U.S. Peace Activists Should Start Listening to Progressive Syrian Voices

A U.S.-centric view of the conflict gives Assad a free pass.

Terry Burke

At a July 10, 2013 rally against U.S. intervention in Syria, many protesters waved pro-Assad flags. (Michael Fleshman / Flickr)

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 régime.” 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 U.S. peace activists.

Many "anti-imperialists" rightly condemn the U.S. but say 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.

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 U.S.-centric lens, con­cerned only with the U.S. 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 régime, 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 WarIsAC​rime​.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.]

The cur­rent Vice Pres­i­dent of Vet­er­ans for Peace, Ger­ry Con­don, recent­ly returned from a week­long U.S. Peace Coun­cil trip to Syr­ia, where a del­e­ga­tion met direct­ly with Bashar Assad and oth­er régime 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. to bomb Assad’s run­ways or for U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion (and of which I am a mem­ber), has been con­demned by anti-impe­ri­al­ists” for host­ing events with expats who sup­port U.S. 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 U.N. Human Rights Coun­cil, Physi­cians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have issued numer­ous reports con­demn­ing the Assad régime’s bar­rel bombs, star­va­tion sieges and tor­ture pris­ons. Clear­ly the actions of the forces of the gov­ern­ment far out­weigh the vio­la­tions” by rebels, said U.N. 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 régime 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: U.S. Hands Off Syr­ia” and No U.S. War on Syr­ia.” But these slo­gans reflect a typ­i­cal­ly U.S.-centric view of the con­flict: They right­ly con­demn the U.S. 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, Anti​War​.com, Con­sor­tium News and oth­ers present a nar­ra­tive in which the U.S., its allies and its régime 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 régime. VIPS chose their intel from cher­ry-picked U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. posi­tion on the wars in Viet­nam, Korea, Cuba, Ango­la, Nicaragua and El Sal­vador. The analy­sis that the Unit­ed States was pro­mot­ing régime change was cor­rect in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (19602015), 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 U.S. 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 régime’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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 régime 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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