On April 13, the US, the UK and France launched targeted missile strikes against three alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria. The strikes were justified as a response to Bashar al-Assad’s allegedly repeated use of chemical weapons against civilian populations.
The day after the joint attack, anti-war protesters demonstrated in different parts of the world to condemn the intervention. Protesters in the UK staged rallies in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff and other cities, some of whom were seen waving Russian flags. Protesters also gathered in various cities across the US, calling upon the world to “defend Syria and defeat US imperialism”. The posters read “US out of Syria” and “No War on Syria” and “US/NATO Get Your Bloody Hands Off Syria.”
While the US and UK have been militarily engaged in Syria since 2015 (mainly against Daesh), the expansion of the war to three possibly empty buildings held by the regime has provoked a surprising amount of backlash within Leftist and Pacifist circles.
Trump-May-Macron’s gesture bombing did little to alleviate the sufferings of Syrians (Assad’s killing machine has been mainly non-chemical to begin with), there is still certainty in anti-war circles that an international conspiracy is afoot to depose Assad. Some have even cast doubts on Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, claiming it to be a pretext for a regime change in Syria.
Such selective outrage does not indicate an anti-war stance but an anti-regime change stance. This is a dangerously flawed position to hold.
Firstly, not all airstrikes are the same, and a blanket disapproval of all military action is not only unreasonable but, in most cases, dishonest. As a friend recently pointed out, the American air-strikes were of some significant use to Kurds in preventing Kobane from being overrun by Daesh. Some Russian airstrikes are meant to help the regime regain control of areas it lost to the rebels, while others specifically target Daesh or the former al-Nusra Front (although it must be admitted that Russians really don’t care about civilian casualties and that is why it is hard to really support those even when they’re “aimed” at the “caliphate”). These military actions have different aims, and each produces different reactions. It would be wrong to pretend we are equally opposed to each one of them, especially if this disapproval is not demonstrated in equal measure.
Unfortunately, the Syrian people have become the object of our discursive navel gazing. The discussion on how to help them requires us to not only practise nuance, but put their voices at the centre of our activism. Sure, the last few interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have led to catastrophic consequences. However, other interventions, such as the one in Bosnia — no matter how problematic in detail, did help put an end to four years of bloodshed.
Sure, a humanitarian intervention by western governments seems opportunistic when the same governments don’t demonstrate any tangible sympathy towards refugees and migrants. Although, by the same logic, those who dismiss Syrian suffering as exaggerated or engineered cannot be trusted when they claim solidarity with Yemenis and Palestinians.
Syria is a very complex political landscape, and some people want to practise caution before taking any steps that would further destabilise the region. Most of us are wary of an intervention that would inadvertently serve as the de facto military of the most problematic elements of the Syrian opposition (al-Qaeda affiliates)which have become militarised, and have been a huge disservice to the 2011 uprising that called for freedom and dignity for all.
Having said that, it is important to point out that an “anti-war” position would warrant respect only if it replicated similar outrage and activism against the Russians and regime bombing campaigns which, if we must be reminded, have killed, displaced and punished millions of citizens who dared to demand freedom from Assad. More than half a million Syrians have been killed since 2011, 94 per cent of these victims were killed by the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance.
My issue here is not with those who doubt the moral claims or efficacy of western interventions, but those who rob the debate of any nuance and actively excuse Assad’s brutality; who deny his indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations, who proliferate fake news about staged attacks orchestrated by the White Helmets, dismiss all opposition as ‘Jihadis’; who stay silent about his murderous campaign against the progressives who first sparked the revolution, his cosiness with the European far-right, his 1.5 million strong wanted list. It is one thing to be suspicious of western interventions, but it is unforgivable to dismiss the suffering of the Syrian people.
The anti-war movements have rejoiced in the fact that their governments are reluctant to take any serious action against Assad in Syria. “The US is not bombing Syria, as we certainly would have been if not for a huge mobilisation of anti-war pressure on the President and especially on Congress,” writes Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies. This represents “an extraordinary, unforeseen victory for the global anti-war movement,” she goes on, one that “we should be savouring”.
After the disastrous intervention in Iraq, the ability to reign in western governments is something to celebrate, but we must remember it is the Syrians who will pay the price of this victory. If we truly oppose the war, we must also devote our energy to calling on our governments to find a political solution to the war.
As Leila Al Shami, co-author of Burning Country, succinctly put it: “It’d be great if those protesting attacks on chemical weapons plants now build on that energy and stay on the streets calling on their governments to step up the pressure on Assad and push a non-military solution. Some calls: end to all bombing, all foreign forces to leave, end to starvation sieges, unrestricted access for humanitarian aid, freedom for prisoners, accountability of all actors who committed war crimes and credible UN led peace process.”
Sadly, we have not seen such mobilisations and that indicates the anti-war movements’ endorsement of regime atrocities.
Having done their gesture bombing, the US, the UK and France will retire to inaction, and Assad will continue dropping barrel bombs on residential areas and hospitals to rid his country of all opposition. The anti-war will claim victory, as it already does. Syrian people will continue being portrayed as terrorists, or dismissed as pawns in a grand geopolitical game — their suffering subordinated to our own political objectives.
The anti-war movements have decided to extend their solidarity to states, seen as the main actor in a struggle for liberation, rather than oppressed or underprivileged groups in any given society, no matter that its state tyranny. Such ‘anti-war’ positions have nothing to do with ending the war, but defending Assad and Putin’s indiscriminate slaughter of all opposition, and I doubt the Syrians will ever thank us for it.