1. It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks since Barack Obama announced that US armed forces would launch a military attack on Syria, because of the Assad regime’s alleged use of poison gas in the civil war there.
Day by day, drama ensued. Global support was minimal. The British parliament voted against participating. The UN Security Council would not endorse it, nor would NATO. Representatives in Congress demanded a debate. Inconsistent and shifting statements from the administration about what was planned, and when, and even why, deepened the drama. Syria and Russia seized on one such statement, by Secretary of State John Kerry, to force the US to agree to negotiate over a plan for stripping Syria of its chemical weapons without an attack.
As news reports track the changing situation, we should not lose sight of one key thing: the principal factor in forestalling this attack is massive opposition from citizens of the US. From the start polls were negative, and only got more so. Senators and Representatives report being deluged by call and emails. Protests developed in smaller cities and towns across the country.
2. It is imperative that the attack be stopped dead, not just stalled.
The immediate results of a drone and bomber attack on Assad regime will be death and destruction for the Syrian people. Short term, it will intensify and probably prolong the bloody civil war there and increase the likelihood that the US military will be drawn deeper in. Already there’s talk of sending “advisors” to train forces in the Syrian armed opposition to use the vehicles, state-of-the-art communications equipment, and “light” weapons that the CIA and American allies like Saudi Arabia are shipping to them in massive quantities.
Longer term, it will result in more suffering for the Syrian people and more refugees. It will also increase hatred for the US and strengthen Islamic reactionaries and jihadists, the best organized forces opposing the US in the region. The consequences for the people there will be dire.
3. The official rationale for the attack is to punish the use of poison gas by the Assad regime, a crime under international law.
It seems highly likely that sarin gas was used in the Damascus suburbs (although the UN inspection team has not yet issued a report). What’s unclear is who did it, with three main possibilities: Assad ordered it; some Syrian Army officer did it without authorization; or it was done by elements in the armed opposition either by mistake, or as a false flag operation.
For the US to claim the right to judge which international laws get enforced and which ignored is just bizarre. The most deadly use of poison gas since World War 2 was committed by Iraqi forces with CIA oversight and assistance at the town of Halabja. Nor has there been any mention of Israel’s massive chemical warfare program, which was confirmed by US intelligence years ago.
The proposed attack on Syria itself would be a massive violation of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, governing circumstances under which one country may lawfully attack another.
Defenders of the plan for a US attack sometimes do a humanitarian bait-and-switch. They say that Assad has killed over 100,000 of his countryman, and to let him get away with it is like letting Hitler go unchallenged. To be sure, Bashar al-Assad is a brutal ruler (twice victor in one-candidate elections) and a target of massive protests during the Arab Spring. But that 100,000 number is the overall death toll in the civil war which has been raging in Syria over the last two years. Many of those deaths were caused by the Free Syrian Army and the other forces which make up the disunited Syrian armed opposition.
4. What are our rulers trying to get out of this? There are obvious splits in ruling circles over the advisability of attacking Syria.
One big stake is oil. Syria has no significant reserves, but planned pipelines to fuel Europe run directly across its territory. More important, Syria has become a proxy in the complex protracted battle for dominance in the Middle East. At the regional level, this pits Shi’ite-ruled societies like Iran, Iraq and Syria against the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Barely behind the curtain, though, are the US imperialists (joined at the hip to the Zionist state in Israel), and so are their Russian and Chinese rivals, backing Syria and Iran. Our own imperialists want to reinforce Israel, weaken the Iranian regime and maintain regional stability to keep the oil (and the petrodollars) flowing.
The debates over the costs of various courses of action, with the dangers posed by direct US intervention, manifest a constant theme: Will whatever the US does in Syria be worth the likely price of intensified hatred from the masses of people in the region, and throughout the Islamic world, the kind produced by the devastation of Iraq?
At the same time, the instability of the situation causes some to argue that the safest course of action is to make sure the Syrian civil war continues, with no force permitted to approach victory. This would weaken the bloc of governments hostile to the US in the region, without giving too much of a boost to the Saudis and Gulf emirates. The death and devastation such a calibrated approach would cause the Syrian people is presumably an unfortunate side effect.
5. Will failing to act decisively in Syria weaken the US?
We certainly hope so. US imperialism is still the most ferocious enemy of the people of the world, even though its dominance has been considerably diminished over the past two decades. If inability to follow through on saber-rattling or to impose the US will in some other part of the globe shows weakness and further decline in US dominance, that’s an important and positive thing.
There is also an opportunity for the current contradictions within the ruling class and political leaders about the attack on Syria to set a precedent against the unilateral power of the President to take military action. Putting pressure on Congress now to fully uphold and defend the War Powers Resolution can help put the brakes on future US aggression.
6. Shouldn’t we be supporting someone in this war?
There are some assumptions in this question that need to be unpacked. First, we must consider what concrete support we as revolutionary socialists in the US can actually give. In the short term at least there is little we can do to support any side or group.
It is also important to remember that the anti-war movement has no leverage to fine-tune a military intervention. Once an attack is underway it will not necessarily be limited to the goals stated at the beginning. If some convincing and positive proposal in Congress or the United Nations actually gets traction, then we can evaluate it. But we have very little capacity to generate such proposals or force them into the public discourse.
The Syrian opposition to the Assad dynasty has many roots: an economic crisis and population dislocation triggered by several years of severe drought (likely caused by global warming); a government that represses civil society and has maintained rule over the Sunni Muslim majority by means of massacres and persecution; and the inspiration drawn by urban workers and intellectuals from the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt.
So why not root for them? Even during a period of brutally repressed demonstrations, opposition forces adopted the strategy of overthrowing Assad by force of arms, triggering a civil war. With no central command, hundreds of local militias picked up the gun. The majority of the armed opposition tentatively allied under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, but the FSA is based outside of the country and has shown limited ability to organize and command the hundreds of groups affiliated to it.
The best organized, funded and supplied forces to emerge have been Sunni fundamentalists like the Al Nusra Front and its recent split-off, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which have recruited many experienced jihadi fighters from outside Syria. Both the FSA and its rivals have been responsible for sectarian attacks on Alawi Muslims, the Shi’ite sect to which the Assads belong, and Syrian Christians. These two minority groups each make up about 10% of the country’s population and have found themselves forced to rally around the Assad regime, as have many secular Sunnis. Now there are frequent armed clashes pitting Al Nusra and the Islamic State against the Free Syrian Army as well as the government, as they seek to dominate a post-civil war Syria.
A single bright spot is that the Kurdish population in Syria’s Northeast (10% of the country’s total) has started to exercise its right to self determination by taking control of most of the region where they predominate. This is similar to what Iraq’s Kurds have done in the North of that country since the first Gulf War. Many regard this as the next step in creating a cross-border autonomous region and eventually a new state for the largest nation in the Middle East without one. The Kurdish Supreme Committee permits the armed opposition to cross their area, but has, in the main, refused to take part in the civil war.
7. A few of the better recent analyses of the internal situation in Syria raise an important issue largely ignored by the mass media: the probable contribution of the global climate crisis to the political crisis there.
From 2006 to 2011, a severe drought hit Syria’s Western agricultural areas. While periodic droughts are nothing new there, this one was deep and extended, most likely exacerbated by global warming. The result was serious social dislocation, with herds dying of thirst or liquidated and farmers abandoning the countryside for the cities. There they had to compete for scarce jobs and resources with long time residents and also Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
While there was no widespread famine, like those which had caused rioting in much of the Third World in the second half of the decade, demands on the Assad government for jobs and relief provided tinder for protests inspired by those which had already toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes.
Droughts and the ensuing fall in water tables, crop failures and herd collapses will doubtless make their mark on increasing swathes of the world in coming years. The suffering caused by this and the disruptions and even breakdown of the old social order are factors we will have to take into account in our analyses of developments on a global scale.
8. Our immediate tasks
We have a big job on our plate. It is essential to stop (not just postpone) a US military attack on Syria. We also have to do so in a way that makes it difficult for them to carry out less blatant forms of intervention in the Syrian civil war
We do so under circumstances far more favorable than we are used to. From the first announcement of the proposed attack on the Assad regime, polls showed the people of this country were not behind it. This sentiment got stronger and stronger over the days that followed.
It turns out that the famously short historical memory in the country extends back at least a decade, to the invasion of Iraq. Lies about WMDs and fantasies about an easy and painless armed attack sounded familiar–and alarming. And people even remember that the US helped arm and train Osama Bin Laden’s forces while he was part of the Islamic fundamentalist armed resistance to Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.
(One unusual factor that deserves mention is the strong opposition from many in the white conservative base of the Republican Party, Tea Partiers, and libertarians. Some are essentially isolationists who actually oppose US military adventures as a rule. More just hate anything identified with Obama, period. Of course there can be no question of political unity with these forces.)
It wasn’t just public opinion polls that got the message across. People spontaneously called their Senators and Representatives in massive numbers, stunning their staffs. These politicians started to speak out against war in Syria or at least to express skepticism. That, and the British parliamentary vote to reject participation, forced Obama to say he would put the issue before Congress, something he had never intended to do. The flood of opposition continued to swell, and the administration announced that it was postponing a vote to pursue global negotiations.
This opposition has to be strengthened and made effective. If and when a vote in Congress does take place, it will surely be carefully framed to appear as narrow and limited. We have to work now to increase that Congressional “No” vote. Politicians who have committed to oppose the attack should be encouraged to stick to that decision; those who are wavering should be forced to commit; and those who support the attack should catch some fire.
That means calling their offices. Get friends, coworkers, and neighbors to call. Petitions make less impact than calls. But even more important than calls is organizing protest in the streets, and in our workplaces and communities.
Demonstrations around Syria started off small and low-spirited. But by the end of the second week of the crisis, they were taking place outside of the usual demo belt, in small cities and towns where the last protest may have taken place during the height of the Iraq War. This is excellent! It should be kept up as long as practical.
Meanwhile in our organizing, we can strengthen the arguments against US aggression by referring to recent events. The deadly series of car-bombs in Iraq, the murderous US drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, the collapse of the Libyan economy, the coup staged by the Egyptian military (with US backing and financing)—all of these reenforce how correct the masses are in their instinctive rejection of an attack on Syria.
We must also be prepared for this issue to recede in months to come. It is in the interests of the Obama Administration to minimize it rapidly, whether they are still intent on a “display of strength” aerial attack on Syria or instead on intervening in other ways. So time is of the essence to decisively crush this attack, and lay the groundwork for a movement that can also beat the next outburst of US aggression.Download this piece as a PDF