Divisions on Syria Weaken the Antiwar Movement: A Topic for Debate
August 29, 2016
The United National Antiwar Coalition Responds to Terry Burke / In These Times
In a blistering In These Times essay,Terry Burke wrote that the peace movement "has largely ignored anti-Assad progressive Syrian voices and relied heavily on Western pundits for their analysis of the Syrian conflict. Consequently, many peace activists know little about Syria's peaceful uprising and how it devolved into armed conflict." Members of the the United National Antiwar Coalition respond.
Special to Environmentalist Against War
A response by the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) to the attack on the antiwar movement from Terry Burke published in "In These Times"
(See Terry Burke's full article below)
(August 25, 2016) -- In the past 15 years, the US military machine has attacked 17 countries. The many peace and justice organizations and individuals attacked in Terry Burke's article (1) have a long history of opposition to ALL US wars, interventions, invasions, drone attacks, military coups, blockades, and sanctions on numerous countries around the world.
The military aggression of the United States, the expansion of NATO, the efforts at encirclement of Russia and China with weapons shields, CIA destabilizations in Latin America and the massively destructive US wars in Central Asia, West Asia, Middle East and North Africa, along with the massive arms deals with US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, have created terrible destruction and millions of deaths and refugees.
UNAC, a peace and justice coalition with organizations and individuals from different perspectives, seeks to counter the corporate media propaganda and politicians' justifications for each of these wars and for expanding US militarism.
These wars collectively, and each of them individually, are for US economic and geopolitical domination. None of these wars have resulted in increased security or stability for the countries targeted or for the people of the US.
It is from this perspective that we oppose the US war in Syria. We oppose the US bombing that has ruined so much of the vital infrastructure, and we oppose the US-coordinated arming and financing of numerous armed groups and the devastating sanctions that the US has imposed on the people of Syria.
Terry Burke cites her past work in the Nicaragua Solidarity Committee as the basis of her position on Syria. However, this distorted reasoning would have led Terry and the antiwar movement to support the US backed Contra forces in Nicaragua as "democratic and progressive forces."
The US role in Central America was to covertly arm contra forces to impose regime change in Nicaragua while funding and arming Salvadoran and Guatemalan death squads. This destructive policy created millions of refugees from Central America in the 1980s, just as US policies of regime change in the past 12 years of war in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere has created even more refugees.
The US is coordinating Saudi, Israeli, Qatar, Turkish and EU efforts of bombing and of arming opposition groups. The stated goal from the beginning has been regime change in Syria. Regime change, as in Iraq and Libya, means the complete destruction of every secular state institution, including the very structures that provided full access to free education, free health care, electrification, potable water, modern infrastructure, irrigation and communication.
Years of US sanctions against Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya did not succeed in carrying out regime change, although they created great hardships and dislocations in each economy. Up to 1.5 million people died due to US sanctions in Iraq alone.
Syrians in Lebanon line up to vote in Syrian election 2014
Today, as we watch two candidates running for president who threaten increased and terrible interventions in Syria, we are seeing a big increase in US propaganda. Take, for example, the August 11th article by Fair and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) on the breakdown of the recent ceasefire.
FAIR, a media watchdog group, exposed the fact that it was groups supported by the US fighting alongside the al Nusra Front, the al Qaida group in Syria, that actually broke the ceasefire, yet the media blamed the Syrian government and the Russians for the breakdown. Much of what we see in the US media related to the situation in Syria is the same kind of propaganda with the goal of building greater support for war.
Terry Burke claims we are "US-centric" for opposing our government's attacks on Syria and attempts at regime change in that country. She claims that we have "ignored anti-Assad progressive Syrian voices."
But who has ignored what? Where in the US corporate media are the voices of Syrians (both pro and anti-Assad) who want an end to the ISIS/Al-Qaida/US/NATO intervention in their country and have rallied to the side of their government to end it?
The US corporate media and some so-called progressives in the US have focused on vilifying Assad rather than the US-led war on Syria, which only leads to strengthening the forces who seek regime change and war. Should we add our voices to that chorus? Is that the best way to end US intervention in Syria, which the overwhelming majority of Syrians oppose? We think not.
The March 13 UNAC protest, "A Day of Peace and Solidarity," is the basis of Burke's claims that "a dictator accused of monstrous war crimes is being given tacit support by major organizations in the peace movement." Why? Because the "anti-war protest in New York City included people carrying the flag of the brutal Assad regime . . . "
It is true that Syrians came to that demonstration and carried the flag of their country. Do Syrians not have the right to carry their flag? Is it the place of the US anti-war movement to tell people from any country that is under attack by the US that they do not have the right to carry their country's flag?
That is not the role of our movement; we oppose our government's illegal and immoral aggression against all countries and do not lecture the people of that country on whom they should support or not support.
Syrians protest in London to end US intervention in their country
If antiwar activists and organizations in the US condemn US bombings and aggression in Syria as our primary concern, rather than denouncing "Assad's crimes," we are branded "pro-Assad." Burke attacks us for having signs like "US Hands Off Syria" and "No US War on Syria." These she says are "US-centric." Were similar slogans used during the Vietnam War, Afghan War, and Iraq War also US-centric?
The US is the most militarily aggressive country in the world. It has around 20 times the number of foreign military bases as all other countries in the world combined. We in the US have an obligation to humanity to demand that our government stop the aggression and bring the troops home from Syria and all of the more than 130 countries where there are US troops.
Burke accuses the antiwar movement of ignoring progressive Syrian voices but she is highly selective in identifying the "Syrian perspective" as those who are anti-Assad. We must ask her why she ignores the Syrian voices that seek to end the US/NATO/ISIS/Al-Qaida attacks on their country.
Burke believes that the primary feature of the Syrian conflict is fighting between two camps of Syrians. However, this is not the case. Syria has been invaded by extremists such as ISIS and al Nusra.
Tens of thousands of mercenaries have poured into this small country to overthrow the government, a goal which the US and NATO share. They have been supported by bombings, logistics and harsh sanctions against Syria from the US and NATO.
Though the US has claimed it is there to attack the extremists, there had not been much damage to them until Russia entered the fighting-- and then, in a matter of weeks, the tide turned. The oil that ISIS takes from Syria and uses to help fund their operations has been left untouched by the U.S and its allies until Russia started bombing their oil operations.
The antiwar movement can agree on non-intervention and self-determination. Aligning with those anti-Assad Syrians who support US intervention in Syria can only divide and weaken our movement, which needs to be united today, perhaps more than ever.
We urge the antiwar movement to reject the ideas that Terry Burke presents in her article and demand that the US and NATO stop the bombing, stop the sanctions, stop the flow of weapons and stop the funding. This will stop the extremist groups. Then the people of Syria can alone decide their fate.
(1) Organizations and people attacked by Terry Burke in her article in In These Times include:
United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), US Peace Council, Syrian American Forum, Veterans for Peace, Manhattan Green Party, WarIsACrime.org, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Syrian American Will Association, ANSWER Coalition, Anti-War Committee Chicago, Minnesota Anti-War Committee, Women Against Military Madness, Workers World Party, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Mint Press News, AntiWar.com, Consortium News, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity including members William Binney, Coleen Rowley and Ray McGovern; dedicated activists like David Swanson and Kathy Kelly, as well as journalists Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Robert Kennedy Jr., Gareth Porter and Robert Parry.
The Administrative Committee of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) :
Marilyn Levin -- UNAC co-coordinator
Joe Lombardo -- UNAC co-coordinator
Margaret Kimberley -- Senior columnist, Black Agenda Report
Joe Iosbaker -- Chicago Anti-war Committee
Sara Flounders -- Co-director, International Action Center
Bernadette Ellorin -- Chairperson, BAYAN, USA
Judy Bello -- Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars
Abayomi Azikiwe -- Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice
Phil Wilayto -- Editor, The Virginia Defender
Jeff Mackler -- Northern California UNAC
ACTION:If you want to add your name to this statement, please email UNACpeace@gmail.com with your name and the name of your organization. If it is an organizational endorsement of the statement, please note that in your email or simply click here: https://www.unacpeace.org/support-syria-statement.html
Thousands of Syrian women shout pro-government slogans and wave Syrian flags.
US Peace Activists Should Start Listening to Progressive Syrian Voices
A US-centric view of the conflict gives Assad a free pass.
Terry Burke / In These Times
(August 15, 2016) -- In a recent In These Times article, reporter Eli Massey writes, "Syrian perspectives have been almost entirely absent from conversations about the refugee crisis, ISIS and the fate of the Assad regime."
While Massey is referring to a failure on the part of journalists, the article -- an interview with British Syrians Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami -- is also of relevance to US peace activists.
Much of the peace movement, too, has largely ignored anti-Assad progressive Syrian voices and relied heavily on Western pundits for their analysis of the Syrian conflict. Consequently, many peace activists know little about Syria's peaceful uprising and how it devolved into armed conflict.
They know little to nothing of the remarkable ongoing successes and organizing efforts of grassroots groups in liberated areas (some discussed in Massey's interview). Too many activists view the conflict through a US-centric lens, concerned only with the US role and with Washington's talk that Assad must step down.
Pro-Assad for Peace?
The results have been Orwellian -- a dictator accused of monstrous war crimes is being given tacit support by major organizations in the peace movement. The March 13 United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) anti-war protest in New York City included people carrying the flag of the brutal Assad regime, some even wearing T-shirts with Assad's image.
The pro-Assad Syrian American Forum officially supported this march along with Veterans for Peace, the Manhattan Green Party, David Swanson of WarIsACrime.org, and other leftwing organizations and peace activists.
Speakers included not only longtime peace activists llike Kathy Kelly, a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, but also Khaldoun Makhoul, a Syrian American and member of the pro-Assad Syrian American Will Association who expressed his enthusiastic support for Assad in an interview at the rally. [The original version of this story incorrectly reported that David Swanson was among the speakers at the rally. We regret the mistake. -- Editor, In These Times.]
The current Vice President of Veterans for Peace, Gerry Condon, recently returned from a weeklong US Peace Council trip to Syria, where a delegation met directly with Bashar Assad and other regime leaders. Condon wrote on Facebook that he was "honored to represent Veterans for Peace" on the trip.
An article about the trip by Vanessa Beeley, a writer and steering committee member of the Syria Solidarity Movement International, gushed about the meetings and the "fascinating insights that were shared. . . . Our meeting with the Grand Mufti was one of the most profoundly moving and eloquent introductions to the mind of a true man of peace and reconcilitiation [sic]."
This is the same Grand Mufti who threatened to unleash suicide bombings on the US and Europe if the West bombed Syria. Beeley has promised that a full report on "the extraordinary conversation with President Bashar Al Assad will be forthcoming."
A major reason for the support of Assad is that some organizations believe "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." For them it is a simple knee jerk analysis. If the United States opposes Assad, they support him.
Another factor is a deeply ingrained imperialism, an arrogant first world attitude that we know more than the rest of the planet. Orwell's Big Brother would have approved of today's "anti-imperialist" leaders subconsciously identifying with the state and behaving like imperialists, imposing their point of view on poorer countries.
One of the basic principles for anti-imperialists should be respect for people from the Global South. But respect for anti-Assad progressive Syrians appears to be lacking in many of today's "anti-imperialist" leaders.
I was active in the 1980s in the Central American peace movement in Chicago. There was sometimes tension between Central Americans and the North American solidarity activists. We recognized our tendency as US activists to try to take charge of organizing efforts, and we tried to work respectfully with our Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan counterparts. With effort, we generally succeeded.
We understood it was their struggle and that they were more knowledgeable about what was happening in Central America. We were aware of the need to try to take our lead from the people whose countries were under attack, whose family and friends were suffering.
That awareness, that sensitivity towards activists from the affected countries is seemingly absent today from major peace organizations regarding the Syrian conflict. Since the beginning of the revolution, "anti-imperialist" leaders of the peace movement have blatantly dismissed progressive Syrian voices.
I've been told that Syrians here are like the anti-Castro "gusanos" in Cuba -- reactionaries who want to overthrow Assad's "socialist" government. Never mind that many of the anti-Assad Syrians are strong anti-imperialists: They identify as nonviolent activists, socialists or anarchists, or have other progressive political orientations. Regardless, they are all too often lumped together and dismissed.
If some Syrians have asked the US to bomb Assad's runways or for US weapons to be delivered to the opposition, one can disagree with them. Such a disagreement is not a justification for disregarding them completely and, in the process, using a broad brush to discount all anti-Assad Syrian voices, many of whom oppose US military intervention.
We can still be in solidarity with the Syrian people's struggle for freedom and dignity even when we have differing opinions about what should be done to end the war.
Yet the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS), an organization that has never advocated for US military intervention (and of which I am a member), has been condemned by "anti-imperialists" for hosting "events with expats who support US intervention in their countries."
Specifically, we hosted Syrian activist and University of Arkansas professor Mohja Kahf, who is accused in Consortium News of having "ties to the early destabilization of Syria" through her ex-husband's work. But the article ignores Kahf's own work, as a member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement. Kahf has presented for us and several human rights, university and church groups on nonviolent resistance.
Twisting the Narrative
International human rights organizations like Amnesty International, the UN Human Rights Council, Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have issued numerous reports condemning the Assad regime's barrel bombs, starvation sieges and torture prisons.
"Clearly the actions of the forces of the government far outweigh the violations" by rebels, said UN human rights chief Navi Pillay. "It's the government that is mostly responsible for violations."
In the face of this consensus, "left" media has put an exorbitant amount of energy into discrediting this human rights reporting, producing headlines like "Human Rights Watch Is Not about Human Rights," "Biased Reporting on Syria in the Service of War" and "Amnesty International, War Propaganda, and Human Rights Terrorism."
But, while no doubt these human rights organizations are imperfect, the fact that each corroborate the others' conclusions about the Assad regime should tell us something. And, curiously, the "anti-imperialists" don't seem to show the same skepticism towards Syria, Russia and Iran's propaganda campaign -- Orwell's Ministry of Truth would be proud.
These so-called "anti-imperialist" organizations -- UNAC, ANSWER Coalition, Anti-War Committee Chicago, Minnesota Anti-War Committee, Veterans for Peace, Women Against Military Madness, Workers World Party, Freedom Road Socialist Organization and others -- use some of the same signs at anti-war events: "US Hands Off Syria" and "No US War on Syria."
But these slogans reflect a typically US-centric view of the conflict: They rightly condemn the US role while saying nothing on Assad's crimes or the rampant bombing by Putin's Russia, which Amnesty International has accused of deliberately targeting civilians and aid workers.
Many alternative Internet media, claiming to be anti-war and anti-imperialist, make a similar mistake. Mint Press News, AntiWar.com, Consortium News and others present a narrative in which the US, its allies, and its regime-change proxies are the primary problem, and Assad is merely protecting his sovereign country -- a narrative with little room for anti-Assad civilian activists.
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) is a group of current and former officials of the United States Intelligence Community, including William Binney, Coleen Rowley and Ray McGovern, that has opposed many aspects of US foreign policy. It was initially formed in 2003 to protest the use of faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
Orwell would have appreciated the irony that the group is now using faulty intelligence to support Assad's war. In a June 25 statement, the group wrote, "Covert funding and provision of weapons and other material support to opposition groups for strikes against the Syrian Government provoked a military reaction by Assad." In other words, they claim that US support for the rebels provoked Assad's military reaction.
That is a distortion. Syrian authors Mohja Kahf, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al Shami have thoroughly documented the beginnings of the conflict -- months of nonviolent protest that were met by brutal repression, snipers, military actions from the Assad regime. VIPS chose their intel from cherry-picked US documents, not from progressive Syrian writers who had interviewed hundreds of Syrians.
Subconscious imperialism, racism, Islamophobia and Americanist chauvinism contribute to the problem. Western activists do not know more than Muslim Arabs about their own country.
Some of us may be better educated, more widely traveled and more informed about the historical record of US imperialism than some Syrians -- though the reverse is true as well. However, most Westerners do not know more about the Syrian conflict than Syrians themselves. "Anti-imperialists" cannot completely disregard these anti-Assad Syrians.
For decades, the peace movement was on target in opposing the US position on the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, Angola, Nicaragua and El Salvador. The analysis that the United States was promoting regime change was correct in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1960-2015), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003).
But Syria is not Iraq. It is not Afghanistan. Syria is Syria. It has its own unique history and culture -- and its own Arab Spring of a genuine popular uprising against nearly five decades of the brutal Assad family dictatorship. This revolution is real, and beyond US control.
Undoing the Movement's Internal Imperialism
The "anti-imperialist" crowd promotes Syrian analyses by Western authors Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Robert Kennedy Jr., Gareth Porter and Robert Parry. This is analogous to reading mainly white authors to understand Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement.
There are plenty of progressive Syrians to read if the "anti-imperialists" were willing to look -- Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Mohja Kahf, Afra Jalabi, Leila Al Shami, Rime Allaf, Lina Sergie -- and myriad videos and photos taken by Syrians to document Assad and Russia's attacks on civilians.
The media covers the many competing fighting groups, but there are also many civilian voices who are rarely given media attention. There are still Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) in opposition-held areas where civilians organize basic services and political actions. In the first years of the uprising, the LCCs issued daily reports on the regime's attacks.
Independent media outlets like Syria Direct provide reliable reporting by Syrians about Syria. Syrian civilians have led or featured prominently in campaigns to get the Western peace movement involved in solidarity to stop Assad's barrel bombs, get aid into starving cities, pressure for ceasefires -- but this doesn't fit into the "anti-imperialists' " preferred narrative.
Many anti-Assad Syrians have had their family and friends bombed, killed, imprisoned, tortured, starved, displaced. Many have family members who are refugees spread throughout Europe and the Middle East. Their unrelenting tragedy has been compounded by their treatment by the "anti-imperialist"-led peace movement.
Instead of standing in solidarity with progressive Syrians, they repeat Assad's narrative of the conflict. The "anti-imperialist" leaders of the peace movement have increased Syrians' suffering with their direct and de facto support of Assad. It is unconscionable.
One of the rewards of solidarity work is the privilege of working with progressive activists from another country. It is inspiring and heartbreaking to go beyond the media, to work with anti-Assad Syrians and learn more about the beginnings of the uprising, the flowering of culture and civil organizations during the revolution, and the subsequent disastrous war and humanitarian crisis.
Instead of smearing solidarity activists as advocates of US military intervention -- which I am not -- today's "anti-imperialists" should consider joining us. Without a split on the Left between pro-Assad and anti-Assad groups, our potential to effectively use nonviolent means to pressure for an end to the conflict would significantly increase.
Solidarity activists in the U.K. and Code Pink in the US garnered thousands of signatures on petitions to "Drop Food, Not Bombs." My own group, CISPOS, helped organize the International Solidarity Hunger Strike for Syria to pressure the United Nations to allow humanitarian groups to bring food to besieged areas.
Mass demonstrations, teach-ins, boycotts, calls for serious negotiations, solidarity trips to the refugee camps and humanitarian campaigns are all ways to build a worldwide movement in solidarity with the Syrian people, to pressure for an end to the conflict, for peace with justice and for accountability for war crimes.
The unifying leadership that is needed for Syria cannot come from a regime that is deeply despised after forty-six years of despotic rule. The Western peace movement should support Syrian civil society activists in their efforts to reclaim democratic governance in their own country.
It is time for peace activists to reassess their thinking on Syria, to listen to progressive Syrian voices.
Terry Burke is a long-time peace activist. She worked with the Pledge of Resistance and the Nicaragua Solidarity Committee in Chicago. More recently she has been active with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS) in Minneapolis.
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