The left’s false logic on Syria

March 1, 2016

Stanley Heller, executive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee in Connecticut and host of "The Struggle" video news, contributes to the debate about the war in Syria, the conflict between imperialist and regional powers, and what the left should do about it.

IN THE war in Syria, much of the left is falling for the classic false logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend,"

The thinking is that since the U.S. government and "the West" are now opposing Russia's military intervention in Syria, among other conflicts, and they have long threatened Iran and other nations and forces that are part of the Shia bloc in the Middle East, these opponents of the U.S. must be the "good guys," or at least the "lesser evils."

It's a mistake. All the blocs are murderous and enemies of humanity. For left writers and journalists like Patrick Cockburn, Stephen Cohen and Robert Fisk to join the right-wing National Review and liberals like Steven Kinzer in cheering on Assad and Putin's conquests is awful. Actually, more than that, it is a calamity.

Now, since I will be accused of being naïve at best and neo-con slime at worst, I'll mention some my anti-imperialist bona fides: marching against the Vietnam war; arrested over South Africa; arrested over Nicaragua; arrested for yelling at George H.W. Bush about the hundreds of thousands he killed with sanctions in Iraq; and a demonstrator against the threatened U.S.-Israel war against Iran. As leader of the Middle East Crisis Committee in Connecticut, I also opposed Barack Obama's desire to bomb Syria in 2013. And there's the 33 years I've been working for Palestinian rights.

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Now let's talk about the Islamic State--not the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but the Islamic State of Iran (ISI).

It was completely right to oppose a U.S.-Israeli war on Iran. Iran was no danger to the U.S., nor an "existential" threat to Israel. However, one antiwar graphic commonly used to defend Iran at that time was misleading. It showed around 50 countries that the U.S. had attacked or sabotaged since the Second World War, and compared that record to Iran, which supposedly had zero victims on its list.

But that was wrong. The Iranian regime has for years been involved in attacking the people of Syria.

Iran's support for Assad is enormous. As Eli Lake wrote in a Bloomberg View column: "[A] spokeswoman for the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told me that the envoy estimates Iran spends $6 billion annually on Assad's government. Other experts I spoke to put the number even higher."

Last November the Pentagon estimated that Iran had 2,000 of its own troops in Syria, but that's just for starters. There's also Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, which has 6,000 to 8,000 fighters in Syria. Hezbollah is very close to Iran, if not completely an Islamic State of Iran asset. Its fighters are a key part of the sieges of Madaya and Moadamiyeh, which are causing scores to drop dead of starvation. There are also Iraqi Shia militias in Syria undoubtedly supported by Iran, along with undocumented Afghans living in Iran who have been recruited to fight in Syria.

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IRAN AND its allies are participating in an immense crime. Back in 2014, Michael Karadjis summarized the Assad regime's behavior in this way: "Assad has pretty much leveled every city in Syria, turned the whole country to rubble, killed over 100,000 people to be generous, tortured tens of thousands to death in medieval dungeons, bombed hospitals and schools with a fury rivaling the Zionist regime in Gaza, and at that very time, last August, had bombed hundreds of children in their sleep with chemical weapons."

That pretty much summed up the record then, but we need to add the regime's use of barrel bombs and its starvation sieges of hundreds of thousands of people since then. Until it stopped counting, the UN estimate 250,000 dead in the massacres and fighting, but recently, the Syrian Center for Policy Research issued a report saying that 470,000 Syrians have been killed.

Overwhelmingly, these people have been slaughtered by the Assad-Iran-Russia Triple Alliance. Free Syrian Army and Islamist forces don't have an air force or anything like the weaponry available to Assad and his friends. Even journalist Patrick Cockburn, who sees Assad as a lesser evil, admits that contested areas are "systematically bombarded by government aircraft and artillery, making them uninhabitable."

Among the victims are the people killed slowly in Assad's prisons. A United Nations report released on February 3 detailed "deaths on a massive scale" in Assad government facilities. It concluded, "There are reasonable grounds to believe that the conduct described amounts to extermination as a crime against humanity."

There's no reason to doubt the UN findings. They repeat what was shown in the thousands of photographs brought to Britain by defecting the Syrian army photographer "Caesar."

That Iran would ally with the brutal Assad gang should not be a huge surprise. Remember how the ISI came into being: In 1978 and '79, mass demonstrations often led by Marxist parties stayed out in the streets in Iran despite fearsome repression by the U.S.-backed regime. In the end, former guerrillas overwhelmed the Shah's guards, and the "Shah of Shahs" ran away.

Ayatollah Khomeini promised an Islamic revolution, a rejection of Western control and social justice without socialism. Within a month, he was showing what he meant by "revolution." The wearing of the hijab by women was made compulsory in all government and public offices, and the crudest repression was unleashed. The left was destroyed, and thousands of people were imprisoned. "[S]ummary execution of political prisoners became common practice," according to Index on Censorship. There were waves of executions, with the worst coming at the end of the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. "As the war ended, the government killed around 15,000 socialists, communists and members of the Mujahedin who were in prison," the Index on Censorship reported.

The Iranian regime still has a taste for execution. Last July, Amnesty International estimated that there had been almost 700 executions in Iran in just the first six moths of the year. This is far more than the 158 killed by the head-choppers of Saudi Arabia.

ON FEBRUARY 15, a Doctors Without Borders hospital was blown up in the northwestern town of Maarat al-Numan. Unlike a similar hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which was demolished by a U.S. air strike, the staff at this Syrian hospital had not given its GPS coordinates to the Syrian government. The reason is that the staff thought, given the record of Assad and Russian attacks on health facilities, they would be safer if they refused to coordinate with the Assad government.

According to Physicians for Human Rights, 240 health clinics have been bombed and 700 doctors and health workers killed in Syria, overwhelmingly by Assad forces.

Many of you will have seen the video from a Russian drone company showing the complete destruction of Homs, once a city of 600,000 people. There, too, should be no surprise. Putin's first "success" was his brutal victory in the second war on Chechnya, which the U.S. group Solidarity aptly called a "near-genocidal war."

Russia today is tyranny with a fig leaf of elections to try to provide legitimacy. Dissidents are murdered in the streets. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was shot to death in view of the Kremlin. Alexander Litvenenko was poisoned to death by radioactive polonium, and there have been many other political assassinations. Psychiatric punishment, like during the Soviet era, is back in vogue.

Oh, I "demonized" Putin. No apologies--his regime is an appalling capitalist kleptocracy. If his behavior inside Russia isn't revealing enough, consider the warm relations and military coordination between Russia and Israel. Then talk about lesser evils.

Russia has sold the Assad dynasty all manner of weapons for decades, and now, with its nonstop bombing, it may be the main killing force in Syria. The Washington Post reports that under a secret treaty with the government, "Russian military personnel and shipments can pass in and out of Syria at will, and aren't subject to controls by Syrian authorities...Syrians can't enter Russian bases without Russia's permission. " It's a classic colonial relationship.

What are other historical analogies here? I'm thinking that the closest one is Spain in the 1930s. One side is willing to use unlimited amounts of violence and is overwhelming supported by tyrannical outside forces. In Spain, it was Franco's fascists, supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Here, it's Assad backed by Russia and Iran.

In the 1930s, the Popular Front of liberals, revolutionaries and the Communist Party fought gamely, supported weakly by the Soviet Union. In Syria, revolutionaries (to hell with the term "moderates") and Islamists, including political reactionaries. Sure there are differences. In Spain, the left was "the government"--in Syria, the Assad dynasty is "the government." So what? The defeat of democratic forces in Spain was catastrophic. Think appeasement and the Second World War.

Obviously, this is just an analogy, with many differences between then and now. But if Aleppo is starved and bombed into submission, it's very possible Assad may succeed in retaking most or all of Syria, and that, too, will be catastrophic. There will be massive numbers of new refugees and a worldwide increase in the appeal of ISIS and al-Qaeda to Sunni Muslims. There will be a rightist frenzy in the U.S. about who "lost" Syria and demands for ever-tougher military actions toward Russia and Iran, with all the risks of a major war. And much of the left will have been disgraced by standing by and watching, or even applauding the process.

SO WHAT should the left be doing instead?

First, I want to deal with one argument that goes something like this: "The main enemy is at home. I have to pay taxes that support U.S. imperialism--that should be my main concern."

I agree up to a point. Certainly, you deal with things that are your personal responsibility, and of course, over the last two decades, "the West" has done much more killing than "the East." The million or so slain by sanctions against Iraq by the Bushes and Clintons is far larger than the number killed by Russia and Iran in Syria, at least so far. So, yes, we oppose U.S. wars in every way that we can.

But increasingly, "the main enemy" reasoning is being used to mean that the only thing we should deal with is U.S. government interventions and crimes. That's so screwed up. It's a betrayal of people who are or should be our friends. It's also supremely foolish to think that that secondary enemies can't be deadly, too. Lesser evil can still be monstrous.

So what concrete things should the left be demanding and doing? We should follow the playbook of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign that Palestinian activists have devised.

First off, we must demand the breaking of the sieges. An incredible number of people are under siege in Syria. Back in January, pictures of people in skeletal condition in Madaya went viral, but that's just scratching the surface. There's something like a million people living under siege in Syria. It's a war crime and was specifically forbidden by the United Nations Security Council in 2014.

We should call for the UN (and if that fails, the U.S.), to defy the sieges and start airdrops of humanitarian relief. CODEPINK has a petition to that effect with over 2,000 signers. British efforts have been even more successful, getting over 60,000 signers. Food convoys are obviously a better way to send in aid. The U.N. should send them without asking for "permission" from Assad forces.

Second, demonstrate in public, in front of Russian or Iranian consulates or embassies, and at speaking events. The goal should be to expose and shame them--and we should bring signs about U.S. and Saudis outrages to discourage attendance by rightists.

Third, refuse to appear on Russian or Iranian television. It's shocking that people on the left would accept employment on Iran's Press TV or Putin's Russia Today. Even answering their press queries is debatable.

Fourth, boycott Russian and Iranian goods. I know the U.S. government is just now ending its sanctions on Iran--sanctions that were deadly in their impact. I'm not talking about that. I'm advocating a people's boycott of companies and persons connected to the regimes. Just as we do with Palestine, make lists of products and companies, and peacefully but loudly harass them.

Fifth, correct the narrative being spread by pro-Assad writers. There should be a total U.S. break with the Saudi "Kingdom of Horrors"--but increasingly, we're hearing a liberal-left narrative that says the Saudis started the violence in Syria, in coordination with the U.S. Actually, the Saudis didn't even publicly criticize Assad until six months after the start of the popular uprising in 2011.

True, Saudi Arabia has funded jihadis, among other militias, but the Saudis and the U.S. are only the number-three culprit in creating the Syrian disaster. Assad is clearly number one, and his allies are number two.

Sixth, oppose any U.S.-Russian dictated settlement for Syria. No to forcing an Assad-led "coalition" government onto Syria. All of the imperial and regional powers should butt out and stick to humanitarian work.

Is it too late for Syria? A big BDS campaign takes years to get going, but the start of a serious effort will be noticed immediately by Russia and Iran. It could change their behavior.

And even if they won't stop their assault and Aleppo does fall, it will not be over, just like the cause of Spain was never really extinguished. It lived on in guerrilla actions and workers' struggles until the Franco regime was brought down.

As the left cried out in Spain: "No pasaran!" They shall not pass.

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