The enormity, complexity and fall-out of the Syrian war calls for urgent attention. Current events in Aleppo bring to the fore the unreliability of information and dichotomous political positions that contribute to obstruction and paralysis in the antiwar movement. Conflicting reports make unclear the number of civilians and fighters who have been evacuated, their condition, their political beliefs, their situation as refugees in Idlib, the civilian toll perpetrated by all sides. Instead of verifiable facts and pertinent history, much that is said about Aleppo is speculation about the future, about whether the re-taking of rebel areas of Aleppo will consolidate Bashar al-Assad’s hold or whether it will engender even worse violence. There is much second guessing of the imperial and geopolitical aims of international players.
Damaged buildings in Aleppo, Syria.
Perhaps one significant difference as of December 20th is that Russia and China have not vetoed UN Security Council Resolution 2328 (2016) “Demanding immediate, unhindered access for observation of monitoring civilian evacuations from Aleppo.” Since the onset of the war, Russia vetoed six and China vetoed five Security Council resolutions. Also, Iran, Russia, and Turkey have just agreed to guarantee Syrian peace talks but have been unwilling to include other parties in their planning.
Debating the Syrian War
In October, Bassam Haddad wrote in The Nation, “The Debate Over Syria Has Reached a Dead End,” that “two warring narratives now dominate discussions – and neither is sufficient.” Haddad argued that “the heart-wrenching news from Syria have [has] been saturated with data, analysis, information, and misinformation on developments” and that both sides have adopted hypocritical stances regarding intervention.
The binary positions leave out the effects of recent history, especially the impunity accorded to nation states acting in violation of international law: the UN Iraq sanctions that starved a half million Iraqi children, the sieges of Fallujah and Gaza, the uses of unconventional weapons, the Saudi, U.S., Israeli, Syrian attacks on health facilities and on civilians, and the atrocities perpetrated against civilians and their essential infrastructure by most modern states. Gilbert 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.
There is much division on the Left. At one pole is the U.S.-based United National Antiwar Coalition’s (UNAC) full support of the Assad regime. Richard Fidler summarizes and critiques a range of other positions of the Western Left noting a division regarding Syria on (1) whether to focus on an antiwar movement targeting all factions or only to fight against “your own government’s drive to war,” or (2) whether to support the Syrian people against the forces of imperialism and authoritarianism. Fidler disagrees with this dichotomizing in that “building mass antiwar movements is precisely the clearest and most direct way to express solidarity with the victims of imperialist war and the democratic and revolutionary forces on a global scale.”
The current French antiwar movement, for example, is at least actively demanding an immediate end to the bombing in Syria, departure of foreign militias and occupation armies, international prosecution of war criminals, French government assurance of protection of Syrian people who do not have “the necessary means to defend themselves against the air bombing,” access to the besieged and starving populations in coordination with elected local councils, and the freeing of all political prisoners. However, these demands leave out some of the crucial details that beleaguer effectiveness: what are the “necessary means” of defense against bombing, and what will the French actually offer to the besieged population?
From Samer Abboud’s Syria (Polity, 2016), often neglected points about the political economy and recent history can be summarized.
- 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 per cent 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. 2.7 million are in Turkey, 1.5 million in Lebanon, and 1.2 million in Jordan. Canada has taken in 36,000 Syrians, Russia 5,000, and the U.S. has accepted 16,000 people.
- Abboud reviews the failures to deal with the continued use of chemical weapons. Following the agreement between Russia and the U.S. 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… [U]nraveling 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 (pp. 120-161).
Phyllis Bennis calls for stopping the Global War on Terror. In her October, 2016 article in The Nation, “The War in Syrian Can Not Be Won. But It Can Be Ended,” Bennis contended that “the left is profoundly divided over the [Syrian] conflict, but we should at least agree on a set of principles to end it.” She proposed:
- “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.
- Work to achieve a full arms embargo on all sides, challenging the U.S. and global arms industry. Stop the train-and-equip programs. Stop allowing U.S. allies to send weapons into Syria, making clear that if they continue they will lose all access to U.S. 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.
- 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.
- Increase U.S. support for refugees and other regional humanitarian needs. Make good on all pledges to UN funds, and vastly increase money and aid to UN agencies as well as the number of refugees welcomed for resettlement in the United States…”
The Global Arms Race
The U.S. military industrial complex extends to over one thousand overseas bases; U.S. arms flow directly or through proxies throughout the Middle East. Any effective action to end the Syrian war, must also take on U.S. involvement and its military. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s figure for overall 2016 military spending is over $1.2-trillion. The Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index more comprehensive estimate of the economic impact of violence was $13.6-trillion in 2015. The arms trade also 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 particularly by Saudi Arabia. Andrew Feinstein, in his The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade (2011), researched the constant flux of arms networks in which the ready 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).
The Vietnam antiwar movement differed significantly in its breadth and persistence from current antiwar efforts. It followed the repressive McCarthy era and the Cuban missile crisis. Eventually the movement reached a wider public and military personnel, and it linked together opposition to war, racism, poverty, and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. A massive education and research component exposed colluding corporations, universities, and at times – humanitarian aid. Not known then was the extent of government deception which led to millions of deaths.
In contrast to war spending are the dramatic reductions from member states to UN aid programs. Total donations from member states to the UN World Food Program fell by 96 per cent in 2014. Donations in 2016 were approximately $5-billion. At present, there are seventy walled borders worldwide and 65.3 million refugees. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey have taken in millions of refugees while liberal democracies incarcerate refugees in detention centers and send them back to violent regimes.
The Antiwar Movement in Canada
Neoliberal democracies including the United States, Canada, and Israel, use “lawfare” to rationalize illegal military and policing interventions. Principles like the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ and ‘Least Possible Evil’ are used by authoritarian leaders and elite national security bureaucrats to perpetrate illegal interventions and war crimes.
Canada participates with a hypocritical veneer of peacekeeping and liberalism. In reality, Canada is now the 2nd largest arms exporter to the Middle East, having just sold $15-billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Canada is the 6th largest arms exporter worldwide. The Trudeau government has further weakened arms export regulations to countries with gross human rights violations. Canada was one of the only non-nuclear weapons states this last October to vote against a UN resolution to eliminate nuclear weapons and has secretly contributed to U.S. missile defense. The Trudeau government is upping military deployment in questionable and provocative NATO missions encircling Russia. Canadian pension funds invest heavily in Canadian, American, and Israeli weapons. Like other western neoliberal democracies, military spending increases, the extractive industries expand, while social programmes suffer big cuts.
Syria is still treated as a distant reality. Psychotically, Syria will likely not disrupt holiday cheer, while ominous dark clouds loom over the new year. The global war against the people (as Jeff Halper refers to militarized neoliberalism) is being fought with political impunity and with increasingly horrific technology. It demands an antiwar movement in Canada and the U.S. that is unrelenting in its opposition to the global arms trade, to militarization and austerity regimes, to resurgent racialized nationalism and closed borders, and to ineffectual international institutions. •
Judith Deutsch is a columnist for Canadian Dimension Magazine, former president of Science for Peace, and a psychoanalyst by profession.