Why are there no demonstrations in Paris against the violence in Syria? A friend who knows the French anti-war movement went on to supply an answer: because the French left is deeply divided between those who support the popular revolt and many others who see in the Syrian regime the last anti-imperialist Arab regime.
This confusion is not limited to France. The same can be said about the anti-war movements in Britain or Australia (where in Sydney, as Syria's air-force and artillery was pounding the poor neighbourhoods of Aleppo, demonstrators demanded: "hands off Syria!"). This internal divide has little to do with what is happening in Syria or the region itself, and more to do with the left's own deep crisis of vision and theoretical clarity.
When the "Arab spring" gained momentum in early 2011, there was rejoicing among leftist intellectuals, third-worldists, and self-declared anti-imperialists of various shades. A popular movement had overthrown two dictatorships (in Tunisia and Egypt) which for decades - in the name of fighting against Islamist extremism - collaborated with western states and repressed their own populations. Over Bahrain, it now became easy to condemn a western-blessed Saudi intervention that helped suppress a popular movement calling for equal rights and democratic freedoms. But things got complicated in Libya, when the threatening approach towards and into Benghazi by Muammar Gaddafi's military forces led to urgent calls for protection of civilians; this opened the way to Nato's aerial power, with the Arab League and the United Nations providing the necessary justification.
The Nato campaign in Libya provoked a deep debate within the left. For a decade and more, the left had focused its efforts on opposing successive United States military interventions in the middle east. The protests against the Iraq war in 2003 were especially huge, with broad public opinion as well as the left disbelieving the official version that Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" and alleged links with al-Qaida posed a danger, and (when these two arguments were discredited) that the war was all about bringing democracy to Iraq. For a large part of the western public, and even more beyond, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were triggered by efforts to maintain global domination, and in the case of Iraq to plunder the rich (oil) resources of the Arab and Muslim world.
In Libya, much of the left (if no longer of the western public) had the same attitude: this was an imperialist intervention that sought to control the country's oil. Even those leftists (like Gilbert Achcar) who defended the right of Libyans to ask for outside protection in the face of the danger of immediate massacre, while remaining critical of Nato action beyond this criteria, were strongly attacked.
War vs. revolution
Syria deepened the divisions of an already divided left. There is little agreement on how to describe events there "in the final analysis". Perhaps it is a revolution already stolen by imperialist forces and their local agents (as Tariq Ali suggests), or could it still be a popular revolution by those demanding political freedoms who are being heavily repressed by a dictatorial regime?
The more sceptical attitudes towards the uprising in Syria are informed by a deep suspicion towards the west's official policies in the middle east that draws on the experience of the last decade. This suspicion informs the reporting of some leading western journalists. Rainer Hermann, the correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote two articles on the Houla massacre of 108 civilians in May 2012, half of them women and children, that not only questioned the dominant narration but actually suggested that the killings were perpetrated by rebel fighters themselves.
Hermann relied on interviews with one or two "witnesses" in Damascus, and quotes the infamous Sister Agnes to support his argument about rebel violence, rather than doing any in-depth research himself; even the detailed United Nations investigation, based on dozens of interviews with eye-witnesses, was not enough to convince him to revise his exculpation of the Syrian authorities.