Some possibilities for the future
The needs of Syrian people come first
The evidence has continued to mount that the Syrian Air Force dropped Sarin gas on Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province in Syria on April 4th, 2017 killing at least 80 people and seriously wounding hundreds. Evidence includes eyewitness accounts, statements by doctors and other medical personnel in Turkey who treated the wounded, statements by various scientific organizations that it was Sarin gas dropped from the air, the past use of Sarin by the Assad regime in 2013 gas and the implausibility and obvious falsehoods of the Russians and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad about the attack. It is disheartening that so many on the left deny that Syria did these horrific killings or say we have no idea who did it. Although there is close to but not 100% proof of the Syrian government carrying out this horrendous attack, I fear that those who deny or cast doubt on Syrian government responsibility would not accept any evidence that challenges their preconceived notions and ideology.
I also disagree with many people who reduce Syria and the war there to geopolitics and begin and end their position by being opposed to any U.S. military intervention in Syria. The arguments against U.S. military intervention in Syria and other countries are very strong but they are not absolute nor is the U.S. the only aggressor in other countries. The U.S. is the major aggressor globally and given that we live in the United States, it is our main responsibility to oppose our interventions. Nonetheless, for people or organizations, which are committed to global solidarity, we should not ignore extreme oppression and repression of people in other countries. This is not saying the United States government should intervene militarily but that we, the people, should carefully examine what is going on and consider ways that social movements can be in solidarity with democratic and left struggles; that intervention although almost always wrong is not an absolute.
My starting point in thinking about Syria and suggesting actions and demands is the needs of the Syrian people, realizing they are important differences among Syrians. We should ask ourselves if there is anything that can be done by people in the United States or that we can demand of the U.S. government to reduce their suffering and increase their possibility for justice and peace? With a quarter of the Syrian population refugees in other countries, desperate enough to risk their lives in transit and knowing that they are usually not welcomed in the countries they seek refuge in. Another quarter are internally displaced by the war and at least 250,000 Syrian civilians have been killed since 2011. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, http://SN4HR.org, a credible source, 90% of the documented deaths of civilians in Syria since 2011 have been caused by the Syrian government or by the Russians bombing in support of Assad, i.e., I am excluding Russian bombing attacks on the Islamic State. The Syrian regime is an extremely murderous government. As I will explain below, I do not support increased U.S. military involvement in Syria but that should not be the starting point of the analysis.
I have no tolerance for those who visit Syria for a week at the invitation of Bashar al-Assad and come back praising his government or talking about the liberation of Aleppo in December, 2016 or Syrian stability. What kind of stability is there with half of the population displaced, with torture as state policy, with 13,000 people put to death in Saydnaya prison alone, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/02/syria-investigation-uncovers-governments-secret-campaign-of-mass-hangings-and-extermination-at-saydnaya-prison/. For those who claim Bashar al-Assad is an anti-imperialist, why did he work closely with the George W Bush administration to torture prisoners that the U.S. sent to Syria such as Maher Arar in 2002. The enablers of the al-Assad regime deny the democratic uprising in Syria in early 2011 that was met with murder, torture and repression by the Syrian state and the subsequent increasing militarization of the opposition to Assad. It is false that outside arms and intervention by the conservative Gulf States caused the Syrian government’s attacks on its own people; their military intervention followed. As the struggle got increasingly militarized the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia, also Turkey and the United States have gotten increasingly militarily involved but on a smaller and less lethal level than the Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah alliance with the Bashar al-Assad regime. This is another rewriting of history; they deny the mass uprising in 2011 of the Syrian people in order to claim the murderous rule of the Syrian government is a response not to a popular uprising but to invasion by outside countries and local and foreign jihadists. A related reason that we are supposed to accept the Assad regime is that we are told that they are the only alternative to the Islamic State and other jihadist groups such as al-Nusra. Assad and the various jihadist groups are both horrible alternatives but this also denies any agency of the Syrian people including the struggle in the mainly Kurdish area of Rojava for autonomy and self-governance, led by the PYD/YPG. Although weaker than in 2011, opposition to the Assad regime and the jihadist organizations continue inside Syria and by Syrian exile groups.
The United States military attack of the Syrian airbase
On Friday morning, April 7th, 2017, the United States military attacked the Shayrat Airbase, where the Syrian Air Force planes that bombed Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province had left from three days earlier. The United States attacked with 59 Tomahawk Cruise missiles, killing according to the Syrian government six or seven people, two of whom were civilians. I do not support this April 7th bombing by the United States although I find very hypocritical those in the U.S., who are horrified and continually denounce this recent bombing while not strongly opposing the 8000 bombing attacks that the U.S. has launched in Syria against the Islamic State and other opponents of Assad, killing a few thousand Syrian civilians since the fall of 2014. This April 7th bombing was the first U.S. bombing directed against the Assad regime. Also and even more important, why do these enablers of Assad not show outrage at his massive killing, wounding, torture, imprisonment, disappearance and displacement of Syrians?
It is clear that the Trump administration has no concern about the lives of Syrians, for example his barring from the U.S. of all Syrian refugees. Note also Trump’s further loosening of restrictions on the killing of civilians by U.S. bombing in the Raqqa region of Syria. In Syria and Iraq, U.S. bombing is killing even more civilians than under Obama. The attack on the Syrian Air Force base on April 7th was most likely an attempt by Trump to gain popular support in the U.S. by demonstrating that he is a decisive leader, to divert attention from his administration’s daily attacks on the people of the United States and the environment and to demonstrate that he is independent of Putin and Russia. Just a few days before the Assad’s regime use of nerve gas, two of the leaders of the Trump administration said they could live with Bashar al-Assad as the president of Syria, which may have further encouraged Assad to use Sarin. Demonstrating his hypocrisy and instability, Trump strongly denounced any possible use of military force by President Obama in 2013 when Syrian military use of Sarin killed 1300 people in Eastern Gouta, near Damascus. I am against further escalation of the war by the United States in Syria as it likely to increase Russian military involvement, to increase the number of Syrian casualties, possibly increase support for Assad, and finally, any Syrian leader and government put in power by the United States will probably be another repressive and oppressive one with the likelihood that the Syrian security state apparatus will continue.
The Trump administration is a very dangerous one for the people of the United States and the globe and its actions must be strongly resisted. However, we cannot reduce U.S. military involvement and war only to its intent; we must also consider the likely outcome of its actions. For example, it was right to critically support the U.S. war against fascism in World War II, although its reasons for entering the war were not primarily to save the Jews, Roma people and others from extermination. Much of the criticism of the recent bombing of the Syrian air base by the Trump administration criticizes correctly its motives. The United States government is also using a double standard when it condemns Syria for using chemical weapons when it used them on a much larger scale against Vietnam. Still, if increased U.S. military involvement in Syria would bring peace and the possibility of economic and social justice to Syria, I would support it. However, U.S. military escalation against the Assad government is likely to only further Russian escalation against the Syrian population, thus increasing casualties and not bringing Syria closer to peace.
The United States bombing of the Syrian Shayrat airbase will not reduce the killing and destruction caused by the Assad regime and his allies. It may make President Assad hesitate to use nerve gas again but even that is not definite and the barrel bombs, torture, disappearances, hunger and deaths will continue.
Demands, solidarity, the future
If all military equipment including arms were kept out of Syria and also foreign troops including the fighters for ISIS, most of whom are not Syrian, left Syria, I believe the Assad regime would collapse and the jihadist forces would be weakened. The Syrian people would have the opportunity to create their own future and type of society they wanted. This call for leaving Syria includes but is not limited to the United States. While the U.S. has played a horrible role in the Middle East, more than any other country, it is not the main cause of the plight of the Syrian people at this moment.
I support U.S. military aid and training of the YPG/PYD in Rojava in northern Syria. Although we should not romanticize and be uncritical of their society and rule, what is going on is positive and impressive in terms of women’s major role in the struggle and governance there, the centrality of economic cooperatives, somewhat democratic decision-making and a level of sectarianism and repression far less than in most parts of Syria. Although the U.S. motives for military aid to the government of Rojava are not for humanitarian reasons much less to support an alternative to capitalism, United States. support helps them survive against ISIS. The People’s Protection Units (YPD) have played a major role in defending Kurds and other Syrian people in this region against ISIS and with support from the United States have won several victories against ISIS. Very positive is solidarity and aid by grassroots groups around the world for the Kurdish people and their organizations in Rojava.
We, the people of the United States and our organizations, should also demand that the U.S. accept all refugees from Syria and from other places such as Somalia who want to come here and urge European countries to do the same. We should welcome the refugees and demand that they be treated with dignity and respect and have access to jobs, education and social services.
We should also demand although very, very difficult to achieve, the end of U.S. support, military aid and sales of military equipment to reactionary regimes in the Middle East such as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. The murderous military campaign, waged by Saudi Arabia, supported by the Unites States in Yemen, is also horrific, causing mass hunger and mass murder and we should organize and act against it as we oppose the current Syrian government and their international supporters’ role in Syria.
People in Syria are hungry, wounded, sick and unemployed. We should support non-military, humanitarian aid that gets to the Syrian population. There is a case to be made for U.S. military support to local communities and non-Jihadist armed groups trying to survive or resist the Syrian state apparatus as long as the Assad regime is so heavily supported by Russia and Iran. This is already happening, see footnote 1.
We should support the call for a real Syrian cease-fire with a simultaneous call for a major peace conference consisting of the Syrian government, all Syrian groups, armed and unarmed, including the existing Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) that were established in 2011 to oppose the Assad dictatorship, Syrian exile groups, and foreign governments involved in Syria. Although extremely difficult to bring about and even more difficult for an agreement to result, such a conference of all parties could result in less violence against the Syrian people, peace, and the possibility of a future rebuilding of Syria with the return of many Syrians in exile.
There should also be solidarity of all kinds for progressive and left groups inside Syria and of Syrian exile groups by grassroots global justice, peace and left groups around the world, including the United States. These Syrian groups continue to exist.
Except perhaps in Rojava, there are not major groups in Syria like the NLF in Vietnam or the FMLN in El Salvador or URNG in Guatemala that much of the left in the United States and around the world supported in the past. It is much harder to envision a just outcome in Syria than there was in Indochina or Central America in the 1960’s to 1980’s. It is our responsibility to learn more about Syria, to see beyond the apologists for Assad and Putin but also to see beyond the one-dimensional analysis of most Democratic and Republican Party officials and the mainstream media in the United States who assert contrary to all evidence that the U.S. government and military and corporations are forces for good around the world who are motivated to further democracy and human rights. The right of the U.S. to attack or invade or intervene in other countries should be but usually is not questioned by the establishment. Moreover, the main casualties if examined or discussed at all are usually only the U.S. ones. Let us put the Syrian people at the center of our thoughts and analysis and actions in this horrific war.
Peter Bohmer teaches political economy at the Evergreen State College. He has been active in anti-war movements and movements in solidarity with liberation struggles in Vietnam, South Africa, Palestine, Cuba, Central America and Puerto Rico since the 1960’s. From late January to early March, 2017 he did volunteer work with Syrian refugees in Greece. Peter is an active member of Economics for Everyone.