The War in Syria Cannot Be Won. But It Can Be Ended.
October 31, 2016
We need a powerful movement demanding an end to the war in Syria. The United States and to some extent the global antiwar movements remain largely paralyzed. There are some campaigns responding to specific congressional and other war moves, with some particularly good work against US support for Saudi Arabia. But as a movement, we seem unable to sort through the complexity of the multi-layered wars raging across Syria, and unable to respond to our internal divisions to create the kind of powerful movement we need to challenge the escalating conflict.
It was easier during earlier wars. Transforming public consciousness, changing US policy—those were all hard. But understanding the wars, building movements based on that understanding, that was easier. Our job was to oppose US military interventions, and to support anti-colonial, anti-imperialist challenges to those wars and interventions.
In Vietnam, and later during the Central American wars, that meant we all understood that it was the US side that was wrong, that the proxy armies and militias Washington supported were wrong, and that we wanted US troops and warplanes and Special Forces out. In all those wars, within the core of our movement, many of us not only wanted US troops out but we supported the social program of the other side—we wanted the Vietnamese, led by the North Vietnamese government and the National Liberation Front in the South, to win. In Nicaragua and El Salvador, we wanted US troops and advisers out and also victory for, respectively, the Sandinistas and the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). In South Africa we wanted an end to US support for apartheid and we also wanted the African National Congress to win.
The solidarity part got much harder in Afghanistan and especially in the Iraq wars. We stood in solidarity with ordinary Afghans and Iraqis suffering through US sanctions and wars, and some of our organizations built powerful ties with counterparts, such as US Labor Against the War’s links with the Iraqi oil workers union. And we recognized the right under international law for an invaded and occupied people to resist. But as to the various militias actually fighting against the United States, there were none we affirmatively supported, no political-military force whose social program we wanted to see victorious. So it was more complicated. Some things remained clear, however—the US war was still wrong and illegal, we still recognized the role of racism and imperialism in those wars, we still demanded that US troops get out.
Now, in Syria, even that is uncertain. Left and progressive forces, antiwar and solidarity activists, Syrian and non-Syrian, are profoundly divided. Among those who consider themselves progressive today, there is a significant though relatively small segment of activists who want their side to “win” the war in Syria. Only a few (thankfully, from my vantage point) support victory for what they often refer to as “Syrian sovereignty,” sometimes adding a reference to international law, and only sometimes acknowledging that that means supporting the current Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. (It should be noted that international recognition does not necessarily equal legitimacy; the South African apartheid regime was internationally recognized for decades.) A larger cohort wants to “win” the war for the Syrian revolution, the description they give to the post–Arab Spring efforts by Syrian activists to continue protesting the regime’s repression and working for a more democratic future. There is a deep divide.
Among those who want the Syrian regime to remain in power and the anti-regime opposition to be defeated, some base their position on the belief that Syria leads an “arc of resistance” in the Middle East—a claim long debunked by the actual history of the Assad family’s rule. From its 1976 enabling of a murderous attack on the Palestinian refugee camp of Tel al-Zataar in Beirut by right-wing Lebanese backed by Israel, to sending warplanes to join the US coalition bombing Iraq in 1991, to guaranteeing Israel a largely quiet border and quiescent population in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, to its role in interrogating and torturing outsourced US detainees in the “global war on terror,” Syria has never been a consistent anti-imperialist or resistance center.
Others in our movement want the opposition, or at least some part of it, to win against the regime. They support the independent, often progressive and indeed heroic activists who first challenged Damascus in nonviolent protests in 2011 and who continue to try to survive and build civil society amid war and terror. Their position, however, often ignores the enormous gap between those truly brave and amazing activists, on the one hand, and on the other hand the array of mostly not-very-progressive, indeed mostly reactionary and rarely heroic militias doing the actual fighting—against Assad’s forces, sometimes against ISIS, and often against civilians across the bloody Syrian battlefield. Those opposition fighters—including those deemed “moderate” by the United States and its allies as well as those acknowledged to be extremists or worse—are armed by Washington and its regional allies, and few appear interested in supporting any of the progressive goals the Syrian revolutionaries are working for. In our movement, this group is further divided between those backing a US-imposed no-fly zone or other military action to support the opposition, in the name of some version of “humanitarian intervention,” and those who oppose further US intervention.
We’ve certainly faced internal division before. During the 1998-99 Kosovo war, many on the left supported the US-NATO military involvement in one of the earlier versions of Western “humanitarian intervention.” Regarding Iraq, from 1991 through 12 years of crippling sanctions—genocidal in their impact—and both Iraq wars, differences rose sharply.
They divided those who saw Saddam Hussein as the enemy of the United States and therefore inherently worthy of support, and those capable of understanding that we could fight to end illegal US wars and sanctions and still refuse to support a ruthless dictator (who happened to have been a longtime Washington client himself), even if he now opposed the United States. But even in those difficult times, there was unity (however unacknowledged) in our opposition to the US war—there were two competing national antiwar marches, but they were both against the war. In the case of Syria today, even that is uncertain.
As it stands now, parts of our movement don’t just disagree on how to achieve the same goal, they actually want different results. Some in our movement support the side armed and backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, and some European countries; others defend the side armed and backed by Russia and Iran. It’s further complicated by those who appear to be hoping for a victory by the progressive non-military forces of the Arab Spring’s Syrian revolution, while others look to Rojava, the Syrian Kurdish enclave of progressive, feminist fighters, affiliated with the Turkey-based guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as their target of solidarity. Most of the intervening governments—including the United States, Russia, Europe, and Iran (though Saudi Arabia and Turkey remain uncertain at best)—want ISIS to lose.
The paralysis these divides have created in our movement is exacerbated by the fact that what we call “the war in Syria” is not one civil war. It is a complicated chessboard of players, with multiple wars being waged by outside forces fighting each other alongside the Syrian civil war still raging between the regime and its domestic opponents. Those outside forces are fighting for various regional, sectarian, and global interests that have little or nothing to do with Syria—except that it is Syrians doing the dying. Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting for regional hegemony and for Sunni versus Shi’a dominance; the United States and Russia are fighting for global and regional positioning, military bases, and control of resources; secular versus Islamist forces fight for dominance of the anti-Assad front; Turkey was fighting Russia (until recently, when it seemed to settle its differences with Russia before invading northern Syria, where now it is primarily going after the Kurds); the United States and Israel are fighting Iran (unlike in Iraq, where the United States and the Iranian-backed militias are on the same side in a broad anti-ISIS front); Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar vie for dominance among the Sunni monarchies; and while Turkey is fighting the Kurds, progressive Syrian Kurds are challenging the more traditional peshmerga of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government.
And then there’s ISIS fighting the Syrian regime and some of the regime’s opponents, while seeking to impose its brutal dominance over Syrian and Iraqi land and populations, while the United States, Russia, and a number of European countries, along with the Syrian and Iraqi governments, wage a lethal and increasingly global war against ISIS. And all of them fighting to the last Syrian.
Ending the War
Given all of that, it is important to recognize that by far the largest contingent of antiwar activists and progressives are not fighting to win the war for any side, but are committed to ending the war. And that can and does include many who also stand in solidarity with the incredibly brave activists who continue to struggle, the men and women who work beneath the bombs, beneath the mortar attacks, trying to maintain life in their besieged cities and towns.
But that part gets complicated too. Some of the civil-society groups working in opposition-held areas are supporting, one way or another, various armed factions backed by the United States and its allies that are fighting against the regime. Some—including some of the best-known humanitarian organizations—are supported financially and politically by the United States, Europe and/or their regional allies, who promote them as part of their propaganda war against the Assad regime. Some of them are mobilizing support for greater US military intervention. The exposés of some of these organizations’ backing, now being published by some of the best progressive journalists around, show important realities, helping us to understand how mainstream media coverage endorses and builds on the US government’s strategic goals. But many of those exposés also leave out crucial factors—including the often-wide gap between the goals of US imperialist policymakers and their ability to implement those goals.
Some sectors of the US establishment have long recognized how the Syrian regime, despite (and sometimes because of) its legacy of repression, often plays a useful role for US and Israeli interests. Conversely, some powerful US elements—neoconservatives and beyond—clearly want regime change in Syria. But that reality doesn’t mean that ordinary Syrians, many of whom were challenging the repressive regime in Damascus long before the infamous list of seven US regime-change targets in the Arab world was ever created, didn’t have their own entirely different and entirely legitimate reasons for opposing Assad. They are not all Syrian versions of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi criminal anointed by Washington neocons to lead their “liberation” of Iraq in 2003.
Neocon dreams of regime change in Syria do not make those neocon forces all-powerful. And they do not negate the legitimacy of the earlier indigenous political opposition movements that erupted in Syria in the context of the 2010-11 Arab Spring, just as they did in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere, or that of the continuing political opposition. The question of agency is far too often ignored or sidelined by even the most thorough investigations of nefarious US intentions. The fact that a humanitarian organization may be funded by official US institutions because it is deemed useful for Washington’s goals, or even created with the hope that it would help achieve those goals, does not mean that every activist within that organization is a tool of US imperialism.
The White Helmets (aka Civil Defense), for instance, clearly are getting money from the US State Department and have now (likely with encouragement and/or pressure from their US-government friends) officially called for a no-fly zone in Syria. Reporting and acknowledging that fact is important, but obviously their support for such a US military escalation does not make that demand legitimate for US or global antiwar forces any more than it did when some political activists in Libya called for the same kind of escalation there. A no-fly zone, as acknowledged by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, is an act of war. But it is crucial to simultaneously recognize and appreciate that the White Helmets are doing vital, indeed often heroic, humanitarian work, as first responders in opposition-held areas subject to murderous military assault. In the absence of state institutions or even sufficient international humanitarian organizations, such local initiatives, however compromised in the political/propaganda arena, play a crucial human role. Understanding those separate roles—the humanitarian and the propaganda—and recognizing they can exist simultaneously in a single organization, is important as we struggle to build a movement to end the war.
Over the long term, and regardless of who is elected president, we need to build a powerful movement to end the “global war on terror” and the militarization of US foreign policy that that war reflects. Right now, the centerpiece of that war is Syria. So we cannot put aside building such a movement because the divisions among our forces make it difficult.
Those who recognize the need to focus on building a movement to end the war should be able to unite around some combination of these demands of the US government:
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 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.
4. Increase US 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.
Except for perhaps the last, few of these demands are likely to be achieved in the short term. But it is up to us to build a movement that puts forward what an end to this murderous war could look like, as part of a movement to end the US “global war on terror” overall, and support the refugees created in its wake. The military alternatives now being debated will not end the war, and they do not protect vulnerable populations either. There is no military solution. It’s time we rebuilt a movement based on that reality.
Phyllis Bennis, director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ New Internationalism Project, is the author of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.
Copyright c 2016 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by Agence Global.
Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription to The Nation for just $9.50!