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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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: 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 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 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 regime. 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 regime 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 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 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 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.

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Terry Burke is an educator and longtime disability rights and peace activist, working since 2012 with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (www​.cis​pos​.org). She can be reached at mplshiker@​gmail.​org.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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