian rebels as “jihadis,” with deliberate obscurity. It claims to oppose the “war on terror,” yet the Manichean logic of the Bush era is reproduced in support of Russia’s intervention. It claims to be “anti-imperialist,” yet you have no less a figure as Noam Chomsky so absurdly and pathetically claim that Russia’s intervention in Syria is not “imperialist” since “it’s supporting a government,” while he endorses the conservative “realism” of Patrick Cockburn, whose writing has often come down on the side of the Assad regime.
The brutal array of crimes committed by the Assad regime, Iran and Russia against the Syrian people are swept aside in some imagined geopolitical game that leftists think is unfolding. The Assad regime is brutal, they often concede, but its opponents are worse—Islamofascist stooges of U.S. imperialism or, even more worryingly, “Zionism,” that are working towards various nefarious ends. Once that logic or a variant of it is accepted (and even to a figure as superficially plausible as Chomsky, these calculations are the very essence of his cold stand on Syria) crimes against Syrians by the regime or Russia can be abstracted, ignored or actively supported.
Proponents of this view justify their lack of care or activity over Russian crimes in Syria by saying that “the main enemy is at home,” meaning that it’s someone who lives in America’s responsibility to hold its own government to account. But this doesn’t adequately describe their own positions—all too often, these forces cross over from this alleged pragmatism to equivocation, denial, and support when it comes to the crimes being committed by forces like Russia.
However, with regard to Russian crimes in Syria, this anachronistic Stalinist orthodoxy simply just doesn’t hold. In fact, it directly defies that old leftist principle of internationalism and finds more in common with conservative isolationism. Internationalism is about breaking down the barriers that separate people and uniting struggles around the world—it’s not about constructing these delusional, byzantine buffers that determine which struggles we can and can’t support.
If that is indeed to be a feature of the dominant form of leftism in the modern era, one which determines that one can be outraged by an American war crime in Kunduz but not a Russian one in Sarmin—I want no part of it.
Sam Charles Hamad is an Edinburgh-based writer.