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Syrian men react following an airstrike by Syrian government forces in Maaret Numaan. (Credit: Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images)

Anti-War Movement Must Listen to Voices Within Syria's Civil War

With the prospects of increased U.S. military involvement in Syria, peace activists have been mobilizing across the country. Recognizing the disastrous results of recent U.S. military interventions, the suspicions throughout the region regarding Washington's motivations, and the lack of any major cohesive democratic armed force to support, there is a widespread understanding within the anti-war left that further militarization of the conflict would likely increase the suffering of the Syrian people.

Unfortunately, there are elements of the anti-war movement that do not just oppose U.S. intervention in that country's multisided civil war, but actually defend the brutal Syrian regime, which has been responsible for the vast majority of the estimated 85,000 civilian deaths.

Similar expressions of solidarity with socialist governments and movements during the Cold War, while at times excessive, were nevertheless understandable, particularly in light of Washington's demonization of any challenge to U.S. hegemony. By contrast, such support for the extraordinarily brutal Assad regime -- a family dictatorship rooted in the anti-leftist military wing of the Baath Party -- has no moral or logical basis.

Longtime peace activist Terry Burke, who worked with the Pledge of Resistance and the Nicaragua Solidarity Committee during the U.S.-backed wars in Central America in the 1980s, has called on the U.S. peace movement to "listen to progressive Syrian voices."

In an article in the socialist monthly In These Times, Burke observed the irony of how, unlike in previous anti-war movements, "that awareness, that sensitivity towards activists from the affected countries is seemingly absent today from major peace organizations regarding the Syrian conflict."

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"Since the beginning of the revolution," she wrote, " 'anti-imperialist' leaders of the peace movement have blatantly dismissed progressive Syrian voices."

Feminist Syrian writer Mohja Kahf, a supporter of the nonviolent Syrian pro-democracy struggle, has noted how Syria's constitution requires subservience of any legal political party to the ruling Baathists and provides the president unchecked power over the legislature and judiciary. She has described how the Damascus government's crony capitalism and neoliberal economic agenda has enriched the regime of Bashar Assad and allied elites while subjecting the majority of Syrians to increasing poverty.

Yet groups like the U.S. Peace Council nevertheless insists that Syria is governed by "socialist-democratic principles," while the Syria Solidarity Movement has falsely accused prominent Syrian and Western leftists who oppose foreign intervention yet acknowledge the regime's crimes as being "NATO sleeper cells" in the peace movement "supporting the NATO alliance's imperialist war on Syria."

When the United Nations Human Rights Council and such reputable independent human rights organizations as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Médecins San Frontières, and Physicians for Human Rights have documented Israeli war crimes in Gaza, they have received bipartisan criticism in Washington for a supposed anti-Israel bias. In a mirror image of such false charges, however, some Western anti-war activists are denouncing these same organizations as supposedly having links to the U.S. State Department and "propagating anti-Syria war rhetoric and false allegations against the Syrian government and Syrian Arab Army."

U.S. air strikes and the arming of Syrian rebels have largely poured fuel on the fire. The emergence of the so-called "Islamic State," a direct result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, has added a particularly tragic layer to the conflict. However, even without U.S. involvement, the horrific carnage of the Syrian civil war would still be taking place. In recent decades, the U.S. policies have been responsible for horrific wars, repression and political instability in countries across the globe -- including the ongoing violence and destruction in Iraq -- but Syria is not one of them.

Unfortunately, some peace groups have been unable to make this distinction. For example, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity recently released a statement claiming, "Covert funding and provision of weapons and other material support to opposition groups for strikes against the Syrian Government provoked a military reaction by Assad."

Similarly, Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein has said that it was "U.S. pursuit of regime change" in Syria that "created the chaos that promotes power grabs by extremist militias."

In other words, rather than recognizing that it was the brutal government repression against the popular nonviolent pro-democracy movement in 2011 that led many Syrians, in desperation, to take up arms (some elements of which the United States belatedly began supporting), they are claiming that it was U.S. backing of oppositionists that led Assad to fight back. While there were efforts during the administration of George W. Bush to destabilize the Syrian government through a number of diplomatic and economic initiatives, they had no relation to the popular uprising that later emerged.

Since the anti-regime forces' fateful turn to armed struggle in 2012, extreme Salafist Islamic groups have come to dominate the opposition, killing large numbers of civilians and imposing brutal theocratic governance over areas they control. As a result, it is not surprising that many, if not most, Syrian Christians see the secular Syrian government as the lesser evil. Unfortunately, some of these Christians have become mouthpieces for the Assad regime and are being embraced by some in Western peace movements.

One prominent Catholic who has taken on this role is Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix, the Lebanese-born mother superior at St. James the Mutilated Monastery in Qara, Syria. She has toured the United States and other Western countries, insisting that the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria, which killed more than 900 civilians, never actually happened and that the videos and photographs of the victims were all fabricated or staged.

She also claims that the massive nonviolent struggle in 2011 was actually an armed foreign-led insurgency from the beginning and that the tens of thousands of Syrian civilian deaths during the past five and half years have been "purely at the hands of foreign agents."

Some prominent Western Catholics have unfortunately embraced the Damascus regime's line as well. Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a veteran peace and human rights activist who won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership in Northern Ireland's Women for Peace, rejects the indigenous roots of the uprising against the Syrian regime and insists that rather than being a civil war, it is a foreign intervention to illegally topple a legitimate government. In 2014, she nominated de la Croix for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It behooves those of us in the peace movement to recognize the complexities of the Syrian conflict and to listen to the voices of the millions of Syrians who desire freedom from both Islamist extremists and the Assad dictatorship.

© 2021 National Catholic Reporter
Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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