Opposing war means opposing dictatorship

How should the antiwar movement answer the questions about violence and imperialism in Syria today? Rory Fanning, a member of Veterans for Peace and author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America, and Brian Bean of the International Socialist Organization consider the question in light of the formation of U.S. Hands Off Syria, a new and not-so-antiwar alliance.

Syrian government troops pose with portraits of dictator Bashar al-AssadSyrian government troops pose with portraits of dictator Bashar al-Assad

A DEBATE about violence and repression in Syria is raging on the antiwar left internationally. There is a lot at stake.

The U.S. antiwar movement currently lacks the numbers and momentum to effectively challenge the ongoing wars perpetuated by Democratic President Barack Obama that will undoubtedly continue--and possibly intensify--with the next president. So rebuilding antiwar struggle must be a priority of the left. And the health of what we build will rest, in part, on how we deal with the Syria question.

The issue in question is what attitude the left should take toward the more-than-five-year-old anti-government uprising that started during the 2011 Arab Spring--and toward the Syrian regime and its international allies that are trying to crush the revolt.

Unfortunately, a significant part of the left has chosen to side against the popular uprising--because of a false logic that since the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies in Russia and Iran are generally, though not always, hostile toward the U.S., they must be challenging imperialism, while the Syrian rebels opposing the regime must be doing the work of the American empire.

This faction on the left has coalesced around a new organization called U.S. Hands Off Syria that is seeking support from antiwar organizations like Veterans For Peace--of which one of the authors of this article is a member. We believe that the politics and analysis of the U.S. Hands Off Syria coalition are hazardous to rebuilding the kind of movement we need.

U.S. Hands Off Syria is exclusively focused on opposing U.S. military intervention and what it claims is Washington's determination to achieve regime change in Syria. But this means the coalition and those who endorse it ignore the main source of the barbaric violence and repression in Syria today: the Assad government, its allies within the region and the Russian empire that backs Assad to the hilt.

U.S. Hands Off Syria and its endorsing organizations aren't taking an internationalist antiwar and anti-imperialist position. Their insistence, against the facts, that U.S. intervention is the chief cause of bloodshed and oppression in Syria leads them to accept--and in some cases even celebrate--the suffering inflicted on masses of Syrians by Assad's government and the Russian military.

It is not possible to build a broad and principled antiwar movement while supporting a dictator like Assad and an imperialist power like Vladimir Putin's Russia.

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TO BE clear. we are unequivocally opposed to U.S. military intervention in any form, from boots on the ground to a "no-fly zone." We are against United Nations intervention since--as the people of Haiti, for one, know--a UN occupation is still an occupation. We believe the U.S. government and the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have tried to use sections of the popular uprising as pawns to advance their interests, while opposing the mass struggle for democracy as a threat to their own rule over the Middle East.

We see the rise of Islamist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, previously known as the al-Nusra Front, as a disastrous consequence of U.S. imperial wars and Saudi and Gulf state patronage, as well as the maneuvering of the Assad regime to play on sectarian divisions in an effort to divide and destroy the revolution.

The situation in Syria is dire. There are no easy answers as to what must come next, but it is clear that anti-imperialists cannot embrace a tyrant and his powerful international backers. We reject the assertion that to be against U.S. imperialism, it is necessary to be silent about what Assad and Russia have done to Syria.

This is precisely what U.S. Hands Off Syria does. For example, in its points of unity, the coalition protests U.S. and European Union sanctions and implies that they are responsible for a refugee crisis that has forced half the Syrian population from their homes--as if the terrorist military onslaught of the regime and its Russian backer wasn’t the main thing driving Syrians to flee.

Has the U.S. made the situation worse for the people of Syria? Absolutely. For one thing, there would be no ISIS if not for the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq. Has Russia helped a dictator suppress and murder a democratic peaceful uprising? Absolutely.

These statements are not contradictory. They are two parts of an accurate understanding of the situation in Syria.

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THIS UNDERSTANDING must include defense of the right of the Syrian people to self-determination, which is being violated not just by U.S. imperialism, but Russian imperialism and regional powers such as Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah through their intervention on behalf of the Assad regime. The points of unity for U.S. Hands Off Syria pay lip service to national self-determination, but then make a mockery of this principle by claiming it justifies the Assad regime "request[ing] and accept[ing] military assistance from other countries" to crush a popular uprising.

The picture in Syria is too complicated to fit the simple formula of "campism" inherited from 1950s Stalinism that is being put forward by groups in U.S. Hands Off Syria. But it must be said that the facts of Syria's nightmare today are not complicated at all.

To stand by the "campist" understanding of the war in Syria means omitting the fact that it was started by the Assad regime when it mobilized its well-armed military to crush peaceful demonstrations demanding democracy. The regime's escalation of violence led to rebels taking up arms. How is this an antiwar position?

It means not opposing the genocidal bombardment of Aleppo being carried out by Russian warplanes and various ground forces, both from Syria and not, that has turned half of the city into ruins and made Aleppo the most bombed city since the Second World War. How is this an antiwar position?

U.S. Hands Off Syria has no comment about the regime's scorched-earth policy against revolutionary Homs, Daraa, Deir-el Zour and Damascus suburbs that is crystallized in the pro-regime slogan "Either Assad or We'll Burn this Country." How is this an antiwar position?

Its organizers apologize for the slaughter, imprisonment and torture of Syrian activists who have been mobilizing protest for nearly six years. How is this a peace position?

The answer is that it is not.

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U.S. HANDS Off Syria supporters dismiss criticism of the Syrian regime and Russia by talking about a U.S. media bias that "demonizes Assad" and builds support for "regime change."

The confusion is perhaps understandable because the U.S. mainstream media is biased toward defending U.S. foreign policy. So, for example, Western news outlets reported on Russia's bombardment of Aleppo, but have downplayed the U.S. war in Yemen.

Opponents of American wars have a well-founded and necessary distrust of the media. But it is naïve to not have a similar distrust of the Russian-funded RT.com or the Syrian state SANA media.

We should criticize the duplicity and hypocrisy of the U.S. political and media establishment. But acknowledging this doesn't mean ignoring the fact that Bashar al-Assad has been a brutal dictator overseeing a totalitarian police state, like his father did before him. This tyranny is what sparked the uprising in Syria, as part of the Arab Spring rebellions in North Africa and the Middle East. Assad's attempt to suppress the revolution is completely in keeping with the regime's autocratic record before 2011.

Instead of taking a critical position toward ruling classes of any country, U.S. Hands Off Syria has no criticism of Russia or the Assad regime. Indeed, one of the groups that has signed on to this coalition, the U.S. Peace Council, is currently holding meetings across the country for a "peace delegation" to report back on its visit (partially funded by the Syrian state) to Syria that included a two-hour meeting with Assad.

The "peace" delegation characterizes all resistance to the regime as the work of "foreign-backed mercenaries" and "jihadist terrorists," to quote Joe Jamison of the U.S. Peace Council in his presentation in Chicago earlier this month. This is a grotesque slander of the many Syrians fighting for freedom who are not associated with fundamentalist groups.

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WE MUST listen to the voices of Syrians who have been struggling since 2011. Though the militarization imposed on the struggle by the violence of the regime has channeled the resistance in a particular direction--and given an outsized influence to counterrevolutionary Islamist forces, just as the Assad regime had hoped--there are still plenty of sources that provide the point of view of the struggle from below in Syria. A group of mainly white American leftists who get a stage-managed tour of the country by the Syrian regime should not have the final word.

We shouldn't ignore the fact that U.S. Peace Council and U.S. Hands Off Syria are the product of the continuing influence of Stalinist politics on the antiwar movement.

The U.S. Peace Council itself is the American section of the World Peace Council, formed in 1949 by the regime of Joseph Stalin as a tool for the purpose of using Communist Parties outside Russia to further the foreign policy aims of the USSR. The council's "two-camp" view held that world was divided into a peace-loving progressive bloc united around the USSR and a warmongering capitalist bloc "spearheaded by the United States."

But as other socialists and opponents of war recognized at the time, the WPC's parroting of Stalinist foreign policy left the council in the position of defending Russian "peace-loving" tanks when they moved in to crush workers' uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, among other rebellions in the USSR's Eastern European empire.

The WPC also supported the Russian invasion of Afghanistan starting in 1979 and claimed to be "in solidarity" with Afghan people against U.S. and Chinese aggression. This "peace-loving" invasion left over a million dead, hundreds of thousands disabled, huge numbers made refugees and the countryside littered with mines.

The position of an independent left must be to stand with people fighting for freedom and justice against their rulers. Syrians who want Assad gone deserve solidarity from peace activists in the U.S. Are we to tell the people of Syria that we can't comment or support their right to be free from tyranny because the U.S. has voiced support for parts of the resistance and provided some material backing?

Antiwar organizations should not fall for "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" approach. In this case, it ends up providing a cover for supporting war and imperialism.

U.S. imperialism is a behemoth that must be opposed, but it is not the only threat to peace and democracy in the world. We have to consistent with our arguments. We should not support any imperialist project or dictator. U.S. Hands Off Syria does support these things. We have to be clear that this alliance is not a peace group, or we will never be able to win people to making a larger movement against war, occupation and oppression.

To paraphrase an old slogan: Neither Washington nor Moscow, but democracy and self-determination in every country of the world.