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Syria and the Antiwar Movement

The continued slaughter of people in Syria poses urgent questions for the fragmented Left.  What really needs to be done to end post Cold War escalating violence against civilians?    Current events in Aleppo highlight the unreliable information and proliferation of political positions contributing to obstruction and paralysis.   Conflicting reports obscure the number of civilians and fighters who have evacuated or remain in Aleppo, their condition, their political beliefs, their situation as refugees, the civilian toll, and the perpetrators.   What is to be done when there are so many contradictory versions of this war: that of a civil war, a proxy war with international players, or multiple wars with fluid coalitions and divergent aims?

Perhaps one significant difference in this current assault on Aleppo, as of December 20th, is that Russia and China have not vetoed UN Security Council Resolution 2328 (2016) demanding immediate, unhindered access for UN observation and monitoring of civilian evacuations from Aleppo. Since the onset of the war, Russia vetoed six and China vetoed five Security Council resolutions. Iran, Russia, and Turkey have agreed to guarantee Syrian peace talks but are unwilling to include other parties in their planning.

Not being a journalist with any direct Syrian connections, I am here commenting on both the framing of this war and of the role of the Left. There is a paucity of verifiable facts and pertinent history. Last October Bassam Haddad wrote in The Nation “The Debate over Syria has Reached a Dead End: Two warring narratives now dominate discussions – and neither is sufficient.” He wrote of “ two mutually exclusive narratives: (a) that of ‘pure and consistent revolution,’ [that this is fundamentally a civil war] and (b) that of ‘external conspiracy’ [a proxy war]. Both narratives carry grains of truth, but both are encumbered by maximalist claims and fundamental blind spots that forfeit any common ground necessary for enduring cease-fires or potential transitions, as well as postwar reconciliation.” He writes that “the heart-wrenching news from Syria has been saturated with data, analysis, information, and misinformation on developments” and that both sides have adopted hypocritical stances regarding outside intervention. Achcar writes of this same hypocrisy and narrowness in Arab political opinion with no third side condemning bombing in itself as criminal. One side condemns the Syrian/Russian bombing of Syrian cities but keeps silent about the Saudi bombing of Yemeni cities and rural areas, and vice versa. He writes that both these powers and their allies aim to crush the revolutionary process.

The U.S. United National Antiwar Coalition’s narrative frames the Syrian war as a new Cold War with Assad and his Russian/Iran/Hezbollah allies standing for Syrian self-determination, in battle with U.S. imperialism. Richard Fidler describes socialist Left positions here here : one side maintaining that this is a civil war, while another side sees it as a proxy war and targeting “your own government’s drive to war”. Fidler writes that as a socialist, the fight is to support people against the forces of imperialism and authoritarianism at a global scale. The range of positions are abstract with fundamental blind spots about the urgency of saving lives, about the history of Syria, and about the complicated geopolitical context.

Below, I summarize often neglected points about Syria’s recent history from Samer Abboud’s Syria (Polity, 2016). I will then summarize Phyllis Bennis’ proposals for ending the war and then comment on the antiwar movement and international institutions underlying perpetual war and neoliberal restructuring.

• Abboud traces the history from the Ottoman governance through the French mandate, the Ba’ath era socialist policies, and the severe effects of neoliberal reorganization up to the uprising. Neoliberal restructuring led to mass internal migration from farms to rural slums: from the 1990s on, the Syrian government withdrew seed and fertilizer subsidies, shifted from cooperative models to implementing new land laws “that reoriented ownership and usage rights away from the cooperative models of the previous two decades”, and encouraged strategic crops over subsidized diverse production. By the late 2000s, around 20% of the total Syrian population lived in some sort of slum village (p. 38).

• Throughout the Arab world, neoliberal restructuring led to a more militarized, sectarian, and repressive authoritarianism. (p. 78)

• The Bashar al-Assad regime tolerated some civil society groups during the period of marketization as a means of alleviating some of the social hardships. The 2005 Damascus Declaration was a product of highly diverse individuals and groups who were committed to nonviolence, democracy, oppositional unity, and democratic change. However, the Syrian regime suffocated political activity and the signatories “were never able to translate their cooperation into sustained pressure against the regime or into an institutional arrangement that could take collective leadership of the opposition.” Currently, civil society groups are not yet cohesive at a national level and are caught between the violent opposition rebel forces and the brutal government alignment. Moreover, these civil society groups are dependent on armed groups to procure goods through the war economy. “Perhaps the largest challenge facing Syrian civil society is in being taken seriously as a political actor in the uprising. The militarization of the uprising has deflected attention away from civil initiatives and the resiliency of nonviolence in Syria.” (P 72)

• Abboud covers the failure of UN negotiators Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and de Mistura to bring about a political settlement. 4.8 million Syrians have fled, and 6.1 million are internally displaced.

• Abboud reviews the failures to deal with the continued use of chemical weapons. Following the agreement between Russia and the US on Syria’s chemical weapons, there were as many as 78 documented breaches. Barrel bombs deliver chlorine gas and are randomly tossed on populated areas. “Without any significant political pressure exerted by the UN on any of the warring sides, the security and political elements of the resolutions rang hollow.” (p 149)

• Armed factions include the Free Syrian Army, networked rebel groups, Islamist groups, and the regime coalition: “The question of whether to arm rebels has been in the West a question of ensuring that weapons are controlled by ‘moderate’ rather than ‘extremist’ forces. Yet, as the rebel landscape beyond ISIS demonstrates, such distinctions are false ones and do not accurately reflect realities and the fluidity of alliances on the ground and the levels of cooperation between rebel groups. The dispersed and fragmented structure of the armed opposition is such that no brigades or unit exercise autonomy from one another… unraveling their ideological and political affinities and interests [is] virtually impossible.” The external alliances are equally fluid and, many of the more hardline groups have received their support from private donors (p. 120-161).

Phyllis Bennis calls for stopping the Global War on Terror. The following summarizes the main recommendations in her October, 2016 article “The left is profoundly divided over the [Syrian] conflict, but we should at least agree on a set of principles to end it.” She writes that you can’t stop terrorism with war, that killing people doesn’t stop others from killing people. She calls for a full arms embargo on all sides. “Stop allowing US allies to send weapons into Syria, making clear that if they continue they will lose all access to US arms sales.” She also calls for diplomatic partnerships and local ceasefires and for making good on pledges to UN funds for refugees and humanitarian needs.

The geopolitical situation is set-up for perpetual war. To “lose access to US arms sales” seems Orwellian in that it still legitimizes US arms sales. SIPRI’s figure for overall 2016 military spending is over $1,200b ($1.2tn), while the Global Peace Index’ more comprehensive estimates the economic impact of violence at $13.6tn in 2015. Pertinent to Syria, the arms trade includes the black market with its ties to offshore banking, arms captured from government supplies or left over by the U.S. in Iraq and Libya, and arms provided by Saudi Arabia. Andrew Feinstein documents the constant flux of arms networks in which the constant availability of small arms and mobile weapons systems “….is undoubtedly a consequence of some of this violence, it is also a precipitating cause…. “ (p. 435).

Pledges to UN funds are risible. Total donations from member states to the UN World Food Program fell by 96% in 2014. Donations in 2016 were approximately $5b. Total pledged donations to the UN refugee agency covering Gaza and Syria (UNRWA) amounted to $1.2b in 2015; total 2016 pledged donations to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is $6.7b. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have taken in millions of Syrian refugees while liberal democracies incarcerate refugees in detention centers and send many back to violent regimes. Russia has taken in only 5,000 Syrian refugees. At present, there are seventy walled borders worldwide and 65.3 million refugees. More than 5,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean this year. .

Lawfare allows authoritarian regimes and national security elites to use the cover of humanitarian principles to perpetrate illegal interventions and war crimes: the Responsibility to Protect, and the Least Possible Evil. Human rights and social justice rulings are often more symbolic and politicized than real.
At the international level, there are no consequences or enforcement mechanisms for war crimes such as the US, Israeli, Saudi, Syrian/Russian bombing of hospitals. The UN Security Council is legally the ultimate arbiter of war and peace and is tasked with ending the scourge of war, but the five permanent members are nuclear-armed states, with Russia and the U.S. bound up in a new nuclear arms race. “Nine of the world’s top ten arms exporters will sit on the

UN Security Council between mid-2016 and mid-2018.” Saudi Arabia chairs the UN Human Rights Council.

The Vietnam antiwar movement differed significantly in its breadth and persistence from current single-focus, intermittent antiwar efforts. Eventually it linked together opposition to war, racism, poverty, and nuclear and biological/chemical weapons. A massive education and research component exposed colluding corporations, universities, and often — humanitarian aid. Not known then was the extent of government deception which led to millions of deaths. The complexity of the Syria war and global change requires simultaneously addressing many new fronts.

It is also urgent that an effective antiwar movement finally engage with climate change. The military is exempt under the Kyoto Protocol, and it is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But beyond that, the Pentagon and NATO define climate change as a “threat multiplier” and have assumed responsibility for climate security. This must be vigorously challenged. An incorrect and dangerous assumption is that climate disasters cause violence. One common interpretation of the Syrian uprising is that it was propelled by massive migrations to urban slums because of drought. But Abboud shows that the large migrations occurred before the drought and were brought about by neoliberal policies. There is a long history of environmental disasters leading to cooperation and not to violent eruptions, and a long history of militaries protecting the powerful and not the victims.

Syria will likely not disrupt holiday cheer in the West, while ominous dark clouds blow in with the new year. Putin and Trump pledge to enlarge nuclear arsenals, and Fallujah murderer and Haditha apologist James Mattis is putative US Secretary of Defence. Total wars against civilians fought with increasingly horrific technology demand an antiwar movement that aims to end the scourge of war: unrelenting opposition to the global arms trade, to militarization and austerity regimes, to resurgent racialized nationalism and closed borders, to all carbon emissions and nuclear weapons, and to colluding international institutions and lawfare.

More articles by:

Judith Deutsch is a member of the Socialist Project, Independent Jewish Voices, and  former president of Science for Peace. She is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She can be reached at:

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