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Syria: Reasserting Dignity in the US Antiwar Movement
[Note: I'm publishing this with no edits, but with a note from myself at the end, as I think this article may serve as a useful corrective to various mistakes but am convinced it makes a few of its own. --David Swanson]
By Andy Berman
After 5 years of intense bloody conflict in Syria, resulting so far in the death of half a million people, the severe injury of millions more, the destruction of major parts of the nation’s housing and infrastructure and the displacement of 12 million persons, literally half the nation’s population, it is abundantly clear that the entity that calls itself the “US antiwar movement” has failed.
The US antiwar movement contributed significantly to ending the US war in Vietnam, and successfully prevented a US invasion of Nicaragua, and gave tremendous solidarity to the people of El Salvador in their struggle against their death-squad government. It made a major contribution of solidarity to the South African people in the struggle against apartheid.
But its record to date in mitigating the violence in Syria, much less helping to bring about a just solution to the conflict, is one of abject failure. It is also, in the opinion of millions of Syrians, a great betrayal.
After 5 years of death and destruction, following an initially non-violent uprising against a brutal dictatorship, there is no legitimate excuse for concerned antiwar activists to say they are still “confused” by the conflict, and to hold back from condemning the ongoing war crimes that occur on a nearly daily basis in Syria today. Bloodshed and conflict are occurring in a number of places around the globe. But in its scope of violence, its years of unceasing slaughter, its extent of civilian suffering, Syria arguably leads the pack. Syria should be very high on the agenda of peace and justice organizations.
But it isn’t, and the way that Syria is addressed by many US antiwar groups, seeing the US government as main perpetrator, is grossly inaccurate. The criminal Assad regime, and the massive military support it receives from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are let off the hook.
Yes, the conflict in Syria is complex. Yes, it is convoluted. Yes, the opposition to the brutal Syrian regime has been polluted by the intervention of myriad outside forces with their own agendas. Yes, the rise of ISIS in the void created by the conflict has added a major new complication.
But serious antiwar activists should not be intimated by these complexities. Indeed, honest peacemakers are required by their stated moral commitments to examine carefully, to follow news developments from a wide range of sources, and to listen to the voices of the different parties of a conflict. And above all, in the case of Syria, it is incumbent on serious peacemakers not to manipulate the factual evidence when that evidence contradicts a preset ideological position, a popular belief, or a party line.
Many in the US antiwar movement apparently find comfort in viewing the Syrian conflict as “just another case of US imperialist intervention,” following a pattern we have seen of US aggression against Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chile, and other places. But Syria is Syria. Contrary to popular myth, it is not “another Libya” or “another Iraq”.
Evidence and reports from very reliable sources show that the greatest portion of the death and destruction, the greatest portion of war crimes, the greatest portion of the crimes against humanity in Syria today come from the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers. Making this point explicitly, Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 2008 to 2014, stated the following:
Atrocities by the Syrian government far outweigh crimes by the opposition fighters. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime is mostly responsible for the human rights offenses…. Both sides’ abuses should be documented and brought to the International Criminal Court, but you cannot compare the two. Clearly the actions of the forces of the government far outweigh the violations – killings, cruelty, persons in detention, disappearances, far outweigh those by the opposition. (Associated Press, 9 April 2014)
Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International recently stated the following:
“Syrian and Russian forces have been deliberately attacking health facilities in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. But what is truly egregious is that wiping out hospitals appears to have become part of their military strategy” (Amnesty Press Release, March 2016)
To these reports, and the great body of collaborating evidence of Assad and Russia’s war crimes, US antiwar activists have a variety of responses:
One common response is overt denial and explicit support for the horrific Assad regime as a “legitimate government.” The argument is made that the insurrection and opposition against Assad was, and remains, a CIA plot. When UNAC, the “United National Antiwar Coalition,” at its March 13, 2016 demonstration in NYC included a contingent wearing T-shirts with Assad’s portrait from the overtly pro-Assad “Syrian American Forum” a cosponsor of the UNAC action, UNAC again exposed itself as a backer of Assad, as it has on previous occasions.
When a US delegation went to Syria and blessed the rigged June 2014 presidential “elections”, the delegation included members of Workers World Party, Freedom Road /Antiwar Committee, and the International Action Center among others. These groups put themselves squarely in the Assad camp. Those who claim to be “antiwar” activists, but celebrate the massive Russian military intervention in Syria also fall in this camp.
A larger number of US antiwar activists do not explicitly support Assad. Yet, despite the consistent reports of the regimes war crimes from Doctors Without Border, Amnesty International, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights and other reliable sources, many antiwar activists refuse to condemn Assad’s crimes for fear of being viewed as supporters of the US military intervention.
Indeed, this has been my intense personal experience within Veterans for Peace. My advocacy for condemning the war crimes of ALL parties in Syria, including Assad, Russia and the US, was met with extreme hostility by some of the national leadership and others. The accusation that I was “promoting the US government’s policy of regime change” led to my banning from participation in internal VFP discussion boards, effectively expelling me from VFP after 20 years of activism in the organization.
What is particularly tragic is how many decent antiwar activists, some with long histories of determined, heroic commitment, allow the dogmatists, who hide behind a phony banner of “anti-imperialism”, to set the agenda for the antiwar movement. At that UNAC demonstration in New York, with the participation of overt supporters of the brutal dictator Assad, long time dedicated and deeply committed peace activist Kathy Kelly spoke. In the name of unity perhaps, she said not a word about Assad or Russia’s crimes in Syria while Assad’s flag and face was displayed in the crowd. In Veterans for Peace, once a proud mainstay of the US peace movement, in the name of unity (or perhaps out of habit), virtually all statements on Syria blame the conflict entirely on the US. That is an absurd position for anyone who has the most basic knowledge of Syria. This phenomenon is, unfortunately, quite common in antiwar groups in the US.
To be fair, there have been of late, a few cracks in the prevailing dogmatism that views the Syrian conflict only in terms of US intervention and the doctrine that Bashar al-Assad, as an “enemy of US imperialism” must not be criticized. Notably CODEPINK has made on its Facebook site occasional references to Assad as a brutal dictator, and David Swanson (“World Beyond War”, “War is a Crime”) has criticized those who celebrated Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria. Both deserve kudos for their stands, but also encouragement to broaden their understanding to see that a root cause of the slaughter in Syria is the Assad regime itself.
There are a few, but far too few, US antiwar activists, who chose to speak truth against ALL the war makers, not just those that fit an ideological mold. In homage to the magnificent US/El Salvador solidarity group “CISPES” of the 1980s, in at least three US cities chapters of the “Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria” (CISPOS) have arisen. In other places, groups supporting Syrian refugees with legislative pressure and fundraising are now taking place. Working with Syrian refugees both abroad and in the US is enlightening to US peace activists since those who have fled Syria are most often bitterly opposed to the Assad regime, and understand that it is the major cause of the Syrian tragedy.
Their failure to make an effective response to the absolute hell of the ongoing war in Syria, begs the question: “What Should US Antiwar Activists Do About Syria?”
Here then is my modest proposal for reasserting dignity to US antiwar movement regarding Syria.
- Antiwar groups and activists should strongly condemn ALL war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, regardless of the party that commits them. A Syrian mother, whose child has been blown apart by an Assad barrel bomb, feels no less anguish than she would if her child was killed by an American drone. The Syria reports of Doctors Without Borders, Physicians for Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees should be de rigueur reading for antiwar activists.
- It should be understood as fact that a large part of the Syrian population in the deepest part of their hearts, despises the Assad regime for its decades of depravity and repression, and its despicable disregard for civilian lives in its conduct of the war. And while Assad does have some measure of support in the population, he is absolutely incapable of being a unifying figure in a nation that desperately needs unifying leadership. While a vibrant antiwar movement finds room for considerable divergence of viewpoints, support for the abject despotism of the Assad regime has no place in a peace movement that claims ethical motivation.
- It is absolutely incumbent on antiwar activists that they get and stay well-informed on the history and current developments in the Syria conflict. It is a firm necessity to read widely, from a variety of sources, and different points of view, including those with we disagree. It is urgent that we hear the voices of Syrians and Syrian Americans. We would not dare decide our views and work on African-American issues without considerable input from African-Americans. Yet it is extremely rare for Syrian voices to be heard in many US antiwar organizations.
What is ironic is that there are Syrian-American communities and organizations across the US that are able and willing to dialog with US peace activists. The Syrian-American Council, easily found on the internet, is the largest organization of Syrian-Americans, with chapters across the USA. Other sources of Syrian news and viewpoints that are worth following include:
FACEBOOK: Day of Solidarity with Syria, Freedom for Syria and all people, Kafranbel Syrian Revolution, Radio Free Syria
- Given the enormous, nearly unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe engendered by the conflict in Syria, antiwar activists should feel obliged to spend part of their efforts on healing the wounds of war. Antiwar organizations should get involved in projects that provide medical aid, food and other humanitarian assistance to the millions of human beings that are suffering as a result of the Syria conflict. Projects of Doctors Without Borders, American Refugee Committee, the Syrian American Medical Society, White Helmets and others are in continual need of fundraising for their heroic humanitarian work.
- In our outreach work, including peace marches, demonstrations, forums and literature, antiwar groups should advocate renewed international negotiations to find a just settlement to the conflict in Syria. Our pressure should be directed at all the major participants to the conflict, including, but not limited to the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, Saudi, Qatar and the United States. To our own government in the United States, we should advocate serious bilateral negotiations with Russia putting on the table all the bargaining points that might lead to a settlement on Syria and an accord with Russia. These include trade issues, lifting sanctions, NATO pullbacks, etc. A comprehensive reduction in tensions between the US and Russia is in the interests of all humanity.
A just settlement to the Syrian conflict coming with honest advocacy from the US antiwar movement would restore the international respect that the US antiwar movement once had, but has lost over Syria. For all those who have put effort and part of their lives into antiwar work, no greater joy, no greater success can be imagined.
Note on the author: Andy Berman is a lifelong peace and justice activist, a Vietnam War resister (US Army 1971-73), active in solidarity work with the people of Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa, Palestine and Syria. He blogs at www.andyberman.blogspot.com
[Note from David Swanson: Thank you to Andy Berman for giving me and Code Pink a bit of credit in this article. I think more credit is do more groups and individuals. In particular, I think the public pressure in the U.S., UK, and elsewhere that stopped a massive U.S. bombing campaign of Syria in 2013 deserves a great deal of credit and far from being an example of a peace movement that has completely failed constitutes the most noteworthy success for peace of recent years. Of course it was incomplete. Of course the U.S. went ahead with arming and training and bombing on a much smaller scale. Of course Russia joined in, killing even more Syrians with its bombs than the United States was doing, and it was indeed deeply disturbing to see U.S. peace activists cheer for that. Of course the Syrian government went on with its bombings and other crimes, and of course it's disturbing that some refuse to criticize those horrors, just as it's disturbing that others refuse to criticize the U.S. or Russian horrors or both, or refuse to criticize Saudi Arabia or Turkey or Iran or Israel. All of this selectivity in moral outrage breeds suspicion and cynicism, so that when I criticize U.S. bombing I'm immediately accused of cheering for Syrian bombing. And when I read an article like this one that makes no mention of the 2013 bombing plan, no mention of Hillary Clinton's desired "no fly zone," no mention of her position that failure to massively bomb in 2013 was a mistake, etc., I have to struggle not to wonder why. Then when it comes to what we ought to do about this war, I'd love to have seen some acknowledgment that the party that has repeatedly blocked exactly what is proposed in point #5 (a negotiated settlement) has been the United States, including rejecting a Russian proposal in 2012 that included Assad stepping down -- rejected because the U.S. preferred a violent overthrow and believed it was imminent. I would also like to have seen greater recognition that people usually have the most influence over their own governments, as opposed to over the governments of others. I think one also has to have a view of U.S. imperialism to explain U.S. actions in Syria, including its failure to condemn Russian clusterbombs and incendiary bombs while U.S. cluster bombs are falling in Yemen, and while Fallujah is newly under seige. One has to have an understanding of Iraq and Libya to know where ISIS and its weapons and much of the weaponry of other fighters in Syria come from, as well as to understand the conflicted U.S. policy that can't choose between attacking the Syrian government or its enemies and that has resulted in CIA and DOD trained troops fighting each other. I also think a negotiated settlement has to include an arms embargo and that the greatest resistance to that comes from the greatest arms dealer. But I think the broader point here, that we should oppose and be aware of and work to end war, regardless of who is doing it, is the right one. And I think part of making that work will be both including a comprehensive list of criticisms of all parties in any mention we make of a conflict, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt rather than making accusing each other our top priority.]