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Back in 2013, I was in Sydney, Australia, promoting Olivier Morel’s magnificent film, On the Bridge, a documentary featuring U.S. veterans, including myself, who struggle to assimilate to civilian life after returning home from the illegal and immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the time, virtually no one could’ve predicted the outsized role Syria would play in the global geopolitical landscape. Today, stories about Syria fill the airwaves. Hashtags about Syria flood social media outlets. And progressive and liberal media outlets hardly contain their absolute disdain for Putin and Russia.
During the Democratic Primaries of 2015/2016, the Liberal Class was more than willing to risk a potential nuclear conflict with Russia in order to score petty political points against Trump and the Republicans.
This, my friends, is the true scandal, not Russia’s supposed meddling in U.S. affairs, which is not only expected, but quite limited compared to the absolute hegemony U.S. intelligence agencies have in the arena of coups and interference in sovereign democratic affairs.
Back in Sydney, I met filmmaker Sean McAllister, a stocky Brit with a worn and serious face, who told me, “The U.S. created a ticking time-bomb in Syria.” In-between drinking his many beers, he continued, “You guys [U.S. Military] blew apart the whole god damn region!” Nodding, I ordered us another round of drinks and asked him more questions.
“When did you first get to Syria? What do you make of the current situation? Where can people find reliable information?”
Sean wasn’t interested in my questions. He went on his own rants about the brutalities of Assad and what it was like being a prisoner in the Assad regime’s “modern gulags,” as he referred to them:
Who the fuck are these people to tell me that my experiences don’t matter? I’m not paid by the British government. I’m not some fucking spy. I was lucky. I was only in the regime’s prisons for two weeks. I heard people being beaten and tortured and the screaming. You know what it’s like. You went to Iraq. I know vets. I can’t sleep for shit. I have at least a few beers at night to calm down and sleep. This stuff, you know, it stays with you forever. People don’t understand.
Here, Sean was more than correct: people don’t know. Political situations become increasingly complex when extreme emotions are involved. When people are tortured, or when they’ve seen their family and friends murdered and maimed, it’s hard to rationally process complex political realities – emotions often take over. Yet, in order to properly deal with these situations, we must remain as rational as humanly possible.
Since then, I’ve been to plenty rallies, speaking engagements and panel discussions about the war/conflict/civil war/proxy war in Syria. And one thing is more than clear: being critical and seeking nuance is utterly difficult in a time when most people seek easy answers.
Let’s be very clear, there are no “good options” in Syria. Three years ago, people would tell me at public events that I was a stooge for the U.S. government because I would talk about Assad’s various atrocities and crimes, often citing my discussions with Sean, and because I refused to glorify Putin as some sort of anti-imperialist agent against Western aggression.
Today, people tell me that I’m a stooge for Assad and Putin because I appose “No-Fly Zones” and because I refuse to accept the notion that the opposition to Assad is some sort of coherent force that’s not dominated by extremists and terrorists. I don’t mind the criticism, but I do mind the inconsistencies.
The idea that the U.S. and the West should simply “do something” is completely misguided – both politically and ideologically – and ahistorical, to say the least. The U.S. and the West are largely responsible for the disaster in Syria, not only because of the decisions they’ve made or haven’t made in the past three or four years, which have been horrific enough, but primarily because of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the precursor to the conflict in Syria. The West is also responsible for creating the framework for such conflicts, as 100+ years of colonialism and imperialism have sowed the seeds for ongoing unrest and violence.
It’s increasingly difficult to determine or predict what’s best for Syria as a nation because the conversation is no longer about Syria. Some argue the conversation has never been about Syria or the Syrian people. For some time, the debate has been focused on inter-regional conflicts (Sunni vs. Shia),(Iran vs. Saudi Arabia), (Israeli interests), broader geopolitical interests, global power struggles between Russia and the U.S., and so on. Sober analyses and suggestions are in short order when it comes to Syria. One of the few shining lights has been Phyllis Bennis.
For Americans who are genuinely interested in stopping the violence in Syria, Bennis offers three suggestions that are viable options for progressive activists in the U.S. Remember, Americans can have an impact on what THEIR government does, not what the Russian government or the Syrian government chooses to do. Hence, it’s important to focus on what can be achieved:
1) You can’t defeat terrorism with war, so stop killing people and destroying cities in the name of stopping others from killing people—that means stop the airstrikes and bombing, withdraw the troops and Special Forces, make “no boots on the ground” real.
2) Work to achieve a full arms embargo on all sides, challenging the US and global arms industry. Stop the train-and-equip programs. Stop allowing US allies to send weapons into Syria, making clear that if they continue they will lose all access to US arms sales. Convincing Russia and Iran to stop arming the Syrian regime will become more realistic when the United States and its allies stop arming the other side.
3) Create new diplomatic, not military, partnerships involving outside powers and those inside Syria, including regional governments and other actors. Real diplomacy for ending war must be at center stage, not fake diplomacy designed to enable joint bombing campaigns. All must be at the table, including Syrian civil society, women, and the nonviolent opposition as well as armed actors. Support UN efforts toward local cease-fires and new diplomacy.
The reason I think Bennis’ suggestions are so important is because they cut across sectarian ideological and political divides which have crippled the Left’s ability to properly confront the unfortunate and complex situation in Syria. The first thing to do for leftists is to agree on a set of principles. Here, we’ve failed to do so since 9/11.
Back in 2011, I remember marching in Madison, Wisconsin, during the anti-Walker/pro-union protests and having a friend from Iraq Veterans Against the War ask, “What do you think about the situation in Libya?” At the time, my answer was quite simple, as it remains today:
If the Libyan people can oust Gaddafi on their own, then by all means, oust Gaddafi and deal with the consequences. That is their choice. But if the question is, ‘What should the U.S. do?’ Well, the U.S. must remain as disengaged as possible because in the end, it’s none of our business. While Gaddafi is no leftist or friend to leftwing political activists or movements, that doesn’t mean the U.S. has the right to overthrow the Libyan government. Saddam Hussein was a horrific person, but that doesn’t mean the U.S., or anyone else for that matter, has the right to overthrow the Iraqi government. The same is true in Libya, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, etc.
After returning home from Madison, I was scheduled to give a speech in Evanston, Illinois. At the event, I spoke about my experiences in Wisconsin and why I opposed the Obama administration’s policies in Libya and the broader Middle East and North Africa. Toward the end of my talk, a decent gentleman stood up and asked, “Well, what do you propose!?”
The question was genuine, but the manner in which he asked it sorta pissed me off. There was this sense that I just didn’t give a fuck about the Libyan people and that all these well-intentioned liberals who were proposing bombing campaigns did indeed care about Libyan lives.
Then, as now, I ask the same questions, “Where were the liberals when the Saudis were torturing and beheading their own people?” After all, Obama recently signed the largest weapons deal in the history of the planet with the Saudi regime. Is that acceptable? Is it acceptable to allow the Saudis to destroy Yemen with carte blanche?
While it’s hard to admit, the truth remains: Iraq was in better shape with Saddam in power. Libya was in better shape with Gaddafi in power. And Syria is in better shape with Assad in power. Does that mean I support these dictators and regimes? Absolutely not.
The point is that the West has no business meddling in the affairs of other nations, unless, of course, people in the U.S. don’t mind other countries meddling in our affairs. And judging from the ongoing and absurd reactions of liberals who now wish to blame their electoral losses on the Russians, Americans don’t like the idea of outside influences on our so-called “democratic processes.”
The U.S. has been overthrowing democratically elected governments for decades. Now, Americans get a taste of what their government has been doing for over a century. As the old saying goes, “Welcome to the club.”
Unfortunately, the Left has a long tradition of supporting failed ideologies and political regimes. Many leftists supported the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89). Leftists also supported Stalin, Lenin’s madness, Mao’s atrocities and Pol Pot’s insanity. In fact, I still run into people who think the Soviet Union represented some sort of alternative to Capitalism and Imperialism. If these people weren’t so serious, it’d be a joke, but their ideological fantasies are actually quite dangerous.
Those sort of absurd political positions represent one of the reasons why leftwing political movements have been so unsuccessful compared to their rightwing counterparts: namely, because leftwing political movements support maniacs who are on the same level as the rightwing maniacs we so often deplore.
Anyone glorifying Assad and Putin isn’t a serious leftist, nor are they a serious human being. Serious leftists remain critical of power, regardless of where that power is located. Governments are the problem. Corporations are the problem. Powerful individuals are the problem. Banks are the problem. Militaries are the problem. Organized religion is the problem. And none of these phenomena are concentrated in a specific locality, region or nation. These problems infect all cultures and societies.
Where is the Left’s culture of internationalism? One of the main reasons I initially became involved with leftwing political movements as because of their willingness to reject the sort of rabid and uncritical nationalism that pervaded American society in the years following 9/11.
My time in the U.S. Marine Corps illuminated the hollow nature of American nationalism, and the abject failure of tribalistic ideologies. My primary concerns were much greater than the U.S. or my family and close friends. I began to see myself as being a part of a global society – a society built on trust, solidarity and compassion, not hyper-competition and individuality.
We have more in common with working-class and poor people in Russia and Syria than those people have in common with their leaders and vice versa. My comrades, my allies, those I have solidarity with, are the working-class and poor people around the world who hold little power, yet provide the very foundation for global capitalism and state power.
For some reason, the Left no longer speaks in such terms. Leftists today are focused on maximizing our potential within a neoliberal context, but those options are limited, and fading.
The planet is being destroyed. Syria is being destroyed. The U.S. is being destroyed. The very best aspects of our various cultures are being destroyed by global capitalism and the commodification of anything and everything. Whatever makes a buck, we’ll sell it. Fuck it. Who cares? The planet, much like a paper bag or a used condom, has served its purpose.
Human beings, particularly those living in the industrialized landscape we’ve created, have no use for a dying planet. As a result, billionaire moguls such as Elon Musk hope to colonize Mars. I hope he fails. In fact, we should make sure they fail, as we should be committed to making sure this failed evolutionary experiment ends on this planet. The idea that human beings should spread our madness across the universe is indicative of the insane ideologies and worldviews we’ve created as a society and culture.
Mars? Maybe we should figure out how to live on this planet before we destroy another planet. As my friend Derrick Jensen often says, “How many plants, trees and living creatures can you recognize within ten feet of your house or apartment?” If that answer is limited, there’s a problem.
Human beings, as Derrick notes, are always asking whether we’re alone on this planet. Only an insane and propagandized culture can believe we’re “alone” on a planet with billions of living organisms. When will we learn? Can we learn? Are we willing to learn?
Back to Syria, what, exactly, do people want to do? Former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has suggested that a “No Fly Zone” is an “act of war.” In other words, unless the U.S. and its allies are willing to go to war with Russia, their strategies must drastically change, and quickly, if we hope to achieve some level of peace and stability.
Some folks argue that Assad must go. Okay, but who will replace him? In the absence of a serious and coherent opposition, what can we expect from average people – working class, poor or otherwise? Without question, options are limited.
As Noam Chomsky recently admitted in an exchange with Dan Falcone and Saul Isaacson:
[Dan and Saul] Is there any hope for working with Russia on this?
[Noam] There may be some hopes. In the case of Syria, there’s simply no alternative (no realistic alternative, short of destroying Syria) to having some kind of transitional government with Assad certainly involved, maybe in power. It’s ugly, but there’s no alternative. My good friend [Gilbert Achcar] has an article in The Nation [that] says — although he wrote it right before the cease-fire — that the cease-fire will never last, because as long as Assad remains in power, the opposition will continue to fight until the death of Syria. So he says we have to do something to get Assad out of power, but that can’t be done. That’s the problem.
[Dan and Saul] That’s such a grim set of alternatives.
[Noam] It’s pretty grim, yeah. And for Syria, it’s just horrendous. And the one saving grace is, if you look at history, at the end of the First World War in Syria, it was just about as bad as what’s happening now, and they probably had the worst casualties per capita of any country in the world during the First World War. It was very brutal, with hundreds of thousands killed. It was a much smaller country then, but they did recover somehow, so it’s conceivable, but it’s pretty awful. And it’s just very hard to think of any recommendations. I mean, I don’t know what Obama could’ve done that’s better [than] what he did do.
In other words, the idea that the Left or various other progressive political forces in the U.S. or elsewhere could’ve done more than what they did is fabricated at best, and an outright lie at worst. Plenty of activists and academics tried their best to avoid the worst case scenario in Syria, but with limited results.
In the end, the question for activists in the West, and particularly in the U.S., is: What can we achieve? Surely, we can’t achieve much in terms of altering or directing Syrian or Russian policies, yet we can impact U.S. foreign policy decisions. Hence, we should start where we have power. I keep hearing and reading leftists in the U.S. argue that we should be more critical of Putin and Assad – okay, that’s fine, but what’s the goal?
If activists in the U.S. think that they can significantly alter Russian or Syrian policies, they are greatly mistaken and they do not understand how power works in the real world.
If activists in the U.S. hope to significantly alter U.S. and European policies in Syria, they have serious and viable options. Some of the first options, of course, would be to stop all air strikes, boots on the ground, special forces operations and weapons deals and political support to nations who continue to foster increased militarism and violence in Syria. That includes cutting off the Qatari, Saudi, Pakistani, Iraqi and Israeli governments. Here, activists in the U.S. have a serious chance of defeating the legacies of imperialism and authoritarianism..
If activists in the U.S. continue to act as mouthpieces for various western NGOs and government agencies, they will become increasingly marginalized and ignored, as they should.
Activists in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, should act on a set of principles and values. The primary of which being the notion that Western military interventions will unquestionably and invariably make things worse, regardless of the context, region, etc. Any potential or actual benefits are incidental.
The most important thing to remember, at least as far as I can tell, is that most of us are on the same side. We should have no allegiances to the Syrian, Russian or American governments. Leftists should have no vested interests in maintaining the violence and ongoing destruction of Syria. Yet, here we are, increasingly engaged in a discussion and debate on their terms. We must break free from this sort of intellectual and political slavery.
What do we want? That’s the question. Leftist must develop serious political alternatives to existing regional, national, sectarian and corporate conflicts. In the absence of serious alternatives, the status quo, which is completely unacceptable, will continue, unquestioned and unchallenged.