Thursday, 31 October 2013

Voices for Syria – Time to Start Listening

A major round of Syrian solidarity activities has recently taken place across Britain. Three weeks ago there was a tour of 4 cities (London, Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow) by a group of musicians performing under the banner “Voices for Syria”. It included the well-known Syrian-American hip-hop artist Omar Effendum, and the Libyan-American rapper Khalid M.

 My wife and I went to the Manchester “Voices for Syria” event, which raised some £38 000 for Syrian humanitarian relief. It was attended by several hundred enthusiastic young people from the local Syrian and Muslim communities. For several hours they sang and chanted in unison to express their support for the struggle for freedom and democracy in Syria. The event was focused on raising funds for the support of children orphaned in the conflict, so it was not overtly political, but you can’t highlight what is happening to people in Syria without raising the issue of who is responsible for it, and these young people were certainly aware of the political issues. There were several high points to the evening: for me the best were Omar Effendum’s street rap devoted to the world’s oldest street – “Straight Street” (Damascus) – in which he cast his gaze over a millennium of Arab history and cultural achievements to a rapturous reception. Then there was the young British-Mozambiquan musician Mohammed Yahya who produced a lyrical weaving together of the experience of Palestinians and Syrians, both suffering under ruthless bombardments (making connections that I had never thought of). And, then the self-identifying Kentuckian, Khaled M., who led the audience in an enthusiastic chant of “Syria, Syria will be free.” I couldn’t help thinking – I’d love to see a couple of the advocates of “the clash of civilisations” forced to sit through these proceedings to witness what really happens when cultures coexist over a long period, giving birth to new generations – how they intertwine, enrich each other, and produce these marvellous new forms. The only disappointment of the evening was the lack of a significant presence from outside the Muslim communities – fewer than a dozen of us in total. Even more striking was the total absence of the left - not even the usual obligatory paper seller. I could only conclude that the local left was not even aware this event was taking place – and I doubt that the situation was very different in the other venues. Yet this came just a few weeks after three left organisations had issued a joint statement in support of the Syrian revolution. Unfortunately, the evidence of my eyes at this event suggest that this was little more than hot air.

This statement was issued on 30 August, the day before thousands of people marched through the streets of British cities under the slogan of “No Attack on Syria” and the day Parliament voted, under the influence of public pressure and scepticism among MPs of all parties, to reject a Government motion which would have allowed British support for retaliatory action against the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. From one point of view, this was a victory for British democracy of near historic proportions – for the first time, at least since the anti-Vietnam war movement of the late 60s, a mass popular movement managed to exercise some control on that holiest of domains of the modern state – foreign and security policy. But if 30 August represented a major gain for British democracy, we need to recognise that it is being paid for as you read these words with the blood of the Syrian people. In the two months between the parliamentary vote on 30 August and today the Syrian regime has killed a further 3000 civilians, including 650 children: most of them in the shelling and bombing of civilian settlements, but including 250 under torture, and 200 in “field executions”(i.e. shot by the roadside).

This is a debt which needs to be repaid by the organisation of active solidarity with the Syrian struggle: support for humanitarian aid, both private and official; pressure on the government to provide more support for Syrian refugees and asylum seekers; a systematic effort to educate the public on what is actually going on in Syria; and a serious discussion about what other options there are to defend the Syrian people from this murderous regime. Those in Britain who care for the cause of democracy should not confine their concern to these shores, nor is it right to leave the work of supporting our Syrian brothers and sisters to the Syrian community.
The left – which claims to have an internationalist vision - should be in the forefront of building solidarity with Syria: so far there is little sign of that, but I can continue to hope. I have commented elsewhere on the weakness of Syrian solidarity activity in this country contrasted with the much more serious response of the French left. But all is not gloom: there are several small but significant initiatives taking place in different parts of the country, which I will be highlighting in coming weeks.
In order to try and make some small contribution to these efforts, I am revamping this blog to focus on solidarity issues and news from the Syrian civil opposition (along with occasional analytic pieces on important issues). This is a work in progress – so the site may mutate subtly from week to week. I hope it will eventually become a useful tool for an emerging Syria Solidarity movement.

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