Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. Again?


On April Fool’s Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, representatives of right-wing Middle East oil states, assorted other states and the "Syrian National Council" met in Turkey as "Friends of Syria" to plot new approaches to end the Assad regime's ongoing battles with an insurgent movement. Despite the fact that the insurgents constituted a complex and contradictory mix of authentic democrats, religious fundamentalists, even elements of Al Queda – the wealthy Arab states pledged to shell out $100 million to pay opposition fighters while Clinton promised "communications equipment" to help the insurgents evade Syria's military.

Based on past experiences, such seemingly modest beginnings of foreign interventions in domestic conflicts inexorably lead to escalations when the objects of such pressure refuse to yield. That may be the case in Syria where Clinton, with characteristic institutional arrogance, called upon the uncontrollable Bashar Assad to leave his presidency – something that is not at this political moment in the cards.

The peace movement, to this point, has been virtually silent on the Syrian conflict – despite the existence of peaceful alternatives that are worthy of support. That silence is perhaps understandable in light of an urgent priority to prevent an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
There is also the unmistakable reality of Syrian forces engaged in killing and maiming thousands of civilians in a war that for many is ambiguous – with a corrupt and repressive regime facing ill-defined forces backed by reactionary foreign powers and anchored by a "Free Syrian Army" – itself charged with torture and summary executions.

Another reason for ambiguity and confusion is imperialism's historic legacy in the Middle East. The French trusteeship over Syria after World War I planted the seeds of sectarian conflict when various religious and ethnic groups were either arbitrarily thrown together or split apart. After Syria gained independence in the wake of World War II, the Alawite minority (2 million out of 22 million), an offshoot of Shi'a Islam, had been so politically welded to the larger Syria that it could not separate despite its fervent wish to end discrimination it suffered by becoming independent.

Post-colonialist instability in Syria had bought fifteen postwar coups that culminated in the seizure of power in 1970 by a faction of the Ba'ath Party led by Alawite General Hafez al-Assad.

One of the characteristic legacies of colonial rule is stunted development of the working class, repressed unions and a brutalized, scattered left. Under such circumstances, the military (or a faction within) whose officers are often educated and trained in matured industrial countries becomes the crucial — and contradictory — force for modernization.

Assad in power launched extensive public works, improved health care and education. He also stacked the military and government with faithful Alawites while opening business opportunities for majority Sunnis as well as extending equal citizenship for Christians and Druzes. In foreign policy Assad cultivated independence from the US-NATO bloc, establishing close strategic and military relations with the USSR. At the same time, Assad and his Alawite and Ba'ath compatriots clamped a mercilessly repressive regime upon the country, employing a huge security system to assure political control. In the words of one of the leading experts on Syria, Elaine Hagopian: "For his ability to bring stability to Syria after years of dismal coups …  he was loved by his people. For his tight control over political freedom of expression and patronage of his faithful Alawite followers, they hated him."

That contradictory situation in part explains the murkiness of the present lethal struggle going on in Syria. Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his deceased father, helped bring about a relatively more open and relaxed society. While the security apparatus did not go away, it became less intrusive. But beneath the surface of a seemingly self-confident society, the continuing smothering of democracy and Alawite corruption finally brought about a Syrian variant of the Arab Spring and a murderous response by the military and security forces that has claimed more than nine-thousand lives to this point.

The desire of large segments of Syrian society for an end to repression, for democratic change, for economic opportunity and a better life free from corruption-driven Alawite domination has moved them into the streets to face the military's guns. On the other side are large numbers who have benefited from largesse bestowed by the Assad modernization drive, privileged Alawites and various religious minorities that have won equality and now fear its loss should fundamentalist elements and al-Queda fractions emerge from within the rising insurgency.

Their fears are not allayed by the existence of the "Free Syrian Army," that contains rogue elements along with little political coherence, and the Syrian National Council, materially and perhaps spiritually distant from the democratic forces in the streets. Expatriate opportunists within the Council offer little hope for a corruption-free post-Alawite regime. The Council appears to be united only by a desire to get rid of Bashar, while eager to enlist the intervention of the US, NATO and reactionary oil states to force his removal.

Silence among peace activists cannot be justified in the light of historic experience that no matter how seemingly minimal foreign military intervention may initially appear; more violence and killing are inevitable. At this moment the US and the Arab oil states are willing only to dole out money instead of guns to the insurgents – fearing that guns could wind up in the hands of al Queda-type operatives. But with Hillary Clinton's stated aim of ridding Syria of Bashar (sure to stiffen the Alawites" resistance), with chances that a projected ceasefire may not take hold – lethal weapons will be next; there will be escalating violence and many more deaths.

With Washington at this moment handing out "communications equipment" to the insurgents, its intervention on one side of the conflict hardens the other side, deepens suspicions on all sides, opens the path to arms flows and undermines chances for peace. In light of all this, public declarations by peace and justice activists opposing outside intervention and supporting an immediate ceasefire brokered by the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan can be a constructive voice filling a dangerous void.

Something must be said about "humanitarian interventions" that have often confused and immobilized peace activists. Such interventions by imperial powers never transcend the
material and institutional requirements of empire. Intervened countries have experienced looting and sell offs of their resources (especially if the key resource is oil); social fragmentation, weakened democracy under parliaments dominated by privilege, assaults on labor movements and the left, growing poverty, debilitated health and educational systems and rotting infrastructures. That in varying degrees has been the fate of Iraq and Libya where internal killing has not ended, Haiti, Afghanistan; the dismembered, impoverished states of the former Yugoslavia, etc. On the other hand, repressive regimes such as Bahrain and Yemen in alliance with imperial states are rarely if ever subjected to "humanitarian interventions." In some cases regimes tottering under the pressure of mass upsurges (Egypt, for example) are abandoned by imperial powers that then maneuver to maintain influence through new political arrangements.

A genuine humanitarian response to the Syrian carnage is to demand a UN-supervised ceasefire, withdrawal of all military forces and heavy weapons from population centers, the immediate creation of secure corridors to transit medical supplies and other urgent assistance, release of arbitrarily detained people, the right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate. Such agreement can open a political dialogue among all contending forces to create an honest and fully representative constitutional order.

Kofi Annan has set April 10 for the implementation of such agreements. Washington's voice channeled through Clinton has expressed skepticism that the Assad regime will observe its
provisions based on the failure of previous cease fires to take hold. However, the latest proposal to stop the killing has the unanimous support of the UN Security Council. Significantly, Russia, that largely maintains its Soviet era relationship with Syria, has called on Assad to take the first step in pulling troops from city streets, adding that the insurgents should quickly reciprocate. Political forces with the ability to decisively influence events are aligned for success, especially with the worldwide support of vocal peace movements.

The hour is late; but it is not too late for a reenergized peace movement to oppose US intervention. That intervention is a prescription for escalating a deadly conflict, not for salving a wounded population. It is not too late to join a universal demand for a ceasefire on April 10 as a critical step on the road to peace.

Mark Solomon is past national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS).  

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